How to make your virtual classroom better?

Posted by Greten on 26 Sep 2020 under Tips

Virtual classrooms are very popular today due to the ongoing pandemic. Even though school-age children are among the least likely to suffer from the Wuhan virus (COVID-19) pandemic, parental instinct compels fathers and mothers not to put their children at risk. In a typical Filipino household, children typically live nearby if not the same house as their grandparents, so not allowing the children to go to school also protects the elderly family members.

However, as the shift from the traditional classroom to online learning happened very fast and without much preparation, teachers and education institutions have to scramble with knowledge and resource that they have. The results are virtual classrooms or online classes that try to be as close to traditional classrooms as possible, thus preventing teachers and students from using the full benefit of a virtual classroom.

In a few examples that I saw on Facebook (which I cannot put here due to copyright issues), some teachers will set up their mobile phones or webcams such that both they and the chalkboard or whiteboard are visible through the camera. Then, they conduct their lectures in a traditional manner. It is not an optimal way to conduct virtual classrooms, but we cannot blame the teachers who are trying their best to use the knowledge, training, and resources they have.

When I mention the term video conferencing application, I refer to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Meet. The video conferencing functions that this entry covers are available in these three applications. I am not sure if there are any other video conferencing applications out there or if Facebook Messenger counts as a video conferencing application.

Thus, here are some tips on how to make virtual classrooms.

The teacher or instructions should have a fast and stable internet connection

Speedometer with number 0 to 9 and an arm pointing lower than zero.A fast and stable internet connection is necessary to facilitate an effective virtual classroom, and that's obvious. However, the teacher or facilitator needs a fast and stable internet connection way more than the students for a simple reason. A student getting lags affects only that student. A teacher getting lags affects everyone in the class.

Of course, there is an issue with who should finance or provide the faster and more stable (and likely to be more expensive) internet connection. Should the school provide it? Should the teachers receive allowance so they can have this internet connection? Should the teachers still go to school regularly and use the internet connection of the school? Should the teachers shoulder their internet connections out of pocket? That is a question that cannot be answered quickly and depends on the circumstances that differ among locations, schools, and individual teachers.

You can replace board work with slide presentations in most cases

Many teachers now use slide presentations like Microsoft PowerPoint, Google Slides, and LibreOffice Impress instead of board work, depending on the topic. They do not have to repeat the board work for every classroom they visit. They can display better illustrations and more realistic images; their teaching ability does not depend on whether they can draw on the board or not. They can hook up their laptop to a projector provided by the school or to a large flatscreen display attached to the classroom wall.

Using LibreOffice Impress slide presentation software in classroomHowever, some teachers do it the old way using whiteboard and marker (or blackboard and chalk) in all their lectures. Usually, these are older generations of teachers who are not used to gadgets, computers, and technology. Teachers from underfunded schools are also using blackboards and chalk all the time due to lack of projectors or flatscreen displays in their schools.

Now that the schools have to transition to online quickly, teachers no longer need to have projectors or displays to use slide presentations; they can display the video conferencing presentation. The teacher controls the presentation while the students can only hear their voice (or the teacher's face is visible as a smaller video in one corner).

Those teachers who are using boards for their entire careers have difficulties with this. They are already struggling to learn how to use video conferencing. Hence, they resort to using technology at minimum and resort to their traditional method for most of their teaching. An example is that scenario in a previous paragraph describing a teacher who uses a whiteboard while ensuring that both they and the whiteboard are visible to the camera.

If you are one of these teachers, please consider that the difficulty of learning applications such as slide presentation software and video conferencing is only at the beginning. After that, preparing and conducting online lessons will be easier. Please note that pointing the camera to you and the blackboard as you conduct a lecture is feasible provided that you have a quality camera, and you examined beforehand if the board has ample lighting.

However, this would also mean that you will stand far from the keyboard most of the time. While conducting a lecture, you might not be able to see who among your students want to ask questions or recite; you need to walk closer to your computer from time to time just to check. In comparison, if you are using a slide presentation, you need to look only on the computer screen. You can see your students and identify those who are talking, chatting, or raising a hand.

