Building Bridges

Create Learner Value with the Virtual Classroom

Independent elearning offers convenience for the learner and ease of delivery for the client. Yet, sometimes there is no substitute for discussion with one’s peers, feedback from the instructor, and hands-on activities to cement learning. Can the advantages of elearning and interaction of classroom learning both be addressed in a different modality?

Meet the virtual classroom. With this modality, learners sit where they like, with their own computers, while experiencing the give-and-take of a classroom setting.  The virtual classroom enables learners to participate remotely, but in a real-time, synchronous manner, unlike elearning, in which participants learn asynchronously or independently.

In a virtual classroom, learners access training via Adobe Connect, Blackboard Collaborate, or another platform. When they sign on, they may see PowerPoint slides and/or a white board, and sometimes a video of the instructor speaking. In addition to the instructor, there is a technical assistant working “behind the scenes” to ensure the technology and interaction between the instructor and class run smoothly.

Learners actively participate in the class in a number of ways, states Marilyn Kobus, an instructional designer with EnVision. They can “talk” amongst themselves via an online chat feature, or use a text tool to write on one of the instructor’s slides, visible to all the learners. Just as in a traditional classroom, the learners can talk directly with the instructor and with each other.  Depending on the size of the group, participants may speak up directly or click on an icon on their desktop to “raise their hand.” The instructor can see the raised hands, and then call on learners to speak.

The instructor can even divide the participants into breakout groups, where they work on an activity, speak amongst themselves, and capture notes on their small group’s white board or notes pod. They can then return to the larger group with their notes to present their findings —just like in a traditional classroom.

A virtual classroom does not equal a webinar. The two differ both in their size and the manner in which the learning is designed. Hundreds of people may attend a webinar, whereas a virtual classroom ideally accommodates 12 to 16 participants.

The virtual classroom allows for interaction with the instructor and peers, as well as practice and hands-on learning, whereas a webinar is a nearly 100% lecture format. “If you really want people to learn skills, you’re not going to get that in a webinar….there’s no practice,” explains Kobus. “Webinars are good for sharing information.”

Virtual classrooms offer many practical benefits to learners and their organizations. Professionals obviously don’t travel to take or deliver the class, so costs decrease.  Virtual training may be easier for learners to work into their busy schedules, since content is broken into smaller chunks spread out over time, rather than covered in one or two full days as in a traditional classroom. These smaller learning sessions usually include robust prework assignments, as well as inter-session assignments that enable learners to put into practice what they are learning. This approach makes the best use of in-class time with an instructor while fostering application of learning in action. The opportunity to take what is learned in the classroom, immediately practice it on the job and then return to troubleshoot is a luxury that is not often available in a typical classroom-based workshop, according to Kobus.

Another benefit is that managers and instructors may opt to record a virtual classroom session and reuse it or make it available as a refresher, though it will lack the interactivity and spontaneity of the first iteration (from “Interactive Classrooms,” Rachel Griffith-Boyes and Mark Aberdour, September 2013). Recordings could also augment existing training as a review or job reference.

Despite all the benefits, there are crucial points the instructional designer must consider before embarking on a virtual classroom as a learning modality. First, the L&D professional must believe the class can benefit from learning in a group setting, versus independently.  If the curriculum includes prework, the instructor should be sure to discuss the prework and expand on the learning in class. Also, the course must be as interactive as possible, whether the tools used be polls, chats, discussions, or group activities to deepen skill development.

The faculty member must also exhibit different skills in a virtual setting than when teaching in a traditional classroom. He or she needs to be particularly energetic and responsive; there is no student body language to observe, so the instructor must actively encourage a balance of participation in the classroom. Because of the technology barrier, the instructor may need to work harder to keep learners engaged; for example, the instructor can call on learners frequently.

Also, the instructor must be a master juggler. In any given moment, there could be learners with their hands raised while others are chatting, or there could be one or several learners at a computer, and the instructor needs to remember the location of each one. Basically, the instructor needs to multi-task and execute seamless choreography with the technical assistant, all without losing command of the classroom.

Technology challenges, of course, cannot be predicted. Between audio and software applications, things can and will go wrong.  In “Interactive Classrooms,” Griffith-Boyes and Aberdour advise the reader to “always have a back-up plan.” Some technology issues, however, can be reduced or addressed quickly with proficiency in the software program, says Kobus.

EnVision recently adapted a classroom curriculum on an ethics-related topic to a virtual classroom setting. The curriculum consists of six modules covering a framework on handling ethical issues, and is geared toward social workers, nurses, and mental health professionals.

This learning solution encompasses both independent learning and virtual classroom time, which allows the learners to get grounded independently in key concepts before the session and then practice the material they learned during class, according to Kobus. The recent pilot of the first module ran smoothly, and design work continues on the remaining modules.

The virtual classroom allows for an engaging, cost-effective experience in an interactive format. Remember that independent learning, no matter how convenient, does not enable learners to discuss and practice the way a virtual classroom does. If you’d like to learn more about developing a virtual curriculum for your company, contact EnVision.