Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Virtual Classroom

The Virtual Classroom concept isn't a new one, but only recently have we been seeing any real advancement in this area. It is a fascinating premise, and one that, on paper, could have the potential to change the world of education. In practice, however, it doesn't always work out that way.

No Need to be in the Same Place

There are huge advantages to the idea of a virtual classroom, the most obvious being that not all individuals need to be in the same place at the same time. Classes can be "attended" by students from various locations around the world. All they'd need is an Internet connection.

Naturally, a corollary of this is that the amount of students "attending" a lecture can increase, even exponentially. For most uses, there might not be any practical limits to the amount of students that can "attend" a lecture. There'd be no real world problems like seating, noise, disruptions, and so on. In theory, a lecturer can give a lecture to thousands of people simultaneously.

No Middlemen

Disclaimer: The institution I attend (STC Training in Malta) could be classified as a middleman educator for Middlesex University in London. For the record, I have no problem with middleman educators and consider the work they do to be invaluable.

With a virtual classroom, there would be no need for middleman educators. Middleman educators are licenced third-party institutions that deliver lectures to students in other countries on behalf of the main institution. Course material, exams, and so on are set by the main institution. The third-party simply delivers the material. It would naturally have its own set of teachers, staff, and so on. However, the qualification is given by the main institution.

A virtual classroom solution could render middleman educators obsolete. There'd be no extra paperwork, no administrative overhead, no redundant correction, and a much closer, more direct relationship with the educators and the lecturers who set out the course.

Middleman educators, however, are great at tending to an individual student's needs, and could arguably do so better that the main institution can, since they tend to have much smaller classes.

Simulating Live Discussions

If virtual classrooms are beginning to sound a little one-way, that's because they sort of are. Stimulating classroom discussions are one of the most important parts of the learning process for so many students. And, despite advancements in this area, we haven't really come up with a great way to emulate this in a virtual world.

It's difficult to create a two-way communication channel between the lecturer and students when there are potentially so many students, and none of them are physically close to one another. Discussions always work best when people can interact in the real world. Messages lose their nuance and subtle meaning when they're typed out.

Conference Calls?

Video conference calls could be a way to solve this problem. But, again, we haven't figured out a great way to do it — at least in a way that would match a classroom environment.

Pre-Recorded Lectures?

Instead of a live "virtual classroom", lectures can be recorded ahead of time, and students can play and re-play lectures in their own time. This is a great potential time-saver for students. It means that students from different time zones won't have to stay up late just to "attend" a lecture.

This approach is very popular, and it works, to a certain extent. But once again, hosting a live classroom debate is impossible here. It's great for subjects that don't really require much debate or discussion, but it's fair to say that not all subjects fit that bill — especially ones that require some hands-on work.

Also, the experience becomes even more "siloed". The learning experience for students becomes a very solitary experience — in effect, the exact opposite of what a "virtual classroom" should strive to be.


Some more advancement in this area is needed before we can start to consider it a real alternative to traditional learning. However, advents like Second Life, Google Hangouts, and others mean that there is potential, somewhere.

We just haven't found it yet.

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