In just the last generation, networked computers, data analysis, internet, social media, cloud computing and other emerging technologies have transformed the fields of education and training.
Yet there’s another innovation that draws from the combined power of those four technologies to deliver a learning experience like no other: Virtual classroom.
These online learning tools play an essential role in allowing educators and trainers to merge the best attributes of face-to-face, in-classroom education with anywhere, anytime online instruction. They also help teachers and administrators derive maximum impact from their online learning initiatives, providing numerous benefits in terms of efficiency, accessibility, and return on investment.
To help you better understand virtual classrooms and the advantages they offer, let’s take a closer look at what’s behind the technology, and how to identify the right product for your needs.
What is a virtual classroom?
A virtual classroom is a software-based teaching and learning environment that mimics the qualities of face-to-face classroom instruction. Teachers and learners can participate in live online classes, communicate with each other, hold discussions and watch videos or presentations, among other features. Much like in a physical classroom or training session, a whiteboard serves as the organizing feature.
Virtual classrooms connect learners and instructors from across the globe, making education and training vastly more accessible, as anyone can receive the benefit of high-quality instruction with little more than a device, an Internet connection, and a set of user credentials.
Costs can also be reduced dramatically, as there is no need for transportation. Virtual classrooms can also save money on expenses related to staffing, production of books and other materials and the need to occupy physical classroom space.
Virtual classrooms are also quite flexible in terms of potential uses. They can be used to teach and tutor online, but also make great options for those seeking to host collaborative group projects or training exercises. These are frequently used for employee and partner training and webinar hosting. Businesses can stage conferences, host meetings or product launches and extend common office functions into the digital realm.
You’ll typically find virtual classrooms embedded in an advanced learning management system. These systems are comprehensive online learning platforms used for educational and organizational training purposes.
The benefits of a virtual classroom
Virtual classrooms have become much more prominent in recent years, as interest in online learning has soared. By moving the classroom experience online, educators, students, trainers, and administrators can take advantage of numerous benefits that aren’t present with face to face instruction.
Some of the most important use cases of a virtual classroom include:
- Live on-demand interactions. The ability to schedule courses and meetings when it’s convenient. Schedules are flexible, course times can be easily extended, and teachers or trainers can host online “office hours.”
- Learner-centered instruction. Face-to-face instruction is a teacher-focused model where learners play a reactive role. Virtual classrooms offer a different model; one that’s interactive, immersive, technology-driven and centered on the learner. When students or employees aren’t merely passive observers, they can tap their innate creativity and engage with the learning process on a deeper level.
- The option to record, review and build an archive. If learners fall behind during face to face instruction, seeking help outside the class from a teacher, tutor fellow student or colleague is their only viable option. Virtual classrooms solve this problem, as recorded courses can be reviewed at will. Instructors, on the other hand, can review prior courses to see what works and what doesn’t. This functionality helps improve learner performance while helping teachers refine their skills. The recording also allows for the creation of course archives that can be accessed anytime.
- Targeted teaching, training, and tutoring. With face to face education, teachers by necessity must take a one size fits all approach to instruction. Virtual classrooms allow for more targeted instruction. Breakout sessions can be formed to allow learners to progress at their own pace.
- Fast and accurate evaluation. Grading tests and papers is one of the most time-consuming — and tedious — tasks that teachers face. Virtual classrooms help minimize that burden by offering automated evaluation. Teachers can use the time they save to focus on value-added activities. Trainers, meanwhile, can use virtual classrooms to generate more accurate insights about employee skill development.
- Easy and reliable feedback gathering. In a physical classroom with 30 or 40 learners, it’s difficult to gauge who is learning and who isn’t progressing properly. Virtual classrooms allow teachers, tutors, and trainers to gather feedback through the use of real-time polling, hand raising, and other interactive features.
- The opportunities for peer-to-peer learning. The social and collaborative tools in a virtual classroom allow students and employees to leverage the collective knowledge of their peers. Students and employees can also provide encouragement and positive reinforcement when needed.
Benefits such as these are a great illustration of the power of online learning — and the tremendous value a virtual classroom provides in terms of delivering online instruction.
Not all virtual classroom products are created equal, however. To fully maximize the benefits offered by online learning, it’s imperative to choose a virtual classroom with the right mix of functionality, reliability, and price.
