The virtual classroom comes of age

Virtual classrooms aren't just for distance education; they're game changers for in-class interaction and out-of-class extended learning.

When the Adobe Education team demoed their Connect 8 online meeting software, I was, to put it mildly, impressed. A great business application also happened to be an awesome educational tool. Then, the folks at WizIQ gave me a demo the other day of their own virtual classroom software which shared many of the useful features in Connect but was highly competitive in terms of price and was specifically designed around the idea of classroom. I'll be taking them head-to-head very soon, but suffice to say, both have some incredibly compelling use cases. However, until you actually see how they can change the student experience, it's hard to appreciate just how powerful these tools really are.

A former student sent me a message tonight asking for help with her college physics homework. We bounced back and forth via IM with me sending her hints, key formulas, and answers to specific questions while she and a friend worked together in her dorm room on the homework. It was helpful, but this was physics. There are few subjects in this world that beg for diagrams and a whiteboard more than physics.

So I suggested that I set up a virtual class and we work through some more problems together online. I tried to be cavalier about the whole thing - this was, after all, a former student. Truth be told, I'd only used WizIQ and Connect in very controlled settings to just learn the basic functionality and really begin envisioning how I could use them in the classroom since, outside of the distance education realm (particularly in graduate education), they're relatively uncommon in mainstream educational settings.

No time like the present, though, right? So I quickly scheduled an impromptu class in WizIQ, fired off the invitation, and, one Flash update on her computer later, we could see and hear each other, IM, and interact on a shared whiteboard. The whole process took 10 minutes, but would have been 5 without the Flash update and some initial confusion over how to enable their audio and video.

Next: A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a shared whiteboard is at least a novella »

As it turns out, some technical difficulties interfered with audio and video, and yet the class session remained at least as effective as me sitting with them offering 1:1 tutoring. The whole methodology is simply that compelling, regardless of vendor, specific tools, or glitches.

In our case, there was an incredible amount of static that probably could have been solved by a headset on their end and a better mic on mine. There was also significant lag between my video and audio, making it very distracting for me to speak. WizIQ is looking into this, but I think the problem was actually with their firewall filtering and examining inbound traffic. Again, though, the model was flexible enough that I could compensate.

As they talked through the problem, I drew diagrams, using the whiteboarding tools built into WizIQ to draw attention to areas I knew they weren't understanding. I posted leading questions on the whiteboard and wrote out formulas with arrows and visual cues to associate the math with the pictures. Everything I wrote or messaged to them was driven by their own discussions or questions and because they were on a webcam, I could see their facial expressions and understand their needs just as I could in a classroom.

Add to that the ability to record our session so they could refer to it later and my ability to act as an electronic shepherd, guiding them through the problems and demonstrating problem-solving methodologies and in 20 minutes they understood what days of in-class lecture hadn't managed to get across.

We didn't do anything radical, revolutionary, or wildly difficult. We just used a sophisticated tool to interact and work through a lesson. There was virtually no prep time; students had a need, I had the technology (and a pretty good grasp of Newtonian physics). This technology is essential to distance education, of course, but it's an absolute windfall for the classroom teacher who wants to hold nighttime office hours or provide tutoring and homework help. There's no need to wait to get feedback the next day or week in class. Virtual classroom technologies enable help at times that are convenient for students and teachers and ensure that learning doesn't have to end at 2:30 when the final bell rings.

Want to talk transformative? Try building a series of whiteboards and video recordings remotely and in real time based on everything from direct student questions to student discussions and facial expressions that are actually easier to observe on a webcam than in a crowded classroom. This is not just technology for technology's sake. The virtual classroom, in its modern and flexible form, is truly a game changer for educators and students.