Online learning has captured the imagination of leaders in the education industry — and for a good reason. The use of virtual classroom or related technologies can reduce costs, improve accessibility and help drive superior educational outcomes.
Given these benefits, finding the right delivery system for online learning is a core challenge for businesses and schools seeking these benefits. Given the cost constraints that many teachers and administrators must work within, the use of inexpensive Web-based tools may seem like the best option. This approach doesn’t deliver the full range of advantages available from more sophisticated online learning platforms.
To help you make an informed choice, let’s take a closer look at the relative merits of two of the most popular options: Virtual classrooms and standalone video conferencing software.
Virtual classrooms explained
Virtual classrooms are sophisticated simulations of real classrooms; the material is delivered online, and teachers and students can communicate and collaborate through tools such as chat, video, audio, whiteboards and file sharing. Whiteboards, in particular, are the main element of a virtual classroom, as they replicate a physical classroom environment online. Modern virtual classrooms offer the use of a variety of digital tools used to facilitate collaboration and instruction and are specifically designed for pedagogy. The use of in-class polling, case studies, class discussions and other educational staples of the traditional classroom model are all supported — and often made easier — by virtual classrooms.
Additionally, a full-featured virtual classroom includes access to a shared whiteboard, visual and voice contact, the ability to communicate in real time, tools for gauging student progress and even the ability to determine when student engagement is flagging, due to confusion or boredom.
Web conferencing explained
While Web conferencing software shares some similarities with a virtual classroom, there is a fundamental distinction: Web conferencing is a narrower concept and has been designed specifically for video calling and business meetings and discussions online. It lacks the full range of features associated with virtual classrooms, such as whiteboards, polling, real-time annotation and video playing during the class. It also offers tools such as file sharing, surveys, and chats but if users desire the use of a whiteboard, they would need to install a third-party plugin — something that can result in additional headaches for those who are not well-versed in the technology.
While Web conferencing, by design, doesn’t have the full array of features as more sophisticated platforms, it does offer benefits to the user. By enabling online teaching and meetings, Web conferencing can improve efficiency and productivity while lowering costs.
How virtual classrooms and Web conferencing stack up
We’ve noted how virtual classrooms and web conferencing platforms confer many of the same advantages on users (productivity, cost, etc.). While these online teaching systems do share some core benefits, they also differ in some critical respects.
First, Web conferencing lacks the functionality to offer a truly robust teaching experience. Whiteboards, the ability to do classroom polling and real-time annotation and other key tools found in virtual classrooms are all unavailable. This is largely because Web conferencing had its genesis in business communication, rather than pedagogy. In other words, Web conferencing is first and foremost a tool for business, rather than business and education.
Online Web conferencing learners may not have access to tools such as emoticon feedback (to gauge moods), hand-raising in the event of a question or problem or breakout sessions for further collaboration. These and other tools are typically not available with Web conferencing software.
Performance and consistency
Stability and access are also key issues. When learning over the Internet — particularly in an audio and video-rich environment — access to a strong, reliable connection is extremely important. Without a stable connection, participants can miss out on vitally important information, or grow frustrated or disengaged as the result of technical problems. Web conferencing software is not optimized for load balancing when a large number of people join the same session, for example. This can result in performance problems for users. Such technical hurdles are especially troublesome for learners, who may feel lost and demoralized if the instruction is moving forward without them.
Virtual classrooms mirror physical classrooms, in that hundreds of students from around the world can join a session. Web conferencing, on the other hand, has a limit: Only a few people can video conference at a time. Cloud-based software platforms are designed to handle peak loads or more users than expected, offering a seamless experience to one and all. Students also have built-in communication options for students who need to reach instructors post-lesson.
Web-conferencing – one aspect of a full-featured Virtual Classroom
You should also note that advanced virtual classroom platforms have built-in Web conferencing capabilities — though that is just one functionality of a platform that is far more powerful and full-featured. Because of this, schools or businesses that invest in virtual classrooms receive the full power of Web conferencing software, with the added functionality of a virtual classroom layered in. This makes the virtual classroom a more comprehensive option and one that’s capable of growing along with an organization’s evolving needs.
Content storage and access
Ultimately, online classroom platforms possess learning tools that most Web conferencing platforms simply lack. For this reason, a virtual classroom is a superior choice where education is the key objective. Virtual classrooms allow teachers to upload learning material to the cloud before the session. This content is accessible by teachers and students during and after the class. Once again, Web conferencing software doesn’t offer this key functionality.
Virtual classrooms also offer more refined tools for promoting collaboration, handling complex material and working when and where students need instruction.
While virtual classrooms and Web-conferencing software both offer advantages for businesses and schools, there is a clear winner regarding online teaching. The added, education-specific features included in a virtual classroom platform make the learning experience more engaging and accessible for most students. These tools also help instructors maintain a better grasp on how their students are feeling and progressing. Additionally, the flexibility to review material at a later time is a key benefit for learners.
Web conferencing — while very useful — is better suited for certain business contexts.
If you’re considering one of these options, please weigh these considerations carefully before making an informed decision.
Shivani is Content Manager at WizIQ – an EdTech company that offers online learning delivery platform to businesses and educators. She writes about eLearning, education technology and the role of cloud in education. Follow WizIQ on Twitter and LinkedIn.