Identifying and Addressing Obstacles to Success in a Virtual Classroom Environment
Imagine you are teaching a class in a traditional physical classroom when you notice that some students are standing in the hallway while other students are looking out of the window and some students are playing games on their tablets and phones. At the very least, you would assume that you did not have their full attention, and that they were very likely not learning the material.
The task of teaching on the web presents additional obstacles that are not present in a physical classroom environment.
- Are all of the students able to enter the virtual classroom in a timely manner?
- Are my students distracted by their mobile devices?
- Are my students watching and listening to what I want them to see and hear?
These are all questions that may be easily answered by glancing around the physical classroom but not so easily answered by instructors using most Virtual Classroom products. An additional challenge in the virtual training area is what I refer to as the “web attention span”. I think intuitively you know what I am referring to: web attention span is the span of time where you can generally expect most individuals to pay attention to some web based content or activity. As there is abundant research and statistics available on this topic, I will conserve a little more of your web attention span by letting you type “average attention span” into your favorite search engine (after class).
This problem can be summed up as the average human attention span + distractions = a difficult task for virtual trainers.
Maximizing Your Limited Time
So, knowing that we have a limited time to make an impact (I think you knew that all along) how can you tip the scales in favor of a meaningful and productive virtual class?
Let’s start with a very straight-forward idea that will help maximize the time allotted for the class, starting on time. If you have a class scheduled for 10am and your last student is not able to all get into the virtual classroom until 10:20am you have lost a great deal of valuable class time, and wasted valuable attention span. A great way to test the ease of entry for any Virtual Classroom product is to start with a computer which has never accessed the vendor’s virtual classroom, and attempt to enter as a guest. Simply click the link sent to you in an invite and start counting the seconds/minutes/hours. This exercise will give you insight into the amount of time students will spend troubleshooting as opposed to learning.
Knowing Your Audience
When all of the students are present in the Virtual Classroom what can you do to encourage and verify that your students are paying attention? There are several studies that have shown that people behave differently if they believe they are being watched but how do you balance the requirements of the class without making your students paranoid? There are several approaches some more and some less effective. One approach to this problem that you might have seen is monitoring for an active window, where the virtual classroom has the ability to tell when a student’s virtual classroom application window is the active application on their computer. The major drawback of this approach is very simply, mobile devices. A student could have the virtual classroom application as the active application while playing a game on their mobile device. In addition, I would also point out that an active window does not mean the student is participating in class activities or even passively watching and listening to the instructor. In my own experience the most important measure of attention is activity. In other words, is the student participating; are they responding to polls, asking questions, using the whiteboard? If you can measure activity you can at least be sure, given there are activities, that the student is making an effort to pay remain engaged.
Creating Predictable Student Experiences
Another fundamental goal of a successful virtual training session is a predictable, consistent student experience. Imagine that you are the instructor for a class in a physical classroom. If you notice that some students are watching and listening to you while others are chatting amongst themselves or writing on the chalk board at the back of the class you would take some action to recapture the class’s attention before continuing. Without the ability to monitor and assess the student experience, a virtual classroom instructor cannot assume they are having the desired impact. Many virtual environments suffer from an inability for the instructor to control and mandate an experience for their students. Some products even allow a student to create a poll, share their screen, draw on a whiteboard or even upload content without the instructor’s permission. Given the limited time an instructor has to make an impact any disruption or deviation from the plan equals a distraction.
No Need to Reinvent the Wheel
In the physical world you take for granted certain experiences such as the location, appearance and content of familiar buildings and rooms. As a teacher in a physical classroom, you would expect to see the contents and arrangement of your classroom in the same state that you left it after the previous class. In the virtual environment, that is often not the case. With most current Virtual Classroom products, you have to create a room for every session. Imagine the need to waste precious time by arriving early to your physical classroom every single morning so that you can ensure that you have a desk and chair, not to mention a blackboard with the previous day’s notes! The ideal solution would be to have the virtual classroom environment mimic, as closely as possible, a physical classroom. The instructor should be able to have confidence in the state of their virtual classroom in the exact way that they have confidence in the state of a physical classroom.
Some of the challenges related to a successful virtual classroom experience are time, attention and awareness. The time it takes to meet the training objective without losing your audience. The student’s attention to the material, and the instructor’s awareness of the student experience and activity.
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