The “virtual” part of the virtual classroom might be described as being shorthand for “virtually anything.” The power of digital communication, with its cloud computing, webcams, digital whiteboards, and multimedia streaming means that online learning spaces can take on whatever shape is best for the teachers and students in them.
The challenge in virtual classroom management is to design the flow of information within that space to maximize learning. Communicating online is fundamentally different from what occurs within a shared real-world environment. While video conferencing can link anyone in the world with internet, the way we see and the way we speak online are contained within digital windows.
The virtual classroom makes it possible to extend the limits of time and place that define the teacher-student relationship, but it only works when we acknowledge its boundaries and learn to communicate in digital means.
Defining the Virtual Classroom
The virtual classroom in this instance is a wholly digital setup. Rather than placing a webcam in a high school classroom to welcome a remote guest speaker or include students separated by distance or circumstance, this form of digital classroom has no in-room center. Each student is in his or her own physical space or in small groups around a shared webcam. Everyone is essentially connected solely through the web.
This version of the virtual classroom is more commonly found in adult and corporate education. The Center for Adult Education, for example, uses this format to reach adult learners whose work and family lives restrict their ability to attend a traditional school environment. On the corporate side, Delta Airlines brought in Logitech and Herman Miller to create a virtual training room that is used to sharpen the skills of professionals in the carrier’s network of ground, maintenance, and engineering crews.
The basic virtual classroom setup can be deployed in any configuration that works best for the lesson being taught.
In both instances, the student is equipped with nothing but a computer and perhaps a few interactive technologies, while the teacher stands in front of a wall of remote faces arranged in a grid that will be very familiar to anyone who has used Skype.
This basic setup can be deployed in any configuration that works best for the lesson being taught. It can be a strict one-to-one tutoring experience in the student’s home; a workplace-based seminar on the latest safety requirements; a hobbyist forum for a niche audience; an exclusive tutor-mentor arrangement; or a guide to specialist knowledge by an insider.
Virtual classroom management has to turn these setups into digital environments conducive to learning. It isn’t a straightforward task.
Improving Virtual Classroom Management Through Communication
Virtual classroom management is like preparing for a video call presentation in a business setting. The teacher has to understand the tools available to them and the way online students receive information. Each student on the other end of the lesson will receive their visual information through a single chat window, and the teacher must balance their presentation between their own image and any digital information they project. Unlike a traditional classroom, in which a teacher can stand alongside a blackboard, a digital setting prioritizes one source over the other. When the teacher uses a video conferencing staple like screen sharing, their own image disappears or is reduced to a thumbnail presence at the bottom of the display.
Digital whiteboards allow remote audiences to share a common medium.
That’s just one difference between a virtual and in-person classroom. The bottom line is that the online classroom has its own teacher-student dynamic, and maximizing that exchange means knowing how to use digital methods to reach a digital audience. Here are some examples of how to communicate better online:
Know where to look: Eye contact is the most elusive element of video conferencing, and teaching to a group of people makes it even harder to achieve. As a compromise, put a little distance between yourself and the camera so you can present your entire face to the audience regardless of where your gaze falls.
Mute your classroom: Most of the leading video conferencing platforms include a mute function that can disable individual attendees’ audio or that of entire audiences. Limit audience participation so that students have to signal their intention to speak (many video conferencing platforms also have a “raise hand” feature). This keeps the call from becoming chaotic and difficult to follow.
Limit Messaging: Using the group chat feature of a video conferencing platform can be a distraction within a classroom setting, dividing attention between what is said and what can be read. Think of chat as a method of exchanging necessary files or links rather than a way for students to communicate.
Maximize Multimedia: Basic screen sharing allows you to display any visual element you can host on your computer screen to an entire group. Use videos, live streams, pictures, slides, and music as often as possible to maintain interest in the lesson.
Get Interactive: Digital whiteboards allow remote audiences to share a common medium. More and more video platforms are including the function as standard and they operate just like a shared sheet of paper. Every student can add to the whiteboard in real time, giving collaboration a more visual representation.
Along with these communication challenges and advantages, virtual classroom management offers some benefits on the administrative side.
Administrating the Virtual Classroom
Every piece of information shared over an online connection is digital. Every piece of digital information can be stored, transferred, and shared at will. As such, the virtual classroom is an administrative dream. Every lesson can be recorded, every visual aid can be downloaded, every interaction can be documented.
While the exchanges of a traditional classroom are usually kept only as memories and hastily taken notes, entire virtual lessons may be replayed whenever necessary.
Digital education software such as Blackboard Collaborate is designed to document and store every aspect of virtual classroom management. Lessons can be recorded and stored in a central hub with attendance records, student submissions, and relevant materials linked in a cloud-based system. While the exchanges of a traditional classroom are usually kept only as memories and hastily taken notes, entire virtual lessons may be replayed whenever necessary. Tying the administrative necessities of each class and curriculum directly to the corresponding lesson timeline makes tracking student progress easy and intuitive.
Education via video conferencing has its own unique demands and challenges, but once they are mastered, going virtual frees up the learning process to be conducted whenever, wherever, and however it is easiest and most effective for teachers and students. Virtual classrooms may not replicate traditional teaching environments, but they shouldn’t have to–they have their own strong points and their own very unique possibilities.