What is a Virtual Classroom: The Definitive Guide (2020)

A virtual classroom is an online learning environment in which teachers and students communicate, interact, collaborate and learn, aided by technical tools provided by the software.

Virtual classes enable teachers and students to remotely attend classes in real-time, while maintaining a teaching and learning environment comparable to a traditional in-person classroom.

Is Zoom a Virtual Classroom?

So, what is the difference between a video conferencing like Zoom or Google Hangout and actual virtual classroom software?

One answer: Purpose.
What is it designed for?

In Zoom, Google Hangout and other web-conferencing apps, you can connect remotely and start speaking to other attendees.

So the question is: Is Zoom or a Hangout session a classroom?

Or, is speaking to your audience same as engaging your audience in an active learning environment?

The answer: Probably not.

Zoom and other web-conferencing apps enable some basic features, but you do not have the flexibility and purpose-built tools for online teaching that ensures the best and most effective learning outcomes for your students.

Ideally, you need a platform that allows you to:

  1. Schedule online classes and store course materials,
  2. Tools to teach, engage and collaborate with students,
  3. Manage assignments, quizzes and exams,
  4. Monitor attendance, due dates and assignment submissions, and
  5. Provide feedback to students.

Click here to learn about 11 tools to Effectively Conduct Your Virtual Classes.

Let us look at the benefits and challenges of virtual classrooms.

Benefits of Virtual Classroom

#1 Active interaction and engagement

During your online classes, you can have enriched and real-time interactions with your students through multiple tools such as audio and video, text chat, slides and whiteboard.

All of this allows the online live classroom atmosphere to be lively and fostering a deeper engagement with students.

Slide annotations, polls, raise hand and class notes are some additional tools that you can leverage to encourage every student to actively engage during class.

In addition, breakout rooms enable students to work on case studies, class projects, group assignments, joint activities and presentations.

You have the ability to experiment with different class designs as per your course requirements and student learning objectives.

For example, you can have a lecture-style class format supported by multiple Q&A sessions with students.

There are various learning tools designed to assist you to provide a different learning experience in an online live class when compared to watching lecture videos or reading lecture notes.

#2 Closer integration of multimedia tools

Today there are a diverse set of teaching tools available for virtual classroom setups. These tools allow you to design a comprehensive pedagogy that responds well to online courses.

Depending on your teaching needs and student learning requirements, you can pick and choose tools or use a different combination of tools.

Similar to an in-person traditional classroom, in a virtual classroom students have different levels of comfort while participating in the class.

Many students are comfortable speaking up in the class and they tend to use the audio/video tools more frequently.

Other students prefer to quietly listen and express their thoughts or ask questions using the text chat tool.

Then there are those who will use the “raise hand” tool or emojis to express themselves.

As a class progresses and some students get comfortable with the use of diverse tools, other students will be encouraged to use some of them to engage during the class.

The tools available to you and the students are designed to ensure high participation and enthusiasm in the virtual classroom.

These tools enable you to think beyond the parameters of a traditional classroom setup and help you create a highly collaborative and engaging environment.

For example, you can start your class with lecture slides. Then you can annotate those slides to emphasize your points, or draw attention to specific points.

You can then use the digital whiteboard to build on what you are presenting, incorporating feedback and point of views expressed by students over audio/video and text chats.

You can encourage students to express themselves on a shared digital whiteboard as the class moves ahead.

At the same time you can keep an eye on their in class participation, by using polling questions at various points of your presentation.

In case some students are consistently missing from all of the above activities, you can immediately drop them a private chat message to confirm if they are having any difficulty in understanding the subject matter.

Once class is completed, you can have moment-by-moment analytics on student participation as a summary of the levels of engagement and if there were any who might have struggled.

After conducting a few virtual classes in such a vibrant learning environment, there will be little use for tools of a traditional classroom, may it be a crowded chalk-board (or whiteboard) or a TV.

The ease with which to switch between various tools, and expect students to participate actively and regularly can only be possible in a virtual classroom.

With tools such as Class Notes, a public shared space to take notes during the class, and Raise Hand, you can develop a collaborative learning environment for creativity and engagement.

#3 In-sync with changing student behaviour

The advent of mobile phones, social networks and fast internet connections, has caused student behaviour to change significantly.

