Think learning and the first picture that comes to mind is that of an organized classroom where students listen to the gems of wisdom from the teacher in rapt attention, sometimes out of curiosity and often out of fear of a chide from the stern teacher. But this set up has long been relegated to the days of yore by the leapfrogging technology. Such has been the impact of technology on learning that it has almost made traditional learning methods look obsolete.
The arrival of virtual classrooms
Even though e-learning has taken over conventional learning for better or worse, it had not been able to successfully and completely replace traditional learning methods, mainly because it provided self learning content for learners that was fed into a CD or a website. There has been much pondering over the causes and solutions to this blow to e-learning. And only when experts had started to concede that traditional classroom training has no substitute, virtual classrooms happened. And they changed the face of e-learning altogether. This, in no way, means that virtual classrooms are a worthy replacement to their traditional counterparts. But, they are definitely proving to be valuable conjuncts to live classrooms.
The arrival of virtual classrooms on the scene made way for real time broadcast of lectures given by an instructor or a subject matter expert. Also known as webcasts or webinars, the live online events are synchronous short programs that take anywhere between half an hour to two hours to get completed. Led by an instructor, the participants usually vary from 25 to 30 learners.
Virtual classroom vis a vis traditional classroom
A traditional classroom set up is essentially a learning platform, where learning happens through communication, dialogue, and other learning aids such as text, figures, charts and diagrams. All this is done in a closed room to incubate students in an environment free of external disturbances in order to aid concentration. In this set up, students and the teacher need to be present at the same physical location and in real time.
As opposed to this, in a virtual classroom, a learning platform is created in a virtual or web based environment. All other features for learning remaining unaltered, the virtual classroom liberates learning of all physical shackles, by aiding learners to learn from remote locations. The omnipresent internet has made remote learning a reality, making success stories out of concepts such as the virtual classroom. A web based classroom scores in its easy and familiar interface and liberty from geographical boundaries, with features such as discussion boards and chat rooms, but is ridden with maladies such as security concerns, copyright issues, et. al.
Features of a virtual classroom
The classroom activities inside a virtual classroom comprise of
Learning through gaming
Group discussions with peers, instructor, and guest trainers
Giving out of homework and assessment of solved exercises
Defining work modules for the complete course
Synchronous chatting and forum discussions
Quizzes and surveys
Individual and group learning activities
The virtual classroom utilizes the following tools to deliver learning material.
Power point slides
Electronic flip charts
Explanation tools like arrows or bullets
Live software applications like word or excel
Apart from this, the learner participation is aided by tools that allow learners to
Write on electronic flip charts
Derive useful notes from the content with the help of annotation tools
Practice software applications first hand
Question or discuss through voice over internet protocol (VOIP) or teleconferencing
Question or discuss with peers or instructors through public chat
Question or discuss exclusively with the instructor through private chat
Answer polls and multiple choice surveys
Visit useful websites
Play games to enhance certain skills
Other features of the virtual classroom include
Platform for posting information
Separate homepages for students
Calendar and timetable
Equipment required for a virtual classroom
A regular computer connected to the internet is enough to join a virtual classroom session. Regardless of the speed of the internet connection, students can successfully participate in a virtual classroom, but instructors are recommended to have computers with faster processors and larger memories, if application sharing is essentially a part of the virtual classroom. In case the classroom makes use of VIOP based communication, the learner might require a sound card and a microphone, while if teleconferencing is the chosen means of communication the participant will need two telephone lines.
Though a virtual classroom has covered most of the benefits of a traditional one, it mainly lacks in making an optimal use of the features that its software offers. You dont need to be no techno-wizard to pull the features together and juxtapose effective content seamlessly to deliver a rich learning experience. The key to achieving this is creativity in delivery.