A couple of months ago, no one in K–12 education was talking about virtual classrooms.
While colleges and universities have used virtual classroom software for some time, many people in K-12 schools had probably never heard of them—I certainly didn't in my years as a high school teacher—let alone used them.
That’s largely because the vast majority of today’s primary and secondary students have always learned in brick-and-mortar buildings, in classrooms with desks and chairs. But that reality has quickly changed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
As an estimated 1.5 billion students worldwide—according to UNESCO, some 90% of the world’s learners—were forced to shift to remote learning, educators have been searching for tools to help students connect with their teachers digitally and keep their learning going as best they can.
Many came looking in an otherwise lesser-noticed category on G2 called Virtual Classroom software.
Traffic to G2’s Virtual Classroom category grew more than 1700% in the month of March compared to the previous month, putting it among the top “trending” categories on G2 since widespread closures went into effect. Those visits peaked the week of March 16—the same week that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and school closures accelerated across the United States.
For the millions of students and teachers who never had to consider distance learning before, the transition was abrupt. Many schools had little time to implement new software for distance learning. Long before remote learning started, there have been persistent equity issues around technology in education, as many students lack reliable internet connections or adequate devices, making distance learning impossible without additional resources and support for families that need it. Even if students have internet access and devices at home, they might have to share those resources with siblings or parents who are now working from home, making learning more difficult.
This crisis will change education, though exactly how isn’t yet clear. Given educators’ desire to learn more about what tools are out there, it’s worth exploring what virtual classroom products offer and how they might be useful given the unprecedented challenges facing educators today.
The roots of virtual classrooms
The idea of distance learning has been around since at least the 19th century, when schools in Britain pioneered correspondence programs that initially involved exchanging mail between students and instructors, and later broadcasting courses over radio or TV. The internet created new opportunities for remote learning, resulting in an explosion in the availability of online courses in the 1990s and 2000s. First offered through colleges and universities, online courses are now offered by a multitude of companies on subjects ranging from watercolor painting to Python programming.
In recent years, improvements in cloud-based video conferencing have enabled live learning experiences on a wider scale. The current pandemic has only accelerated that trend, as video conferencing apps makers saw record numbers of downloads in March, according to a report by App Annie.
Modern virtual classroom products have been aimed at users in a few specific markets, including corporations looking for a platform to deliver employee trainings.
In the education industry, college and university professors have used virtual classrooms to teach classes online, and online tutoring businesses might use them to meet with students virtually for language learning lessons or test preparation.
Adobe Connect for Tutoring
"What I liked best about using Adobe Connect for tutoring was the functionality of the tool. I was able to customize my workspace with handouts, resources, PowerPoint presentations, and links for BSN and MSN learners. I also used it for 1:1 tutoring sessions using my personalized link. Other features included a whiteboard, chatting, raising hands, screen sharing, and video recording. In sum, the software has a lot to offer."
Until the current pandemic, though, one huge segment of the education market had little need for virtual classroom software: K–12 schools. Classes for primary and secondary students were almost always held in a physical classroom. Now, there’s a clear need to recreate elements of that space digitally.
What is virtual classroom software and who uses it?
In the most basic sense, virtual classroom software allows instructors to create an online environment that replicates the features of a physical classroom.
These products provide live video streaming so that teachers can present lessons, hold group discussions, and facilitate collaboration among students. Virtual classrooms enable live or “synchronous” learning experiences, which is distinct from so-called “asynchronous learning” in online courses in which students watch prerecorded videos, can access materials at any time, and proceed through lessons at their own pace.
At a minimum, virtual classroom tools have video conferencing capabilities, so the learners can see their teacher during the lesson and vice versa. Indeed, many educators have used popular business-oriented video conferencing platforms—which include products like Zoom, Skype, Cisco’s Webex, and others—to connect with students.
As those platforms have become more feature-rich, including many features of virtual classrooms, the line between video conferencing and virtual classroom software has certainly blurred. Many video conferencing tools also market themselves as virtual classroom tools.
Nevertheless, there are a few other key education-centric features that distinguish many virtual classroom products from a more bare-bones video streaming platform, which educators should look out for when researching their options.
A slides presentation, while useful at times, can only accomplish so much in a lesson. Ditto for teachers sharing their computer screen to show students something. Digital whiteboards are an essential piece of virtual classrooms because they are often the best way for a teacher to demonstrate something: modeling how to solve a math equation, drawing cell structures, or creating a concept map. It’s a digital tweak on a very old way of teaching, but it makes sense to stick with a method that works.
Education-specific templates or content
To help instructors prepare more efficiently for lessons, some products come with prebuilt lesson templates or premade educational content that educators can choose from, sometimes including video and other multimedia. Having the lesson structure or lesson materials built into the platform allows teachers to save time in planning, either through using the premade materials as is or modifying them to meet their needs.
If students are interrupting each other, causing distractions, or otherwise disrupting a lesson, learning will suffer—whether they are in a physical classroom or a virtual one. Teachers also want to have control over how students are working together. Virtual classroom products enable teachers to manage their virtual space through functions like controlling students’ video and audio, enabling a raise-hand button for students, and creating breakout rooms for smaller groups of students.
Pitfalls of virtual classroom tools to be aware of
When using virtual classroom software, educators should be aware of some potential pitfalls.
At the top of the list are ensuring a virtual classroom platform has sufficient privacy and security controls for facilitating a safe learning environment.
Without taking some of those steps, a teacher’s lesson could, at a minimum, become chaotic as students talk over each other or present distractions to others. Worse, an intruder could bombard an unsecured virtual meeting with obscene material in a type of attack that has been termed “Zoombombing.”
Zoom in particular has rushed to address a strong backlash over security and privacy issues in its service that emerged as millions of new users flocked to its product and other tools that were originally designed for business use. New York City education officials banned Zoom from its schools over security concerns, which Zoom has promised to address.
Other limitations will be harder for today’s technology to overcome. When classes are taking place in person, it’s easier for both teachers and students to pick up on the dynamics of the room. Assessing students is more difficult: Are students understanding a concept, or are there confused stares on a number of faces? So is engagement: How can a teacher quickly evaluate who is paying attention, or whether an activity is boring the class? These questions can be harder to answer when experiencing a class through a computer screen.
It’s also worth reemphasizing the equity issues involved with a lack of technology access for huge numbers of students. Virtual classrooms are impossible without the right tools and connectivity. And besides the technical challenges, meeting the individualized needs of a diverse group of students, including those with individual education plans, or IEPs, is much more difficult to address in a virtual setting. Some actions required by IEPs, such as having teachers walk by to check on a student, virtual classroom software can’t do.
The promise of virtual learning
Despite those downsides, virtual classrooms and other remote learning tools—such as the free distance learning tools spotlighted by my colleague Deirdre O’Donoghue recently—offer great promise for K–12 education as well as higher education if implemented properly and equitably.
Consider a time when in-person classes have resumed but a student has to miss class because they are sick, couldn’t get transportation to school, or needed to care for a family member. Rather than missing that day’s lesson and inevitably falling behind, virtual classrooms could allow the student to view the lesson in real time and even participate in the class discussion.
A student who needs extra help from a teacher but has to hurry home right after school could set up a quick virtual chat, saving time for both parties.
Teachers and administrators should be encouraged to experiment with these tools now, to the extent they are able, especially since many companies are offering free versions of their software for schools affected by coronavirus.
Properly implementing these systems on a large scale in a way that serves every student equitably will take time to perfect. It will take the commitment of administrators and an institution’s IT department as well as teachers, parents, and students.
For now, teachers and students are doing their best. That’s enough.