What to look for in a virtual classroom?
Those seeking the most advanced virtual classroom software should consider a cloud-based solution that offers a full slate of comprehensive features. The right tool should possess powerful, cutting-edge functionality and seamless user experience.
Key features to look for in virtual classroom
- Live video streaming: Though it is considered the most obvious feature of any virtual classroom software yet there are few considerations that you should keep in mind when selecting a platform, such as HD video conferencing, secure live streaming, multi-way audio-video communication, and low latency to ensure a great user experience. Not all virtual classroom software support HD streaming and multi-way communication. The most advanced software, like WizIQ offer HD (720p) and SD (640p) live streaming, depending upon the internet bandwidth of your audience. Also, it comes with unlimited audio and 5-way video streaming allowing you to create a collaborative learning experience.
- Whiteboard: As said earlier, a whiteboard is the most important organizing feature in a classroom, whether offline or online. You write, annotate, explain, brainstorm and collate ideas using a whiteboard. Therefore, when looking for a virtual classroom platform, make sure the whiteboard software is already integrated and meets all your requirements. An advanced whiteboard will also have features intact to teach technical subjects like physics, electrical sciences, math, geography, chemistry, and others.
- Live recording: Most virtual classrooms, nowadays, offer liver recording feature but the flip side is that recording happens on your device. This means it will consume your internet bandwidth and the quality of the live streaming more likely goes for a toss. Advanced virtual classroom software offer server-side recording capabilities which do not interfere with the live lecture streaming and the end user experience. Rather the lecture is captured on the backend at the servers of your service provider and is available for viewing immediately after the class is over.
- Collaboration and moderation tools: Because it’s a kind of distance learning, you need to ensure that your audience has all the means to reach you, collaborate with other students during the live lecture. It’s of the utmost importance to opt for a tool that offers the maximum number of collaboration tools, such as email integration, public and private chats, transferrable audio-video and writing controls, etc.
- Polls, surveys, and feedback forms: To ensure a collaborative learning experience and measure the understanding of your learner, a virtual classroom should give you ample options to design interventions. Look if it allows you to conduct polls and surveys, ask questions and collect feedback.
- Test and assessment: A comprehensive tool will give you the ability to conduct pre and post-class tests and assessments. Checking learner understanding is quite crucial to the success of your eLearning initiatives. Therefore, look for a platform with a built-in test creation software.
- Code editor: If you teach programming languages, this is a feature that a prospective virtual classroom tool must have. It should facilitate shared development environment while supporting syntax highlighting, default error recognition and suggestion support.
- Analytics: How successful you lecture was? This is the result you draw from testing different permutations and combinations. So, look for a tool that gives you insights into learner behavior and their engagement levels. A good tool is strong on eLearning analytics and offers detailed information on student log in, log out times, attendance, session duration, etc.
Other key factors
When evaluating virtual classrooms, it’s vitally important to pay close attention to the other key features:
- Fast and intuitive integration. The most advanced virtual classrooms allow you to teach or train online directly from your Web browser with the press of a few buttons. You can integrate the virtual classroom with existing websites or learning platforms with no third-party plugins or downloads required.
- Mobile optimization. Today we live and work on our mobile devices, and your online learning solution should reflect that reality. Look for a virtual classroom that is optimized for mobile learning and works equally well smartphones, tablets and other devices.
- Tools for deeper engagement. High-definition video, social functions, interactive whiteboards, text messaging and other core features are essential to the task of creating a deeper, richer and more engaging learning experience. This, in turn, creates better teaching and training outcomes.
- Seamless administration. The right virtual classroom tool should allow for the easy scheduling and management of courses while offering automated reports that can offer a window into student, employee and instructor performance.
- Stability, scalability, and support. The best virtual classrooms use technologies such as server-side recording and high-definition video conferencing to ensure that the user experience is seamless. Support for the WebRTC standard ensures that the virtual classroom can support multiple high-quality video streams. Scalability is also key; as you grow, you want a virtual classroom with the power to grow with you.
Virtual classrooms are an indispensable tool for today’s educators and trainers, and the most effective way to harness the benefits of online learning for your purposes.
By choosing a tool with the right mix of functionality, intuitive design and scalability, you can help your students or employees learn and retain material more effectively, and generate a greater return on your online learning investment.