Cutbacks are taking place across Europe in the area of higher education, and many institutions are looking to save money and create new markets. Suddenly distance learning looks much more attractive, and the focus has turned to virtual classrooms. So what are these virtual classrooms, and what can they do? Here at Warwick University, we have been testing a number of them.
What is a Virtual Classroom?
There is an array of virtual classrooms (VCs) available, but Wimba, WebEx, Adobe Connect and Elluminate are probably the most popular. They all more or less work the same way. You click to open a “room”, and you are given a web address to send to all the participants who want to follow your presentation. The participants visit the web address and enter a virtual room with lots of windows, including a main window where the actual presentation takes place, a window with a list of participants, one for chatting with other participants, and another for viewing the webcam of the presenter.
How can we communicate in a VC?
All of these systems include sound, but in most cases it is only the presenter who can talk to the participants. If the participants want to talk, they have to request permission from the presenter, who can pass sound control over to the participant. As a result, there is a fair degree of interaction; in addition to talking, participants can also use the chat window to ask questions and make comments. If you have only a few participants in a virtual classroom, then you can allow them all to speak freely. Once you have more than about 5 participants, however, it is not really possible to let everyone speak freely, and the presenter has to control who is speaking at a particular time.
Most people are disappointed when they realise that they can’t see everyone in a virtual classroom. If you have a large number of people participating in a talk, then it is not possible to have them all using their webcams, as it slows down and affects the quality of the whole experience. So it is usually only the presenter who has his or her webcam on. In smaller groups it is possible for all participants to use their webcams, but in reality all you can see are peoples’ heads. Generally speaking, this is not very useful. Again – if you have too many webcams online, it begins to affect the whole experience.
What can you present in a VC?
The presenter can open up documents, pictures, videos, etc. for all participants to view. Participants can listen and watch as the presenter talks them through the presentation. The presenter can also use special tools like a pen or highlighter to mark things on the presentation, and this can help to make presenting documents quite powerful. Some systems even allow the participants to mark and write on the presentations, adding an additional layer of interactivity.
Nearly all the systems have interactive whiteboards where the presenter can write things. It is usually possible for the participants to also write on the interactive whiteboard, thus creating an environment of collaboration. With big groups you need to think about control, as you can’t allow everyone to simultaneously write on a whiteboard.
What special features do VCs have?
Perhaps the most surprising feature of these tools is that the presenter is also able to show his or her computer desktop to participants. For example, if I wanted to demonstrate a piece of software that I have on my computer, I can share my desktop so that everyone can see my computer screen and watch me as I do something on my computer. This feature can be very powerful, and participants are often surprised when they see the presenter’s computer screen. What is even more amazing is that some systems allow the presenter to pass control of his computer to the participants. In other words, I could demonstrate a piece of software on my computer, pass control to one of the participants and then allow him or her to control my computer and use the same piece of software. It is quite strange to sit in front of your computer and watch as someone takes control of your cursor from hundreds of kilometres away.
There are additional tools that vary depending on the system you use. Some allow for polls to be created and for the participants to vote on certain things. The results are immediately posted onto the screen. Other systems also allow for “breakout rooms” where the participants can work in smaller groups. The basic tools, though, are more or less the same.
Do VCs really have a future?
So does the VC mean that teachers are going to lose their jobs? Well, no. First of all, you still need a teacher to run the session. In fact, VCs might end up creating more work, especially because it is now possible to reach audiences that were impossible to reach just a few years ago. I really think that these tools are going to change a lot of things. While they still have their problems and are not always easy to use, they do offer loads of potential for language teaching. Especially in small groups, there is so much potential for interaction. What I have realised, though, is that you need lots of time using the tool to really understand the “context” and to make use of all its features. The teachers who learn to use these tools could find themselves presented with some very interesting opportunities in the next couple of years.
About the Author
Russell Stannard is a Principal Teaching Fellow at the University of Warwick, where he runs the technology specialization for the MA in ELT program. His website, www.teachertrainingvideos.com, provides free screen casts to teachers who wish to use technology in their classes. Accessed by thousands of educators, the site has won several big awards, including the British Council ELTons Award for “Innovation” and the Times Higher Award for “Outstanding Initiative in ICT”.