Prior to 2020, you may have dabbled in digital teaching, using tools like apps or textbooks. But thanks to COVID-19, you’ve likely had to adopt an entire virtual classroom strategy. In spring 2020, schools around the world shuttered their physical doors and opened virtual ones in an effort to help students finish their studies. Educators and students alike had to adapt—at breakneck speed.

As many discovered in their rush to move online, adding ‘virtual’ in front of the word ‘classroom’ isn’t the only difference between a traditional classroom and a digital one. What works well in one environment may not work well in the other, but everyone needed to figure this out on the fly.

You still want your virtual classes to be engaging, but you don’t want to spend every waking hour trying to manage this new digital environment. In fact, only nine percent of academics prefer to teach “in a completely online environment,” according to a 2017 Educause survey.

In virtual classrooms, instructors may worry they’ll have no control over their students or the learning environment. There might be (or, rather, there will be) technical glitches. But virtual classrooms have benefits, too—not the least of which is the ability to continue learning during a global pandemic.

That’s why we’ve put together the ultimate guide to help you set up a virtual classroom—not only to meet your curricular requirements, but to encourage student interaction and participation at a time when it’s needed most. These are skills you can use now and in the future when we return to the ‘new’ normal.

What is a virtual classroom?

Many instructors have experimented with online teaching, such as educational apps, digital textbooks or even flipped classrooms. But the coronavirus forced colleges and universities to adopt virtual classes in a matter of weeks—and that left many educators and their students feeling overwhelmed.

Thankfully, most educational institutions already offer online courses and have at least some of the more important tools in place, so you won’t have to reinvent the wheel. Regardless, adapting your existing lesson plans and teaching methodologies to the virtual classroom isn’t something you can do overnight.

To start, you’ll need an online video service or content delivery network (CDN) to host your virtual classroom, so students can view your lectures. Many post-secondary institutions have a learning management system (LMS) that offers at least some of the features you will need. But that in and of itself may not be enough to deliver a high-quality and engaging learning experience for students.

For students to succeed in distance learning, they need to log into a secure portal to attend class, either with live streamed audio or video. With the right tools, they can still ask questions, access assignments and lecture recordings, join student discussions, receive feedback, take part in polls and quizzes and even write exams.

Like live classes, a virtual classroom allows students to interact with the instructor and with each other. While there may be a technical learning curve for everyone involved, it’s important to remember that a virtual classroom is still, ultimately, a classroom. The goal is the same: to engage students and develop subject matter knowledge.

The reality is that when used effectively, virtual classrooms can actually boost student success. Students are able to access course content from anywhere in the world. Self-paced virtual classrooms allow them to structure their day accordingly based on competing responsibilities. Just as important, well set up virtual classrooms feed into student success by allowing learners to remain connected before and after class time. Students can communicate with one another informally before class starts, and after class, they may use ed tech to complete group work.

Community and collaboration were greatly missed when learning went remote in spring 2020. Top Hat’s survey of 3,000+ postsecondary students highlights their uncertainty around online learning. View the survey here.

How do virtual classroom platforms work?

First, you need to set up your virtual classroom—instead of brick and mortar, you’ll be using software and hardware. Advances in e-learning platforms will make this easier, but for those not comfortable with technology (or not comfortable in front of a camera), take baby steps as you build up your comfort level.

If you’re not already using one, check if your educational institution has a learning management system that hosts video lectures, online chats and assignment feedback (most likely not all of these features will be supported by your LMS). In some cases, you may have to look at other options to go beyond the confines of an LMS.

You can then stream your virtual classes over a content delivery network. It’s also possible to stream them over social media, such as Facebook Live, but a platform tailored specifically for higher education gives you the ability to structure virtual classes and assess learning.

For example, some platforms will let you take attendance and monitor viewer numbers and engagement, which is particularly important in virtual classrooms—so you know if students left the stream before it ended. Some ed tech platforms offer in-app attendance, where students can input a unique pin code generated at the start of class. In other virtual classrooms built on ed tech software, attendance will be automatically taken as students arrive. You may also want to consider making your lectures available for students to view on their own time, which requires video-on-demand, or VOD, capabilities.

Keep in mind, your live stream is replacing an in-person lecture, so quality should be the same—not just the content, but the streaming of that content. Grainy video that cuts in and out isn’t just frustrating for students, it makes it hard to maintain focus regardless of the quality of the material.

Indeed, according to a recent Top Hat survey, most students haven’t enjoyed the remote learning experience they’ve had so far: 68 percent of students feel online instruction has been worse than in-person instruction, 28 percent have experienced difficulty navigating or using online learning tools and 22 percent have experienced difficulty accessing online learning materials.

Universities use virtual classrooms with interactive tools to reach remote students. For instance, discussions and dynamic polls can replicate the feel of a traditional classroom. Students can collaborate with classmates and still have access to lectures, course readings and assessments in one spot.

How to set up a virtual classroom

Carefully consider the tools and platforms that you will use. Your virtual classroom will allow for online or e-learning to occur either live or at students’ own pace. Coursework, on the other hand, will be completed online via a learning management system (LMS) or an ed tech platform.

