Can a virtual classroom really be as engaging as a physical one? Mark Rogers, president and CEO of WestLake Training and Development, thinks so.
He believes that, holistically, the virtual and physical classroom provide the same learning experience, where instructors provide the knowledge and demonstrate the concepts, then students practice the application of that knowledge.
“The only difference is you don’t have to travel to a virtual classroom,” he explained. “We’re able to replicate all other functionality of the physical classroom in a virtual environment. The experience is indistinguishable. And so, the practical knowledge that a student gains in a physical classroom is the same that they would gain in a virtual classroom.”
Teaching in this virtual environment, however, differs from teaching within the four walls of a physical classroom. The onus on the trainer to engage the students is even greater and more important in the virtual classroom than the physical one.
“We have internal best practices for our instructors in teaching via the virtual classroom, which include asking a lot more questions, polling your students and soliciting their feedback more so than you would in a traditional classroom,” Rogers said. “[In a virtual classroom], the instructor doesn’t have the luxury of being able to look the student in the eye and determine whether he or she understands the content. You’ve got to draw that information out of the student, and you do that through involving them in the class, so it becomes highly interactive.”
WestLake Training and Development also employs tools such as breakout rooms, white boarding and hands-on labs in the virtual classroom, which increase the level of interactivity, an integral aspect of the virtual world.
“We believe in student participation in our classes,” Rogers said. “The virtual classroom lends itself to that style of teaching. If we were to just deliver a lecture, then it may not be the best way to impart that knowledge because you’re asking the student to just passively observe information. By soliciting interaction and asking for participation, you’re involving the student, which is important, particularly if they are working by themselves in a remote situation.”
WestLake uses Saba Centra as the platform for its virtual classrooms. For audio, the organization uses standard conference calling instead of VoIP, which helps create the same dynamic as a physical classroom.
“We believe that it is more spontaneous for a group of students to participate via conference calling than it is to actually pass the microphone around, which is required for any kind of voice over IP audio interactivity,” Rogers explained.
Instructor-led training, physical or virtual, is more effective than a training program that is based entirely on self-paced, Web-based programs, according to Rogers.
“Most students find that instructor-led training is more dynamic and results in a quicker understanding of the technology, as opposed to relying on [a] static tutorial or Web-based asynchronous module,” he said. “There’s no denying the cost-efficiencies of self-paced, Web-based training. [But] don’t just go [that route] because it’s cheaper in the long run. Students prefer instructor led, and they get more out of instructor led.”