The Virtual Classroom: How to Design the Environment for Success
Virtual classrooms are not just a nice to have these days but are becoming a necessity. A virtual classroom can be a great way to allow people across the country or even the world to have a consistent learning experience as if they were sitting next to each other in a traditional classroom.
However, designing an effective virtual classroom requires attention to details that are different from face-to-face classrooms.
Assess the needs and the necessary conditions to satisfy them.
To effectively design your virtual classroom, you need to first assess the needs of the participants compared to the outcomes that the classroom content is supposed to satisfy. Are there any gaps or misses? Be sure to address these by knowing your participants ahead of time and having good business reasons for delivering a live classroom experience and not asynchronous learning (also called self-access) or job aids and simple directive communications.
There are five common types of objectives that instructors use to assess their students' achievements: mastery, proficiency, performance, participation, and interest. Decide which type of objective is most important to you.
Once you understand what your learning objectives are and what your participants will want, you can think about what conditions will be necessary for them to learn and be successful with your content once they leave your classroom.
Plan the virtual classroom
Start by asking yourself questions about how students will want to and need to interact with their peers and with the content. Do you need conversation about a topic? Will you want to break them into smaller groups to brainstorm their own solutions? Do you want to conduct a poll or play a game to help them remember concepts or facts? These will help you determine how to lay out your content in the presentation software to deliver on your virtual classroom platform.
Depending on the type of environment you will also want to determine at this point if there is a need for any preparation to come into the classroom with and the likelihood that your participants will complete it.
Finally, you need to consider a plan for how you will mark the participants complete. Do they need a test to prove their mastery of the content? Do they need to give feedback on something? Planning this ahead of time will help you to understand how much work you need to do to deliver your learning experience.
Design the virtual classroom
Use your plan from the learning objectives and your course design to create your learning materials. Make sure you time out your activities well and test your timing! Things move a lot faster in the virtual classroom so discussions and polls need to be managed and controlled so you don’t run out of time! Make sure that the content is interactive enough that you can be sure the participants are really paying attention and not doing their laundry or talking to their dog! (It has happened!)
Use good visual design principles: leave enough whitespace to not overwhelm your participants who are concentrating on the screen, only use 2 or 3 fonts, make sure your color palette is consistent with your brand or at least complementary on the color wheel.
Prepare and distribute content
Now that the class has been designed and you have tested the timing, you will need to decide on how you want your students to receive their pre-work materials, as well as who will be able to access the materials once they have been distributed.
Your organization likely has a process for distributing training materials but the three most common ways are email, embedded on a common site such as MS Teams or Slack, or through your learning management system (LMS). There are pros and cons to each method and your organization likely has best practices.
When you distribute your materials, when you communicate the location and time for your virtual classroom, or when you and others work together on a team communication device, your participants will associate those communications with your course, and ultimately, with you. Be thoughtful about how you communicate and respectful of the participants’ time and schedules. This course may be your primary work but it is likely something ‘extra’ or something mandatory for participants and they may have different feelings about the topic or the delivery than you will.
Consider whether you want to make an asynchronous (i.e., recorded) version of your virtual classroom experience. If you are going to do this, remember that you can’t record your participants unless they agree, and you likely won’t be able to capture all the conversations if you use breakout rooms.
Implement online assessments when appropriate
When you are designing your virtual classroom, you need to plan for how your participants will be assessed and if they need to be assessed at all.
If you are going to use an assessment, one of the most important considerations is that it must be authentic. Your goal should always be to test your participants with content that demonstrates that they have met the learning objectives, using examples that come from your classroom and have some application into the real world.
Implement class management procedures
It is now up to you to decide how your class will be managed, especially if it is a large group with many students. Keep in mind that if you want your virtual classroom experience to be interactive, you should limit your audience to no more than 25 participants. If you have a larger audience, you will not be able to have as interactive a presentation and this will be determined by your intentions with the class and the nature of the content. In any event, it is a good idea to consider using a virtual producer, the chat function of your virtual classroom platform, and the reporting that comes with the tool to track attendance.
A moderator or Virtual Producer is always present during the activity to make sure everything is running smoothly. They can help with the mechanics of managing the room while you concentrate on presenting content and interacting with participants.
The use of a forum or chat room where students may post questions, comments, and ideas without interrupting the teacher will help you stay on track, particularly if you have big class sizes.
Check out the reporting capabilities of your virtual classroom platform to determine if there is enough information there to help you report who has attended, and for how long they stayed focused on your screen. Your company likely has requirements for reporting so it’s a good idea to check these.
Finally, you will want to introduce an end-of-learning survey to get an idea of how people felt about your course. You can introduce the URL or link to the survey right in the classroom in the last 3-5 minutes and have participants complete it right there.
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