It seems that in just a few months, anyone interested in or having to do with education is trying to understand the differences between distance learning, online learning, blended learning, flipped learning, virtual learning…you get the idea. Many of these terms have been used interchangeably with similar descriptions, but there are differences. For example, what’s the difference between a virtual learning environment and a virtual classroom? Then, once a difference has been identified…so what?
First, let’s understand the difference. A virtual learning environment (VLE) includes the application, platform, or website where course content, materials and resources, assessments and tests, etc. are “housed” and accessed. In a VLE, there is also a structure that may include course creation and data reporting. There can be options for both asynchronous learning, or learning without real-time interaction, and synchronous learning which happens in real-time. For example, MimioConnect® is a new blended learning platform that allows educators to facilitate instruction in the classroom with students or assign coursework for self-paced learning. This platform also has a structure for viewing and reporting data so that instruction can be customized as students’ needs change.
In a virtual classroom, the teacher and students are logged into a VLE where they can engage in real-time on a lesson or activity. In the last part of this school year, most teachers and students interacted via a virtual classroom which is as close as they could get to the traditional face-to-face experience of a physical classroom. Depending on the VLE, students could still “raise their hands” to participate in discussions and ask questions, teachers could randomly select students to answer questions posed, and both teacher and student could “talk” using a chat feature. Now it’s time for the so what.
Besides the challenge of ensuring that all students had access to lessons online, conducting a live presentation required a slightly altered view of fostering and maintaining the class culture. In a physical classroom, a teacher could more easily observe how students engaged, guide discussions so that respect was shown and felt, and intervene if/when students were distracted and lacked focus. In a virtual classroom, these interactions are not easily observed and more likely than not, 100% attendance in a virtual lesson is rare. This calls for the teacher to take more time setting up guidelines and agreements for virtual class sessions. For example, establishing fixed virtual days and times for lessons and teacher expectations for students when they log in such as active participation, being prepared to answer polling questions, and completing an exit ticket at the end of each session on what was learned. Students would also agree to ask questions when they were confused about a new concept or skill, respect others’ viewpoints in class or small group discussions (using breakout rooms), and complete assigned tasks within a set time period.
Even with the seeming difficulties of conducting lessons in a virtual classroom, there are positive outcomes:
- Greater interactivity especially if the VLE has tools that increase the likelihood of contributing to a learning session. The teacher would create frequent opportunities for interaction and participation such as brainstorming ideas, allow small group discussions, and pose questions on-the-fly using a polling feature/tool.
- Increased collaborative learning so that students are able to learn how others learn and respond to different ideas and understandings. Again, setting guidelines will help everyone listen and comment respectfully so that each learner can build their confidence about their capabilities. This also strengthens trust within the class and students look forward to virtual learning sessions.
- Content can be more creative and respond more fully to the different needs of the learners in a class. The variety of materials and resources that can be included in a virtual class session can include audio, images, websites, videos, and more. When content is varied and can meet a range of student learning needs, attention and interest is increased.
As we all enter into a “break” from distance education for this school year, planning how our classrooms will operate in the next school year becomes a larger focus. Understanding the options available, blended models commonly used, and the differences between how learning can be done is important. It is possible that physical classrooms slowly become a part-time reality and virtual classrooms the norm.