For those accustomed to teaching in a traditional format, juggling to use audio/video, text chat, slides and an annotated whiteboard all at the same time can be quite overwhelming.

Guess what?

Your students do this on a daily basis. They multitask, almost every waking moment.

Checking WhatsApp notifications, scrolling through Instagram, recording videos for SnapChat and Liking holiday pictures on Facebook – your students find it natural to do all these things together.

Unlike a few years ago, not many students can focus these days for a one hour class in a traditional classroom.

While they are physically present, their mind wanders elsewhere, as they try and focus and listen to the lecture as a monologue.

In a virtual classroom, you are using a multitude of tools to enable your students to hear and speak over audio/video, type chat messages, click on poll answers, share emojis, raise hand and browse through shared class notes.

This requires your teaching method to adapt to their learning abilities and become more in-sync with how your students behave, while you create a stimulating learning environment.

Challenges of Virtual Classroom

#1 Need for translation

Translating standard class activities from traditional in-person classroom to a virtual classroom is not straightforward.

You may wish to refer to the 10 step process to design and deliver online classes.

This translation requires that you devote additional hours.

Activities which seem obvious and effortless – for example, jotting down your key points on the chalk-board while you are speaking – now require you to put on slides that need to be prepared in advance.

The amount of chalk-board writing that you do in an in-person classroom – for example in a Mathematics class – may no longer be possible on a digital whiteboard in a virtual classroom.

You may need to redesign your teaching by breaking your content into different formats – slides, whiteboard annotations, videos, polls, handouts and quizzes.

You may also need a thoughtful approach to redesigning class activities such as quizzes.

Quizzes may have to be adjusted to test student understanding and mastery of concepts that go beyond simply knowing facts, which can quickly be Googled or flipped through textbooks.

#2 Ensuring engagement

There are many teaching tools that can be accessed for a virtual classroom, similar to those mentioned earlier.

However, all those tools still require you to be creative, and cautious too, as you actively engage your student in an online class.

While you may be able to see a student on video, you are also keeping tabs on all your other students and this becomes difficult to pay attention to the needs of a specific student.

As you float from one video image to another you may not notice the body language or other physical cues from a student which might have been evident in a traditional class.

Keeping a student engaged is challenging. Is someone really looking at the webcam or at another browser tab to watch videos?

Is a student really having network issues connecting to class or is it an excuse to not attend or participate?

Are their side conversations taking place between students or are they communicating with others via other devices?

All of this adds up to extra effort in managing an online virtual class which makes teaching on line that much more difficult.

You would need to proactively look for or create opportunities to gather feedback from students through discussions, text chat entries, polls and group work.

Analytics of your virtual class becomes a good tool to gather information on individual student’s engagement levels during class.

This can in turn be used constructively to help those needing extra attention or those who are not actively engaging for a variety of reasons. It allows you to have an informed discussion to address student needs.

#3 Scheduling

Virtual classes require all students to come online and attend classes at the same time.

This brings up the issue of scheduling.

There are various ways to address some of these challenges. You can adopt a hybrid approach, by assigning reading material in advance. Students can go through the material before joining each class.

This allows you to focus on discussions and work that requires students to be actively engaged through diverse tools opposed to passive lecture listening.

#4 Scalability

To take full advantage of the benefits of virtual classrooms and ensure quality learning outcomes for students, you should aim for smaller class sizes.

A suitable class size will depend on factors such as course objectives, content, teaching pedagogy, student age-group etc.

As a thumb rule, engaging 20 to 30 students in classroom activities is manageable compared to anything above 30 students.

From a visual perspective having 20-30 video screens is decent compared to 30+ making the visual quality to observe a student difficult.

Furthermore, managing a large group in a lecture format is demanding unless, there are several group activities structured through breakout rooms.

Dr Duleep Deosthale

Dr Duleep Deosthale

Founder - HigherEdLab.com, PhD - UCLA

Duleep ‘D2′ Deosthale has served as Dean and Professor at Long Island University (New York); Associate Professor & Dean of International Programs at Marist College (New York); Professor and Dean of Business and Humanities at Manipal International University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Assistant Professor and Director for International Programs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, USA. D2 has served on the boards NAFSA, CIEE, AIEA and EAIE.