The virtual classroom: the ups and the downs of collaborative learning

What is a virtual classroom?

Many of you reading this will already have participated in some form of virtual classroom learning. In its more mortal guise, the virtual classroom is an application of web conferencing technology. So if you’ve ever participated in a webinar, perhaps hosted by one or two instructors taking you through a PowerPoint presentation, you have already been initiated into the world of virtual learning. But like the true shape shifter it is, the virtual classroom can also take on the form of a self-contained (potentially even self-sufficient) virtual environment such as that of the 3D virtual world Second Life. And indeed, Second Life is used as a platform for education by many institutions such as universities, colleges and libraries.

The virtual classroom isn’t a new thing – distance learning organisations such as the Open University have been putting bums on virtual seats for decades. Following in their wake, the virtual classroom is increasingly discussed and used as a tool for workplace learning. In fact, Second Life also gives companies the option to create virtual workspaces in which employees can meet, hold events and training sessions, and even simulate businesses processes and new product prototypes.

The virtual classroom: it might not be very good

But the question is this: is any of this virtual learning any good? Could it, dare I say, be bad? Well, without going into too much detail, one of the much talked about benefits of the virtual classroom is its capacity for collaborative, peer-assisted learning. Groups of users can communicate in voice, writing (via chat) or video in real-time as well as fill out surveys and answer questions over chat or through polling systems. I don’t think I need to push this point any further. But does the fact that the virtual classroom is collaborative mean that the virtual classroom is good? I am not that sure that it does…

The ‘quality of learning/quality of participant’ ratio!

My reason for doubting the logic of such a conclusion lies in what could be called the ‘quality of learning/quality of participant’ ratio: the higher the standard of the participants, the higher the potential for learning. Anyone who’s ever participated in group learning (which is most of us) will agree that the standard of other participants’ contributions makes a huge difference to how much you can learn.

For instance, the virtual classroom can be a great tool for staff inductions. Video conferencing media, like Skype, can help staff to spread their knowledge to new members of the team. I have heard of some organisations that encourage staff to upload videos to the company intranet for new staff members to browse through for tips on how to do things such as access files when they’ve been deleted or claim back expenses. But such communal knowledge will only be distributed if the staff member responsible for doing so is actually experienced or skilled enough to:

  • possess the knowledge themselves; and
  • be able to teach that to another employee

Those two things aren’t a given and the last one certainly isn’t easy! Don’t get me wrong: if the virtual classroom allows staff to participate in staff inductions who wouldn’t otherwise have done so, that is great. But we need to make sure that this type of induction complements, rather than replaces, existing staff induction programs.

Perhaps the importance of the ‘quality of learning/quality of participant’ ratio comes into even greater relief during bigger group learning sessions like webinars (as opposed to a staff induction which is likely to be one-to-one). I have experienced some terrible webinars but also some really good ones. Usually the good ones are those in which the other participants are more knowledgeable than I am. I don’t mean to suggest that the bad webinars I’ve taken part in are full of people who are less knowledgeable than me; perhaps they are very knowledgeable but don’t know how to convey that knowledge to other people – that is, they aren’t teachers. Some people are competitive and might not like to share what they think ‘belongs’ to them. These people aren’t the best webinar buddies. Some people may simply be misplaced in a particular classroom session. Consider the classmate who, during an A level English literature class on WWI poetry, puts up their hand to ask the teacher whether Germany had ‘won’. Now ask yourself the question: how much learning would take place if everyone in the class was equally as knowledgeable about WWI history as this particular student?

What does this mean for virtual learning in the workplace?

I think we can safely say that the quality of your virtual classroom experience will be heavily influenced by the people with whom you share it. So my top tip for any organisation that is thinking of venturing into virtual classroom training is this: don’t be afraid of artificial selection. I am sure that your company is full of people with extremely mixed skill sets. Imagine that you want to hold a webinar on how to comply with competition law. Why not make sure that each of your webinar groups has a couple of subject matter experts (who may or may not be the webinar instructor) and make sure that each webinar includes a representative cross section of your organisation? That way everyone can benefit from the knowledge of someone else. You might find that it improves the quality of your webinar (or any other group learning session) in leaps and bounds!

About the author

Moira Nicolson - Instructional designer and Project lead

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3 comments

stuart.box@burningsuit.co.uk'

It seems that you have confused Webinars with Virtual Classrooms, the first thing to state is that the two are not the same! To say that “if you’ve ever participated in a Webinar…you have already been initiated into the world of virtual learning” is flawed at best. You may as well say that if you’ve ever been to the Cinema or watched Television you’ve taken part in Virtual Learning, because that’s what Webinars are, a one-way flow of information to many participants, who can take (or usually leave) the information that is given out.

A true Virtual Classroom involves and engages its participants and is so much more than just a Powerpoint Presentation. A small group of 8 to 10 participants, using all the rich gamut of Virtual Classroom technology can really learn. Powepoint is only small part of it, participants should be using Audio and Video, text based chat, shared whiteboards, breakout rooms, virtual PC’s and many other techniques to share and collaborate.

What of the Instructor? We don’t bring staff together into training rooms and expect them to train themselves (at least, I hope we don’t). Peer to peer learning can occur, but without a Trainer/Facilitator/Coach/Instructor to direct the learning it is pointless.

Yes, the people who attend the “Virtual Classroom” can help you learn, but much more can be accomplised by a skilled Trainer. We need Trainers who are subject matter experts AND know how to deliver engaging, effective online learning. Oh, and we need to stop thinking that a Webinars are Training.

Moira Nicolson

Hi Stuart – a good point and thanks for your comment. I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that webinars are the sum total (or even the best) of what the virtual classroom can offer. As you say, webinars don’t exactly make use of one of the virtual classroom’s greatest assets – the potential for a two way flow between trainers and trainees.
I was just chatting about this to my colleague Stephanie the other day. She suggested that the level of interactivity involved in the virtual classroom lies along a spectrum (depending on the method of delivery and the number of participants?). So perhaps you’d place a webinar which involves taking users through a series of PowerPoint slides at one end of the spectrum and, just to use my example, a distance learning course such as those offered by the Open University at the other end (going from least to most interactive). A less interactive webinar might be very good training method for, say, a company that has a geographically dispersed sales force that needs to be informed about a new product but not very good for training those same staff members how to employ the soft skills required to be more effective sales people.
I am not sure that I agree that virtual classroom training is always pointless without a Trainer/Facilitator/Coach/Instructor. Depending on how experienced or knowledgeable the participants are about the training subject matter, I think that participants can gain a lot just from each other, especially if they are able to discuss content covered by an instructor during a classroom session in their own time ( in the breakout rooms for instance). In that sense, the virtual classroom is a great tool for encouraging the kind of informal learning that goes on between, say, colleagues who are sat next to each other at their desks but which might not otherwise be possible between staff who are based in different offices or countries. Also, I’m not sure what you think but sometimes I wonder whether some people feel more comfortable discussing things with their peers rather than with an instructor who they might feel intimidated by?