Write if you're teaching math, science, economics, or anything where you need to show computations

In the case of mathematical computations, I admit you need to write something on the board. There are ways to make it easier for you and your students.

  • Allocate only a small section of the board that can be visible in your camera. You should also not walk far enough from the computer such that you can no longer see who among your students are raising a hand or talking. Look at this example. Notice that the teacher is using only the left end of the board that can fit in her camera.
  • Use a small whiteboard positioned beside you. While doing this, you remain seated and in front of the computer. Both you and the board should be visible to the camera. The first four minutes of this video is an example of this. The teacher later repositioned the camera closer to the board.
  • Use two cameras. One focused only on you, and the other focused only on the the whiteboard. Switch to the camera that focuses on the whiteboard when you need to demonstrate the process, with only the board, marker, and your hands visible. A view that focuses only on the board will look like this. You may also use one camera and reposition it to focus on the board if you are about to write, but it can be tiring.

A blue pen tablet with stylus.There are also ways you can show computations without using any board.

  • Animate the computations on the slide presentation. However, this is too much work and may not show how students can do calculations on paper.
  • You can also use a pen tablet to show computations on the screen as if you are writing, as seen in this example. If you are using PowerPoint or Impress in other parts of your lesson, you can seamlessly integrate this by configuring a slide to not move on mouse click or after a certain number of seconds. The only difficulty here at first is that it can be confusing that you write on the tablet's surface, but the writings appear on the screen. You can mitigate this difficulty by purchasing a pen tablet with a flat-screen display, but these pen tablets are several times more expensive than the regular ones.

Record your virtual classroom lecture

A projector screen with REC and a red circle on the lower right corner.Video conferencing applications allow you to record your lecture. You can save it as a video file and send it to your students. You may also upload it to Youtube, Google Drive, or any online facility where you can store video files, and give your students access so they can watch it later. Recording your lecture serves two purposes:

  • Learners who have difficulty attending the live video conference due to low-quality internet connection can watch it later without the distraction of lag.
  • Students can use the recorded video as a review material. They can watch it several times until they can grasp the concepts or follow through the processes.

Instruct students to use the raise hand function if they want to speak

A hand with open-palm pointing up. All fingers except thumb are close together.This entry mentioned, "raise hand" or "raising a hand" several times already. While video conferencing with your students also allows you to see if they raise their hand, you may not notice it if their camera is close to their faces. Instead, video conferencing applications come with a button or icon called raise hand. It is "Raise your hand" in Teams and "Raise Hand" in Zoom. While not currently available in Google Meet, students can add Nod extension to their Chrome browsers, which allows them to send emojis: one of these emojis is a person raising a hand.

When a student raises a hand using this function, you will get a notice. You can then call them to recite or ask them if they have any questions or clarifications.

Use the chat function

Video conferencing applications also come with a chat function, where teachers and students can type and read text-based chats. In a virtual classroom, the best ways of using chat are as follows:

  • One or a few of your students have a low-quality internet connection. You may allow them to turn off their camera, mute their microphone, and recite only using the chat.
  • If many of your students or you yourself have low-quality internet connections. You might want to disable the videos and audios of all your students. Only you can talk and show something on the screen. Your students can recite, participate, and ask questions using the chat. I stressed earlier the importance of the teacher having fast and stable internet connection, but if you cannot have it, this is one of the best that you can do to remedy the situation.
  • You want to say something to a particular student that others should not know. The chat function allows you to send a message to only one student.

Everyone was taken aback by the pandemic, but now is the time to make our educational system utilize new technology. While traditional education can be considered superior in some ways, this pandemic provides us the opportunity to learn and realize that there are many ways for the students to learn, and as teachers, we need to have basic knowledge on how to apply them.

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Last updated on 27 Sep 2020.

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Instructional design and educational technology for effective learning