Virtual classrooms are online environments that allow learners and their teachers to communicate in real-time using features such as audio, video, text-chat, interactive whiteboards, screen sharing, ‘breakout’ rooms and polling. In virtual classrooms, course facilitators interact with students as if they were face-to-face in a classroom (Martin, Parker & Allred, 2013).
Driven by state-of-the-art technologies, it is easy to see why virtual classrooms are a popular option especially for learners who face challenges getting to class, for example due to geographical distance. Virtual classrooms help bridge the gap between course facilitators and students – literally and metaphorically. Supported by the Internet, virtual classrooms offer learners and facilitators “Freedom of Place” (Martin, Parker & Deale, 2012, p. 228) and permit learning to take place anywhere – even from the comfort of one’s own home.
Virtual classrooms facilitate spontaneous, dynamic interactions among participants. Within these online interactions, instructors are also able to provide timely feedback to support students’ learning. Face-to-face virtual interactions, particularly for distance education learners, help instructors to portray themselves as ‘real’ persons and for participants to build rapport amongst themselves. This, in turn, nurtures a sense of community in the class. All in all, active participation in virtual classrooms equips learners with new ways of communicating, which leads to the development of valuable skills to navigate the digital space.
The art of facilitation in virtual classrooms
Underpinning successful implementation of virtual classrooms is skilful facilitation of the course by instructors. Unfortunately, facilitation can be a challenge, especially for instructors who lack experience themselves as learners in virtual classrooms. From first-hand experience, I can say that learning the various functions of virtual classrooms involves a rather steep learning curve. To mitigate some of the technical challenges, Learning and Teaching at Navitas has prepared checklists for using Zoom to guide instructors. You can access the checklists below:
- Hosting a Zoom session? Here’s your pre-flight check!
- Presenting in Zoom? Here’s a handy checklist
- An introductory article
Using this interactive space to its potential
Knowing how to use the tool is half the victory. The other half stems from knowing how to teach with the tool. One common observation even among more experienced teachers is the tendency to use virtual classrooms as ‘broadcast’ systems (Cornelius, 2013). Given that interaction is “crucial to student satisfaction in online courses” (Martin & Deale, 2012, p. 227), it is paramount that facilitators design sessions in such a way to deliberately encourage interactivity.
Moore’s (1989) three types of interaction is useful in scaffolding how facilitators could think about and design for interactivity in virtual classrooms. Learn more about the Learner-to-Content, Learner-to-Instructor, and Learner-to-Learner interactions in the slides below:
If you would like to experience virtual classrooms and learn some strategies facilitating virtual classrooms, I would strongly encourage you to sign up for any of our PD offerings.
- Cornelius, S. (2013). Facilitating in a demanding environment: Experiences of teaching in virtual classrooms using web conferencing. Br J Educ Technol, 45(2), 260-271. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12016
- Martin, F., Parker, M. & Allred, B. (2013). A Case Study on the Adoption and Use of Synchronous Virtual Classrooms. Electronic journal of E-learning,11(2), 124-138.
- Martin, F., Parker, M. A. & Deale, D. F. (2012). Examining interactivity in synchronous virtual classrooms. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(3), 228-261.
- Moore, M. (1989). Three types of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6.
- Phirangee, K. & Hewitt, J. (2016). Loving this dialogue!!!!: Expressing emotion through the strategic manipulation of limited non-verbal cues in online learning environments. In S.Y. Tettegah & M.P. McCreery (Eds.), Emotions, technology, and learning (pp. 69-85). USA: Academic Press