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Lifting The Lid On Virtual Classrooms. By Annie Hayes


Clive Shepherd, Blended Learning Director at the Training Foundation explains the pros and cons of virtual classroom learning.

What is a virtual classroom?
Anything with the word ‘virtual’ attached prompts a perception of newness and modern-day wizardry but Clive Shepherd explains that in fact virtual classrooms are far from novel having been around for the best part of a decade.

And the concept, he says is relatively simple: “Instead of a face to face learning situation it is online. It happens at a specific time in a synchronous fashion.”

What this means is that via a virtual classroom, learners experience more than just a web chat or a Skype transaction. The functionality, says Shepherd is tightly integrated with the organisations learning management system in most instances with records of attendance to boot.

“The key difference with a real life learning situation is that there is no visual contact between the parties but even now this is not necessarily the case. Webcams can and are used for small learning groups but beyond around five learners this becomes impractical and it’s often guided by the problems of bandwidth – where things aren’t essential it usually doesn’t happen,” explains Shepherd.

Where visual contact is invariably optional, audio contact is not. Shepherd tells me that all virtual classrooms broadcast the voice of the presenter. “The future of virtual classrooms in fact is using voice over the internet so that teleconference calls don’t have to be paid for,” he says.

Virtual classrooms also include facilities for communicating ideas; often this involves the availability of PowerPoint presentations for example. “These can proceed at the presenter’s discretion. The inclusion of this facility is pretty much universal with all packages.

"Some offer the option to display Flash images too but again you have to be mindful of the bandwidth of the delegates. If you’re talking about the YouTube smaller videos for example that is not a problem,” Shepherd adds.

Levels of interaction
Those that are only tip-toeing towards the idea usually stall because they fail to understand how virtual classrooms can replicate the free flow of a traditional learning situation where interaction is spontaneous and natural. Shepherd says this shouldn’t be a problem, however, even if it comes in a less familiar setting.

“Voice over the internet or telephone interventions offer delegates the opportunity to speak. These conversations are usually moderated. It has to be controlled to allow one person to speak at a time.” And it doesn’t stop there says Shepherd. A text-chat window is often open, encouraging more of a free-flow with delegates able to converse with each other or to the presenter – levels of moderation and control can be adjusted accordingly. This also presents few bandwidth issues.

“Interaction is further encouraged with polls and surveys, which usually sit where the PowerPoint slides would. Virtual whiteboards are becoming more common too – delegates can type remarks for example – there could be a map, for example, where learners can put a star to represent where they are located,” says Shepherd.

And it doesn’t stop there. There are possibilities for application sharing, to allow delegates to work jointly on a document allowing multiple participants to interact with the same programme.

One of the advantages of a virtual classroom is the ability to shape them to the size of the audience. They can be used for one-to-one discussions as instruction or coaching, for small groups similar to a workshop with the ability to build-in ‘break-out’ rooms and high levels of interaction or for larger groups – more commonly known as webinars. These, say, Shepherd are just like conferences and are for ten or more delegates. “They are not as wide-ranging as they would be for a small group but in these cases you would offer the opportunity to take questions at the very least.”

An obvious advantage of the virtual classroom is the economy of scale. Clearly where attendees have to travel great distances for a real-life learning experience the return doesn’t always add up. The advent of the online learning classroom also presents the opportunity for greater access to speakers that may not otherwise be able to afford the time and for the company offers the opportunity to buy that time for a lower cost.

“Sessions are also recordable which gives staff the chance to catch up if they’ve missed a session. Of course a disadvantage is that you can’t actually see people which is slightly unusual but shouldn’t be a big deal, some types of training aren’t suitable but on the other hand a lot of learners do say that they prefer virtual classrooms and the opportunity to participate more freely,” says Shepherd.

Trainers looking at this method should also be aware that sessions longer than 75-90 minutes aren’t advisable, not if you are sitting glued to your headphones for that period of time. And most trainers adjust quickly, says Shepherd, who remarks that the biggest hurdle is apprehension. “Those that use it, do so a lot and extensively, particularly in the US and Far East and age is not the barrier many think it is.” The Facebook and MySpace generation aren’t prerequisites to this type of learning either explains Shepherd, who tells me that there isn’t a lot of evidence to suggest virtual learning is more popular amongst the younger delegates.

Package options:
Costs scale accordingly with options to dip in or out according to desires. “You can pay as you go in reality or you can have a contract. Virtual classrooms are becoming more accessible too as the prices come down. There are also open-source (free) software packages coming available but they still require hosting and heavy-weight bandwidth.”

What virtual classroom learning offers is a chance to access and distribute learning anywhere and to anyone. What delegates and trainers should remember says Shepherd is that the virtual classroom isn’t attempting to replace traditional learning methods but work with them and alongside them and for this trainers could do worse then adding them to the learning armoury.

Citrix Online and TrainingZone are coming together to offer members an exclusive opportunity to attend a free webinar exploring the benefits of virtual classrooms on Tuesday, November 27,2007 at 10 AM GMT. To register and find out more click here.


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