Virtual classrooms are a boon to managers whose teams are dispersed around a region or around the world. They’re also a tremendous resource for building community among these far-flung colleagues.
It sounds counterintuitive, even impossible: Not only is the instructor physically separated from the learners, in many cases learners are separate from one another. But the lack of proximity might provide the push those learners need to reach out and connect. And most virtual classroom tools make it easy.
That’s a good thing, according to Darlene Christopher, author of The Successful Virtual Classroom, an indispensable handbook for anyone new to designing or conducting eLearning in a virtual classroom. In the book, Christopher comments, “The topic of virtual classroom training has never been more important because it reflects the way an increasing number of people in organizations really work today. The training professionals I spoke with during my research stressed this reality and why gaining a widespread comfort level with virtual training and team collaboration is essential to the future competitiveness of every organization.”
Collaborative tools are built into most virtual classroom tools. These commonly include:
- Sharing—Most virtual classrooms allow the instructor to share the whiteboard or screen with learners. This means that learners can all jump into a discussion; groups or individual students can present work done outside the synchronous session; a student can solve a problem, answer a question, or present information. All of these activities build deeper meaning by connecting the learning that takes place in the virtual classroom with work that each learner, and his colleagues, are doing in their jobs. It’s also a great way for colleagues to collaborate and learn what other individuals or teams are doing.
- Chat—The entire synchronous group can chat, or instructors can call on a learner and request a response by chat. Most virtual classrooms enable “private” chats, which can be set up between two (or more) learners in virtual “breakout rooms”; they are not entirely private because the instructor can access all the chat rooms.
- Polls—Instructors can poll the class, and responses can be private or shown on the shared whiteboard or screen. Polling provides instructors and learners a window into their colleagues’ experience or opinions.
Taking collaboration outside the classroom
Sharing, chat, and polls are virtual classroom tools that instructors can use during synchronous sessions to encourage engagement and discussion—elements that keep the class from being a one-sided delivery of information to bored learners. But collaboration can also happen outside of synchronous sessions, extending learning and creating professional networks that can outlast the eLearning course.
Some virtual classroom platforms include features that facilitate asynchronous interactions, but if a designer or instructor is thinking long-term, using inter-office social networks or public social media might be more productive. Private spaces and networks can be created on many social platforms, so membership can be limited and content can be visible to members only. Integrating tools that learners use in their work lives or outside of work might mean they will join, join in, and keep the conversation going. In short, the virtual classroom can be the springboard to creating a professional learning network among colleagues who will then continue to share ideas and information after the formal eLearning ends.
Asynchronous collaboration can take many forms. For instance:
- Curated content—The instructor can get things started by posting supplemental material relevant to topics covered in the course. Learners can add to it, comment on it, share their own work, and interact as people do more generally (and publicly) on sites like LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Tumblr.
- Blogs—An internal blog, or one hosted on a free blogging platform like WordPress, offers opportunities for colleagues to post longer articles and comment on one another’s work. Blog posts can be the “homework” of a virtual eLearning course or can arise more organically, with learners posting—and sharing their expertise—on topics of interest to them.
- Social networks—Internal company networks on tools like Yammer and Slack, or closed groups on mainstream social media tools like Facebook, allow for the creation of groups or pages with limited membership; these are great forums for discussion, posting content, and collaborating on projects.
Some caveats? Keep the social network topically focused so it doesn’t balloon into a time waster. While networking with experts outside the company can be beneficial, limiting the group or network to a small group of colleagues helps keep the focus narrow. And keeping the “social” networking professionally focused makes it easy to establish and maintain guidelines on keeping the content professional; these guidelines might stipulate the discussion topics or types of content that are appropriate.