What is a virtual classroom?

Pamela S. Hogle
Smiling woman with short hair, wearing glasses.
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Videoconferencing, webinars, and other forms of synchronous virtual learning are surging in popularity. These platforms serve many purposes, from conference calls and meetings to social gatherings and formal learning or training. 

While any videoconferencing platform can be used as a training platform, dedicated virtual classroom platforms can more fully meet the needs of formal instruction in a synchronous group setting. 

Virtual classrooms differ from most digital or eLearning, which is asynchronous, meaning that learners complete training at their own pace and on their own schedule. Synchronous learning is what happens when multiple learners, usually with at least one instructor or facilitator, learn at the same time, in the same physical or virtual space.

A virtual classroom platform might offer more tools than a more business-oriented videoconferencing platform. Regardless of platform, though, the amount and type of interactivity an instructor uses is often determined by the number of participants and the goals of the session. 

Virtual classroom or videoconference?

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As instructors increasingly move their teaching into virtual classrooms, they seek to achieve the same goals as in instructor-led face-to-face training. They diverge from videoconferences or meetings in their learning goals and, often, in the way participants interact.

Learners attend training in a virtual classroom to learn new skills or gain knowledge. Virtual training sessions follow different formats, including:

Webinar or lecture

The instructor presents material with minimal interactivity. Learners might see a shared screen with PowerPoint-type slides, the instructor on video, a white board, a video, or something else. In larger lectures or webinars, the participants’ video is usually off and their microphones are muted. Some allow learners to use chat.

Virtual training

Virtual training consultant Cindy Huggett distinguishes virtual training from webinars or large virtual “webcast” presentations based on the number of participants and amount of interactivity — and by the use of predefined, performance-based learning objectives.

Benefits of virtual training

Using a virtual classroom for corporate training offers many benefits, as companies are discovering in the COVID era of working from home.

When compared with conventional asynchronous eLearning, virtual classrooms offer learners the chance to interact with an expert instructor, as well as with fellow learners. Depending on what their platform supports, virtual classroom instructors might place learners into small-group breakout sessions, encourage chats among learners, conduct polls and discuss the results, and, especially with smaller groups, share a virtual whiteboard or allow learners to share their work on their own screens. 

When compared with in-person instructor-led training (ILT), virtual training is generally far less expensive and requires less of a time commitment, especially if the instructor or learners would need to travel to the class location. A drawback of virtual classroom instruction is the need for all learners to be available (and therefore not working) during the same specific time periods when training occurs — as with conventional instructor-led training.

Technology could raise barriers

Instructors and learners in virtual classrooms face technical hurdles that conventional classrooms do not pose: All learners, as well as the instructor, need reliable internet access that can support video streaming. Each learner needs a computer or tablet — or possibly a smartphone — and access to the platform the instructor is using. The computer or phone must support audio and video streaming.

Whatever platform an organization uses, both learners and instructors are likely to need initial training on using the platform before they can focus on the training content. Popular virtual platforms include Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Adobe Connect, Cisco WebEx, GoToTraining, and others. Some, like Zoom and Teams, initially targeted business users but have expanded their virtual classroom functionality. These have the additional advantage of being familiar to many employees and therefore may be seen as posing less of a barrier to virtual training.

Success in the virtual classroom depends on interaction

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Virtual training experts tend to advise high levels of interaction in virtual classroom settings, about once every three to five minutes. “Interaction” in this context means many things, and can include:

  • Presenting a polling question, then discussing the poll results
  • Asking an open-ended question that learners answer in chat, followed by a discussion of the shared responses
  • Sharing a short (two to three minutes, max.) video and soliciting learners’ reactions
  • Asking a learner to share a story, answer a question, or pose a question to peers
  • Sending learners to breakout sessions with a question or two to discuss, then having them report back to the full group
  • Sharing the whiteboard and asking one or more learners to draw on it, complete an exercise, or share their thoughts

For instructors, teaching virtually requires adjustments as well:

  • Virtual training requires that they use technology to communicate, missing out on the facial expressions and body language the classroom offers. 
  • Virtual instructors have to multitask in ways that face-to-face instructors don’t. While presenting a class, the instructor also:
  • Runs polls
  • Shares slides and the whiteboard
  • Watches the chat box for questions
  • Watches for learners using the “raised hand” icon to signal a question or problem
  • Monitors for technology glitches — remaining alert for any learners reporting problems on their end.

Whew. It takes some practice to get it right. Instructors and learners at all levels are scrambling to master virtual classroom platforms, though, because virtual classroom teaching is here to stay.

COVID shutdowns are driving a virtual training boom

Many companies pivoted to virtual classrooms due to COVID-19 shutdowns. A research report produced by the Learning Guild found that only 4% of organizations did half or more of their training using virtual classrooms in 2019 — and 49% did so in the March-to-May period of 2020. 

These organizations anticipate a long-term change, too, with 45% saying they will do significant virtual training in 2021, 2022, and beyond. Colleges and universities, too, are moving much instruction into virtual classrooms. 

One respondent to the Learning Guild survey mentioned their frequent large, in-person speaker sessions, commenting that “we anticipate that we may never be able to hold those sessions again.” Their organization is moving to virtual sessions with the understanding that “there is a good chance they will stay that way.”

Smiling woman with short hair, wearing glasses.
Pamela S. Hogle

An experienced writer, editor, tech writer, and blogger, Pam helps you make sense of learning science and eLearning technology. She provides information you can use to drive improvements in your training effectiveness and ROI.

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