Clearly there’s room for improvement in the rush to move entire institutions of postsecondary learning online. When it comes to creating an engaging online classroom experience, it’s worth using a high-quality webcam and microphone; a tripod is a definite asset for professional-looking video. Make sure, too, that you have proper lighting and preferably a simple background.

If you’re using an external video camera, you’ll need an encoder to create a compressed version of that video so it can be streamed without buffering. Some students may not have a strong Internet connection at home, and without compressed video, their virtual classroom experience may be a grainy one. You can use either a hardware encoder or encoding software; some software is freely available such as the open-source OBS Studio for Windows, Mac or Linux.

There isn’t, however, a one-size-fits-all configuration for your classroom. Technophobes can start with the easiest configuration and build from there; technophiles might want to jump ahead to more advanced configurations. One of the easiest configurations is an online slideshow with live audio commentary (but no video). This might be an option if you’re trying to get something up quickly and don’t have a lot of technical expertise—you just need a computer and microphone. However, audio-only classes can be far less engaging for students.

You could also offer pre-recorded video lectures (easily accessible video hosting solutions include YouTube, Loom and Vimeo), which students can access on-demand. Or, you can step it up a notch with real-time live classes.

Live streaming requires a high-quality webcam or video camera so students can see you clearly; opt for a clip-on microphone for the best sound quality. Some virtual classroom solutions let you live stream a lecture while simultaneously running instant messaging or discussion boards so students can ask questions in real time, just like in a live classroom.

For those with more technical expertise (and more equipment), it’s possible to set up multiple cameras and use switching features, such as a ‘split screen’ or ‘picture within a picture.’ This is particularly handy for switching to close-ups of a lab experiment or mathematical equations on a whiteboard.

While content is king, it’s hard to capture students’ attention with low quality video—no matter how good the lecture. The right hardware and configuration can complement your content, rather than distract from it.

There’s also the matter of synchronous versus asynchronous learning to consider. Synchronous learning allows students to communicate in real time with each other and their instructor through instant messaging, video chat and web conferencing—and get instant feedback. Asynchronous learning, on the other hand, delivers course content online for self-paced learning, but without real-time interaction; communication is done via email or message boards. Typically, students can watch pre-recorded lectures and complete tasks when it suits their schedule. Both can be useful depending on the context (and for hybrid learning models).

Virtual reality (VR) is another tech-savvy option for engaging remote students. For instance, instructors may employ VR to facilitate a field trip to Mars, or for STEM students who want to take a look inside the human brain. After implementing virtual reality into their classrooms, educators found it helped students visualize complex topics such as historical wars and astronomy topics. VR also allowed students to access an engaging learning experience from anywhere. Some educators use VR to let students create their own avatars, for notetaking purposes and to gamify the classroom. VR can also ease educators’ workload by letting students explore an online environment and communicate and collaborate amongst themselves.

How to adjust lesson plans for a virtual classroom

You already have lesson plans, and you may have spent months or years tweaking them so they’re just right. Now, everything is online—and that requires more tweaking. Virtual classroom software, however, can help ease this transition.

If you’re accustomed to using a whiteboard in your courses, you can still use one in your virtual classes. But you’ll have to make sure the entire whiteboard is visible in your camera’s view. If you don’t have access to a whiteboard, then you may need a new way to convey your notes, such as screen-sharing, online whiteboarding or slideshow presentations.

But your lessons will still be built around lectures, as well as assignments, papers, projects, quizzes and exams. Just because you’ve moved into a virtual environment doesn’t mean you can’t still lead group discussions or assign group projects. In fact, it’s a great way to increase student engagement (and boost morale among those who may be feeling isolated).

Physical classrooms provide structure. It’s important to try to recreate that sense of structure in a virtual setting. Communicate your goals for the course, possibly with a week-by-week schedule of topics to be covered (and what’s expected of students). Topics can be broken out into online modules, with tools for discussions, assignments and quizzes, providing that much-needed sense of structure.

How to engage students in virtual classes

By far, one of the biggest challenges instructors face in an online learning environment is student engagement. How do you keep students from drifting off when they’re staring at a screen for an entire class? How do you personalize learning in what can seem like such an impersonal environment? Just as important, how do you form an online learning community?

The aforementioned Top Hat survey found that 75 percent of students believe online instruction is worse than in-person instruction and 39 percent don’t enjoy or see value in real-time synchronous online learning. Perhaps most alarming, it’s affecting their study habits: more than 50 percent are spending less time on their coursework as a result.

So what can educators do about this? The survey found that students want more face-to-face interactions with their instructors (such as virtual office hours), more learning materials (such as notes, slides and recorded lectures), faster response times and more time for exams.

Let’s face it: educators didn’t have much time to respond when universities and colleges shuttered their doors to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They had to suddenly switch gears in the middle of the semester. And it’s still a work in progress.

