A virtual classroom is an online learning environment where synchronous learning takes place among geographically dispersed instructors and learners. The instruction, a virtual classroom platform, might use any of a variety of technologies:
- Webinar—a seminar or presentation that is streamed over the Internet
- Web conference—Internet or software-based technology that enables the instructor to share screens, applications, and content with learners
- Live streaming—transmission of live video and audio over the Internet
- Conference calling or VoIP—audio-only eLearning can use telephone- or Internet-based conference calling
What these disparate technologies share is that they facilitate synchronous eLearning. The instructor delivers live or recorded content, at a predetermined time, to a group of learners. The learners can be anywhere, as can the instructor. The instructor might deliver information to a group of learners in a single location or to learners scattered across multiple locations. But all learners can access the streamed content at the same time.
Virtual classrooms often supplant physical classrooms where instructors and learners complete in-person training. Converting in-person instruction to virtual can save travel costs and make it feasible to offer the training to many more learners, particularly in companies with multiple sites or a mobile or remote workforce.
While at its heart virtual-classroom-based instruction consists partly or entirely of synchronous learning, it can also augment an asynchronous eLearning program. Unlike asynchronous eLearning courses, synchronous sessions provide instructors with opportunities to offer immediate feedback to learners, encourage discussion of different viewpoints, and foster community, according to Martin and Parker (see References).
Thus, a “best of both worlds” approach might combine elements of synchronous or in-person training with elements of asynchronous eLearning, creating a virtual-classroom-based eLearning program that follows a “flipped classroom” or “blended” model.
Asynchronous activities paired with virtual-classroom-based eLearning could include a shared site for curated content, a discussion board or blog, or a private group on an office or public social media platform. Learners would perform assigned or optional asynchronous activities on their own or in groups, outside the virtual classroom space and time frame.
Many virtual classroom platforms include tools that allow discussion, polling of learners, and sharing the screen among instructors and learners; this is true of dedicated virtual classroom or online meeting tools like Adobe Connect or Cisco WebEx as well as full-fledged learning management systems (LMSs) like Canvas or Blackboard.
Not a magic bullet
Creating quality virtual eLearning is not as simple as transferring in-person instruction online by streaming live or recorded lectures. The absence of physical cues that tell an instructor whether learners are engaged, confused, bored, or even no longer present demands a different approach.
For starters, many in-person sessions are 45 minutes or an hour long; virtual instructors can follow this format—or they can nod toward the microlearning trend by offering virtual sessions that are short and tightly focused.
Virtual instruction also requires that both learners and instructors be technically skilled enough to navigate shared whiteboards, chats, breakout rooms, and other tools of the medium. For learners who are uncomfortable with social media or technology in general, the frustration and distraction of trying to get things working can overshadow the learning or discourage participation.
Instructors are advised to prepare and practice well ahead of the sessions and to become familiar with all the tools in the platform that they intend to use. The tools can greatly enhance synchronous sessions, turning a one-way presentation into a discussion or offering learners the opportunity to write on the shared whiteboard, vote in polls, present their work, and contribute in other ways.
A virtual classroom is a valuable tool in an organization’s eLearning strategy, but it is not a magic bullet. Virtual classroom instruction excels when the material:
- Invites or requires display and discussion of information
- Is likely to trigger many questions
- Can be practiced or applied in small group assignments or projects, preferably related to the real-world job needs of learners
Some types of eLearning won’t fit well in the virtual classroom paradigm. For example, a fact-heavy information “transfer” is better suited to a mobile job aid than a synchronous virtual classroom session. The right eLearning solution depends on the goals of the training, the content of the training, and the makeup of the learner community. While a virtual classroom won’t meet every eLearning need, it is a versatile tool that can enhance any instructional designer’s toolkit.
Martin, Florence, and Michele A. Parker. “Use of Synchronous Virtual Classrooms: Why, Who, and How?” Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 10, No. 2. June 2014.
Schwartz, Sara Laura, June L. Wiley, and Charles D. Kaplan. “Community-Building in a Virtual Teaching Environment.” Advances in Social Work, Vol. 17, No. 1. Spring 2016.