What is a virtual classroom?

Posted by Greten on 20 Sep 2020 under Terms

A virtual classroom is an online environment that allows interactions among teachers and learners and facilitates teaching and learning. Virtual classrooms use video conferencing applications such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Microsoft Teams. Sufficiently large and technologically-capable schools might also have a custom video conferencing application integrated with their learning management systems (LMS).

The term virtual classroom is closely related to terms, almost synonymous with "virtual classroom training (VCT)" and "virtual instructor-led training (VILT)". However, these two terms are more used in industry and employee training while virtual classroom is more on academic settings.

A laptop showing six faces of participators in a 3 x 2 matrix,rs in a virtr

Virtual classroom is a kind of synchronous elearning; these two terms are sometimes considered synonymous, but not all synchronous elearning are virtual classrooms. A virtual classroom is an attempt to replicate a classroom setting in a virtual environment. Synchronous elearning merely requires the learning to happen on a scheduled date and time with at least one other learner, in contrast to asynchronous learning where learning can happen on a schedule decided solely by the learner. An instructor may choose to assign a learning activity to a pair or a group of learners to work on, and not be present while doing the activity. This setting is synchronous elearning because the learners have to synchronize their learning schedule, but not a virtual classroom because the instructor is not with them.

Elements of a virtual classroom

A student sitting while using a laptop on a table. There are also pens on the table and cabinets under it.A virtual classroom needs to have at least the following:

  • Students (or learners)
  • Teachers (or instructors or facilitators)
  • Common video conferencing application for both students and teachers
  • Internet connection for teacher and each student

A virtual classroom can be a one-on-one session with one teacher and one student. It may also have several teachers and several students. However, the most common configuration is to have at least one teacher and several students, just like in a real classroom.

The teacher (or one of the teachers) also acts as the facilitator of videoconferencing:

  • Configures the virtual classroom
  • Sends invites to students,
  • Controls what appears when using the share screen function
  • Allows students to share their screens should they be needed (like, for example, class reporting)
  • Controls how the students can interact (e.g., voice, video, or text chat)
  • Boot out and ban misbehaving students (use only in extreme situations)

If the audio and video are enabled, the virtual classroom becomes a closer approximation of a real classroom. Students can see their classmates and, thus, feel that they are in the class together. Students can raise hands and speak for recitation; note that some videoconferencing application comes with icons and emojis that are virtual equivalent to raising of the hand.

However, if a large percentage of the students have a slow or unstable internet connection, the teacher may opt to monopolize the audio and video functions. The students recite and participate using the text chat function, which also comes with several video conferencing applications. It might feel less of a classroom, but it will make your online lecture transmit faster and with less lag.

Virtual classroom vs real classroom

A virtual classroom can have several advantages over a real classroom:

  • The board work is easier and less repetitive. In a real classroom, teachers have to write notes again and again for every classroom they visit. They may also use mobile whiteboards to avoid repetition, but it will still require them to push the mobile board across the school's corridors. Creating a slide presentation and using the show screen function of video conferencing application is faster and easier.
  • You do not need to be good at drawing. If your lesson topic relies heavily on visuals—such as parts of a flower or tectonic plate movements—you need to be very good at drawing in a traditional classroom setting. More tech-savvy teachers opt to use projectors or flat screen displays, but many schools do not have these pieces of equipment. In a virtual classroom, you can look for visual aid using the internet and paste it on your slide presentation. As a teacher using the image for educational purposes, you need not worry about the image copyright since educational use falls under fair use. However, you cannot sell your presentation because it's already outside the fair use for educational purposes.
  • You can record your online lecture. Students who have difficulty grasping the concepts you taught in one sitting might understand it after watching your recording repeatedly.
  • A virtual classroom can still continue during events that usually paralyze real classrooms. If there are inclement weathers, transport strikes, or anything that can prevent students from going to schools, the school administrations or the government suspend the classes for that day. However, a virtual classroom can continue since it does not rely on the teachers' and students' ability to travel to a specific location. Note that sufficiently strong inclement weather may damage the power and internet facilities and still paralyze the virtual classroom.

A real traditional classroom showing the teacher and the whiteboard on the far background, with the the back of the students seen in this view. One of the students is raising his hand.

However, virtual classroom also has several disadvantages over a real classroom

  • Lower and less stable internet connection of some students makes it difficult for them to participate in real-time. A recorded lecture can help reinforce their learning but does not solve their participation difficulties.
  • If your students are young children in kindergarten or early elementary education, disciplining them can be more difficult. You can manage your learners by giving a stern look and using proper tone, but this may not transmit accurately in a virtual classroom. A student's misbehavior might include turning off the computer, and there's nothing you can do about it. Hence, for such grade levels, help from a parent or parents is essential.
  • It is easier to cheat in a virtual classroom. You cannot see if the students are looking at their notes while taking an exam. However, it can also be advantageous as it will force teachers to design exams that provide more points on higher-order thinking skills like comprehension and application, rather than rote memorization.
  • Schools do not provide just classroom learning. Most schools also come with science laboratories, computer laboratories, and sports facilities. Having one hundred percent virtual classroom for the entire academic year means the learners lack of access to these facilities, and teachers need to improvise on how to best deliver learning without these.

The second item is partly based on my personal experience. Last year, my wife can drop our 5-year old son to school and then run some other errands such as shopping or doing the laundry, and then go back later to pick him up. This school year, due to the pandemic, our now 6-year old son has to sit in a virtual classroom and can be impatient at times. My wife needs to stay beside him to ensure that he is not misbehaving during his virtual class. I developed a script that will block the keyboard and mouse so my son will not leave the video conference or disable the mute when it's not yet his turn to recite, with his mom having controls on when to enable the audio and video. My script cannot block the power key, so I configured Windows 10 to disregard (set as "Do nothing") the power key and the sleep on close lid of the laptop.

Virtual classrooms during the 2020 Wuhan virus pandemic

Due to the Wuhan virus pandemic, officially called COVID-19, schools are scrambling to provide virtual classrooms. The start of the school year was initially scheduled for August and then moved to October. Private schools are allowed to start earlier, as long as they will provide only virtual classrooms. The initial plan is to make the lessons blended learning; in some days of the week, the students are going to be in a physical classroom, but many parents are determined not to let their children out until the pandemic is over. Some parents even opted not to enroll their children for this school year.

Between June and September, the Department of Education, Philippines, and several textbook publishing companies have been providing seminars using Facebook and Youtube on how to conduct virtual classes and manage virtual classrooms and other topics on how to teach during this time of pandemic. Whether these seminars and the virtual classrooms in K-12 settings will be successful is yet to be seen. Our students may or may not get an education at par with traditional schooling; they might not get the best education in this time of pandemic, but we have to make the best use of what we have.


Last updated on 26 Sep 2020.

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Instructional design and educational technology for effective learning