But it’s possible to make virtual classes both instructional and engaging with features such as screen-sharing and real-time chat. Discussion questions, live polling and using multimedia in presentations offer numerous opportunities to encourage student comprehension and engagement. Don’t forget that students can use these same tools to create their own presentations, which could be shared with the instructor or the class—a surefire way to engage students.

In fact, a virtual classroom can be particularly helpful for shy students who aren’t likely to raise their hand in a live classroom. But it may take time to adjust. Every instructor will discover what works best for them—and their students.

Ed tech, for example, can be used to create a sense of community in virtual classrooms. Technology enables educators to create a class climate that strengthens belonging among and between students. For instance, live chat functionality, or breakout rooms, lets students communicate formally and informally amongst themselves. Technology also allows for strengthened feedback loops between educators and students. Virtual office hours grant students access to their instructors while student interest inventories or diagnostic assessments allow professors to take a pulse on students’ academic and non-academic circumstances.

How to maximize online learning in virtual classrooms

Even top-end technology won’t guarantee your virtual classes resonate with students. Technology is important, but so is keeping up a rapport with your students—and supporting personalized learning if possible. Through low-stakes online quizzes, for example, you can get a sense of who’s keeping up and who’s falling behind.

There’s more to a virtual class than a virtual lecture. Here are a few ways to maximize the online learning experience for students, while keeping in mind that not all students have access to the same technology (or high-speed Internet access).

Assignments: While you can tell students about a new assignment during a video lecture, provide details and deadlines via an LMS or similar platform. Students can then upload their completed assignment (which could include audio or video) onto that same platform. Ideally, you want to use a platform that makes it easy for you to annotate and grade those assignments.

Polls and quizzes: Use low-stakes polls and quizzes to increase student engagement and identify any gaps in learning. Quizzes could also be used for self-assessment, so students can analyze and assess their own performance using multiple-choice or Likert-scale questions.

Group work: Some platforms allow you to divide the class into virtual breakout rooms to facilitate discussions among small groups of students. This is also useful for peer reviews and collaborative learning.

Collaboration: For groups, consider online collaboration software (which could be as simple as Google Docs) that allows students to co-create and submit collaborative assignments.

Online study groups: Outside of class, virtual social spaces (accessible via a messaging app) can help students socialize, discuss course material and form study groups in a more informal setting—which could be particularly useful for students who feel isolated.

Virtual office hours: Students miss interactions with their instructors, and some may have questions or concerns they don’t want to bring up during a live streamed lecture. Consider setting up virtual office hours for students who want those one-on-one interactions; this could even be done over Zoom, Skype, FaceTime or other video conferencing apps.

How to test in virtual classrooms

Then there’s the matter of online student assessment and examinations. How do you conduct an exam when students are at home and you can’t keep an eye on them?

This has been a controversial subject. Some institutes of higher learning are cancelling exams in light of the global pandemic, while others are offering students a pass/fail option—though some students would prefer to have a grade.

But the technology already exists for conducting online exams. Most digital textbooks offer assessments as part of their online platform, including built-in protections to guard against cheating.

Top Hat, for example, allows you to securely administer quizzes, tests and exams on student computers. You can set specific start and end times and verify identities online to ensure that the right students are taking your test. Students access the exam by inputting a unique auto-generated code shared by the instructor, and proprietary algorithms identify when students are cheating and lock them out of the test automatically. You can also generate an easy-to-understand proctor report that flags irregular student behavior.

Or, you could switch up the way students are assessed. Offer an open-book exam, with questions or interpretations that relate to the course material but can’t be Googled. For smaller classes, you could conduct one-on-one oral exams using simple video chat or web conferencing tools. For larger classes where multiple-choice exams make more sense, use randomized questions.

Looking ahead to future learning initiatives

Students and parents were okay with “good enough” in the spring 2020 semester, according to Top Hat’s survey results. But they won’t put up with mediocrity forever. Indeed, 7 percent of students disliked online learning in the spring 2020 semester so much they weren’t sure if they would return to school in the fall. But while they miss in-person interactions, they also see value in online learning, and more than one in three students would prefer a blended approach to learning.

Top Hat Pro is now available—a major online upgrade to the Top Hat platform—along with a new free version called Top Hat Basic. These tools are purpose-built to help educators deliver interactive classes and high-quality learning experiences online and in blended courses. Through Top Hat Basic, educators can bring active learning to the virtual classroom by streaming live lectures, taking attendance, presenting slides, hosting discussions and recording presentations for later viewing.

With the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, higher education institutions may be going digital for the foreseeable future. But even when life returns to ‘normal,’ having these tools in place will be of great benefit—not just when schools shut down for bad weather or natural disasters, but also as part of blended or hybrid learning initiatives.

Students miss the structure, stability and value-adds of campus life, like study spaces, career events and student activities. But if there’s a silver lining, it’s that educators and students are becoming much more comfortable—and much more savvy—with virtual classroom technology and all of its possibilities.

Top Hat’s suite of tools is designed for any online, hybrid or face-to-face classroom. Make your online course experience engaging, interactive and collaborative. Learn more here.

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