Since virtual classrooms became technically feasible and were rolled out in the mid-2000s, they have quickly become a leading professional development methodology.
The CEGOS 2017 key training statistics survey shows that 41% of companies offering employees digital learning have already used the virtual classroom environment. On an even more positive note, virtual classrooms are ranked by these employees as their favourite distance learning method.
It is therefore opportune to review the benefits of this method of delivery (for learners and organisations) and the best practice required to ensure that it is relevant and educationally effective.
The definition of a virtual classroom is the use of a video conferencing system to bring together a group of people, usually a trainer and learners, who can see each other, share documents and visual displays, talk via audio or chat and undertake interactive activities individually or in groups.
It is therefore a remote, synchronous activity, unlike e-learning (which is remote and asynchronous) or conventional classroom-based training (which is face to face and synchronous).
An overview of aspects for businesses and organisations to consider before adopting this method.
From a technical point of view, first of all, a virtual classroom requires the trainer AND learner to have access to a stable high-capacity network.
High-speed Wi-Fi, or preferably a cable connection or 4G network, is required for an optimum user experience.
Even if documents can be downloaded in advance in the virtual classroom hosting the session, we are dealing with high data volumes (video, audio, documents) exchanged in real time between participants. These are the key factors for a high-quality experience and an optimal synchronous event. We would advise that you strongly recommend to course participants in the invitation and in the virtual waiting room that they log in via a cable connection.
Given these technical prerequisites, for our classes we also advise a back-up audio link via the telephone network, which is more reliable than VoIP.
In the event of loss of network connectivity, dips in network performance, or even power fluctuations, the trainer can stay in contact with course participants. As we shall see below, this continuity is the key to a successful session.
The second technical issue to be aware of is the plethora of software solutions: Adobe Connect, Webex, Skype for Business, and GoToTraining are the best-known options, but it can sometimes be difficult to choose.
We shall explore two scenarios:
1/ In an intra-organisational environment (all participants belonging to the same organisation), it is crucial to take the company infrastructure into account, notably its telephony and instant messaging solutions, if only to avoid increasing the number of messaging applications employed by the user.
2/ In an inter-organisational environment (participants belonging to different organisations), be sure to implement an administrative solution which can inter-act with several third-party software solutions and work for as many users as possible.
In every scenario, interoperability is required between the Learning Management System (LMS) used and the virtual classroom solution adopted in order to make the virtual classroom a true teaching environment with one-to-one monitoring.
Cost optimisation – a factor in decision-making
As we have seen, creating the optimum technical infrastructure is a pre-requisite for a roll-out and, like all set-up phases, this can take time and cost money.
However, virtual classrooms generally receive positive feedback for the substantial cost savings they offer compared to face-to-face classrooms, especially when the number of sessions scales up. Bringing people in different locations together to work with each other simultaneously without travel expenses and room hire costs can in fact have significant benefits in international situations or for projects involving staff who are geographically remote.
Similarly, the virtual classroom environment allows for instant monitoring which is more cost-effective than remote alternatives. Tutorial formats with scheduled sessions for individuals or groups can be arranged to provide follow-up, and training can even be tailored to individual needs by the trainer.
However, there are two points to look out for when carrying out analysis prior to including the virtual classroom in your training portfolio:
– Make sure that the programme involves synchronous activity and interaction between participants. If this is not the case, then e-learning (with its consistently falling production costs) is a better alternative;
– Have a back office and an efficient administrative system (for invitations, monitoring, reminders, and reporting) just like in a conventional classroom;
If cost is a major factor in decision-making, then you need to identify the right balance between face-to-face teaching, asynchronous e-learning and virtual classroom sessions. Educational objectives and the number and location of participants will be the key variables.
Therefore, in order to compare like with like, do not overlook any of the costs associated with the virtual classroom: the trainer’s facilitation and course design time, audio costs, administration, licences, and technical solutions.
On the user side (facilitator and course participant)
On the user side, and for course participants in the first instance, the virtual classroom is unique because it brings people together while preserving a degree of distance. Everyone is present simultaneously but remotely, behind their screens.
It is not unusual to observe that some participants are more confident about asking a question via chat or through the intermediary of the screen than might be the case in the classroom. Taking part in group interaction, even in a small way, becomes much easier.
By the same token, some interactive activities can be richer than in face-to-face situations. Real-time surveys, session round-ups, timed and facilitated competitions and quizzes, breakouts within the virtual classroom for group work – the possibilities are now endless for course designers.
Lastly, user analytics will facilitate more targeted monitoring and hence tutorial formats which are adapted to circumstances.
For the trainer, a virtual classroom presents new challenges both in terms of course design and facilitation, including how to organise the session even more meticulously than in a face-to-face environment as it cannot run for more than 90 minutes without a break, or 3 hours with breaks and group work.
Facilitating a virtual classroom is frequently compared to being a radio presenter. It is true that careful time micro-management is required, along with specific facilitation skills: voice projection, moderating discussions in an inclusive way, managing interaction to keep participants engaged, etc.
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Given these new challenges, we do not feel that the potential technical hitches mentioned above should be managed by the facilitator.
A facilitator should be secure about technical arrangements and not feel the need to worry about them. This is also why we advocate providing a dedicated technical support assistant during sessions who can troubleshoot problems (capacity issues, participant connection to the audio server or attendee log-in issues), so that the trainer has the time and opportunity to teach the class in a relaxed way and demonstrate their skills to the full!
In conclusion, although virtual classroom environments are an attractive proposition in terms of cost-cutting potential, easier participant monitoring and new teaching methodologies for course designers, choosing this option and significantly extending its availability must be supported by prior analysis based on a set of key factors:
– The choice of a technical solution and the removal of any potential irritants to ensure an optimum user experience;
– Accurate cost analysis comparing synchronous, asynchronous, face-to-face and remote solutions;
– Training for trainers in facilitation techniques specific to the virtual classroom;
– Installation of a back-office facility to manage an increase in the volume of sessions;
However, once these prerequisites have been met, then it’s time to roll out and scale up!