Any instructor stepping into a virtual classroom for the first time will feel overwhelmed. Unlike the ordered linear structure of a face-to-face environment, it’s … literally … virtual chaos. There’s too much going on: instant messages (or other social media), real time polls and quizzes, raised hands, breakout sessions and … on top of all of this … the inevitable ongoing technical issues ranging from uncooperative firewalls to recalcitrant headsets. Using the full potential of a virtual classroom pushes the limits of even the most technically adept instructor. Here’s a framework for creating a successful synchronous virtual learning space.
Lose the sage on the stage
A properly designed synchronous learning environment can provide a deeper, more engaging and more productive collaborative learning experience than a traditional face-to-face classroom. This is because a well-constructed virtual classroom permits more interactivity and more engagement than a traditional face-to-face environment. Each one of the virtual classroom components mentioned above is designed to enhance student engagement … and some even improve on their face-to-face counterparts.
The traditional “webinar” format for synchronous meetings ignores the real strength of the technology. Maximize that strength by moving from the “sage on stage” approach to the “guide on the side” model. In thinking about synchronous sessions include liberal doses of collaborative learning. Think seminar rather than lecture.
Leverage the technology
Three factors drive the success of your online course: content, technology and pedagogy. In planning your course explore the ways in which each factor influences the others. Be creative. Use the strengths of the technology to envision new ways to share and explore your content. Use video, audio, breakout rooms and report outs, graphics, whiteboards, polls, etc. Allow these tools to influence not only the content you share, but also the ways in which you build student understanding.
Early motion pictures were often live plays filmed with a stationary camera. Early filmmakers were constrained a set of stage production assumptions that had been superseded by the new technology. Don’t fall into the same trap. Virtual classroom technology creates new possibilities for learning and engagement. Don’t be constrained by the limitations of a face-to-face classroom.
Plan, practice, and review. Then do it again.
Think of a virtual class session as a production. There may be a few people who can pull off an unplanned and unrehearsed production, but not many. Plan your session in advance, practice and see how it goes. Make changes and repeat the process.
Think of each virtual session as a well-planned “container” for a variety of activities. Ideally, some of those activities will be interactive or even student-driven, which add a refreshing element of “controlled chaos.” But without planning and practice, that chaos is likely to be uncontrolled.
Vary the format
In a face-to-face classroom movement and body language help keep students engaged. In a virtual classroom engagement is more cerebral. Vary the format of the session.
Rotate through different types of of activities types to keep participants interested and involved. Use PowerPoint judiciously -- as one among many tools for learning. Avoid text-heavy slides. Use graphics and even video to engage your audience.
Promote frequent interaction
Interaction with students is another key to web meeting engagement … and success. Don’t go more than 8 minutes without offering an opportunity for interaction. This could be a request for feedback on a point under discussion, a quick yes/no poll, a more elaborate query about the current topic, a request for students to share their interpretations or experiences, a review of chat posts, or a student or group led activity. Ask a provocative question to frame a video clip and let participants know they’ll be expected to share their answers. Do a quick virtual breakout on an assigned question and compare group results when you reconvene. Design your sessions to maximize student participation and responsibility. Make the most of the technology.
Chunk your session
Keeps things moving. Sitting in front of a computer screen for a long period of time is taxing. Shift activities every 15 minutes. Build on previous activities. Rather than lecturing for an hour, a brief 15 minute presentation could be followed with a 15 minute breakout session in which students explore specific questions in small groups in more depth. After reconvening a spokesperson for each group might summarize the group’s findings and lead a brief discussion among the whole class.
If your session lasts more than an hour, consider inserting a brief 5-minute “ear break” so participants can remove their headphones and stretch.
Don’t fly solo!
Consider conducting your virtual sessions with the assistance of a “producer” or a “VCA” (virtual classroom associate). This is a best practice in the corporate training world.
Among other things a producer is a technically adept co-pilot, familiar with the virtual classroom landscape, who functions both as a technology mentor and a real time session facilitator. The producer works at the intersection of technical and pedagogical knowledge. In partnership with a producer, the instructor develops technology mastery at his or her own speed, to his or her desired level with a safety net always in place. A producer allows the instructor to focus, with minimal distraction, on whatever he or she deems most valuable to the learning experience. And in doing so the producer brings order to the potential chaos of the virtual classroom and helps the instructor realize all the benefits of this rich interactive learning environment.
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