Updated August 2021
In these unprecedented times, when teaching is done from the comfort of a teacher’s home just as often as it is done in a traditional classroom, the landscape of teaching is changing dramatically.
Anyone who’s taught in a virtual classroom will recognize that the digital environment is completely different from the face-to-face environment. Teachers who are new to virtual classrooms will particularly note the transformed way in which they interact with their students and the way the students interact with each other.
Although the virtual classroom offers many benefits to students, teachers, and finance-focused administrators, there are also significant hurdles teachers and students alike will face when beginning classroom work digitally. With some adjustments, however, teachers can optimize the digital learning experience, creating a space of focus, energetic mutual interaction, and, indeed, fun.
What Is A Virtual Classroom?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the word “classroom” is a very broad term, indicating merely a place where students are taught. A virtual classroom is a digital space moderated by an instructor or other third party that serves as a platform whereby students are taught.
Since the early months of 2020, thought and practice regarding virtual classrooms has by necessity exploded, and now a great many high-quality resources exist for teachers to begin teaching virtually.
The resources that teachers have access to aren’t just limited to the teaching platform, either. There are plenty of tools (many of which are free!) that can give a virtual classroom the much-needed feel of spontaneity and liveliness.
The very first thing teachers and administrators need to decide on is which platform to use for hosting the virtual classroom. As of the writing of this article, Zoom has a free option that allows K-12 schools to host classes of any length.
Google Classroom, meanwhile, is closer to learning management software, where teachers can set assignments and make announcements for their students, utilizing Google’s many other tools (such as Google Drive for assignments and Google Meet for live sessions).
Microsoft Teams has also been a very popular way of hosting a virtual classroom. Teachers can host live sessions with Teams while using Microsoft software such as Word, Excel, and Powerpoint to maximize learning in and out of class.
Google Classroom, like most of Google’s web tools, is optimized for people with very little online experience to use with ease. If you want to know how to make a virtual classroom with Google, simply go to Google’s classroom and sign up. If you don’t have a Google account, you’ll have to make one to sign up.
If you’re a member of a qualified institution, Google Workspace for Education is free.
Google Classroom Pros
- Gives you access to the whole Google suite, a highly integrated web of learning tools
- A familiar name with plenty of resources
- Allows you to make assignments, grade them, and host classes in one handy workflow
Google Classroom Cons
- Some institutions or private teachers will have to pay for Google Classroom
There was a time, if you can even think back that far, that Zoom was a name only known by office workers in various highrises throughout the US. Now, however, Zoom has exploded as a favorite go-to by schools across the world for virtual learning.
Why? For one, Zoom is widely known and respected as a video conferencing platform. It has a very simple, streamlined use, and though it has somewhat limited tools, these tools are perfect for online teaching.
Some of the aspects of Zoom that work well for virtual teaching include the whiteboard tool, share screen, and the infamous breakout rooms.
- Easy to use
- Unlimited conferencing for schools
- Many tools that work well in a virtual learning situation
- Not organically integrated with other tools, as is the case with Teams and Classroom
Not as popular, generally speaking, Microsoft still offers some powerful virtual classroom software for teachers and administrators to consider.
As a major digital player in the online workspace, Microsoft has many virtual tools that are well-integrated into teams. In particular, the channels option in Teams has become a favorite of teachers.
Channels are like miniature classrooms where groups can work on projects together or where teachers can organize the classroom by units, Q&A style resources, and more (read up on the full lowdown here).
Microsoft Teams Pros
- Microsoft has a vast array of software that they’ve integrated to work with Teams
- The channels functionality allows for classroom variety
Microsoft Teams Cons
- Works best, as one would expect, with Microsoft. Apple OS’s can still use Teams but with less integration.
How To Make A Virtual Classroom
Whatever you decide on, whether it’s Zoom, Teams, Google Classroom, or another virtual learning platform, some universal tips will help out brand new teachers and seasoned vets new to virtual learning alike.
Setting Up The Space
There are significant psychological differences that emerge from the difference of medium between the virtual and the embodied space. Teachers who are new to virtual learning can overlook this fact and expect to treat the space just as if it were a live classroom. This, however, is a mistake.
One extremely important factor to remember is how a student tends to feel in a virtual classroom.
In the live classroom, students can rightly feel that they are part of a group. In this group (at least in traditional classrooms), all eyes point in one direction and, therefore, there is little self-conscious pressure as the student interacts with their learning.
In a virtual classroom, however, the student is alone in their room or living room, facing the myopic video camera. This can dramatically impact the way a student interacts with their learning.
For many in the virtual classroom, there is a feeling that all eyes are on them, at all times; these students can be minutely observed even as the teacher is giving instruction or lecturing, and (worst of all) they wouldn’t be able to know at what point they’re being watched or not.
This is all to say that teachers must do their utmost to create a space that feels fun, low-pressure, and highly organized.
When setting up a virtual learning space, the teacher should communicate everything very clearly: login details, the time at which the class begins.
The teacher should also consider “arriving” in the virtual classroom 5 to 10 minutes early to welcome students as they log on. Making some small conversation before the class begins can do a lot for developing rapport, an issue that’s particularly sensitive in the virtual classroom.
10 Tips For Virtual Classroom Success
Beyond setting up the space and being highly organized, teachers can utilize these 10 tips to have maximum success in the classroom.
Set The Ground Rules
The digital space is different from the in-person space. Just like in a normal classroom, rules need to be put in place (especially in the case of early learning).
For example, will students have to have their cameras turned on? If so, you should establish this expectation from the very beginning.
Secondly, how will students interact with the material? Do you want them to raise their hand, or can they just speak out when they want?
Setting the ground rules is very important for you, but it’s also essential for establishing a foundation whereby your classroom can flourish. Students, especially very young learners, not only need order; they crave it (stability, security, and consistency are the first three universal childhood needs).
Having order in your classroom is the only generous approach to teaching online.
As a disembodied virtual space, online classrooms can be extremely draining for students and teachers alike. Therefore, variety is essential for maintaining focus and maximizing learning.
You can switch up classroom procedures by utilizing different software (see below), by changing up the order day-to-day in what you do in class, and by mixing up the interaction patterns in your classroom.
In traditional classrooms, changing up the interaction patterns is as simple as having students move their desks around. In the virtual classroom, it’s a little bit different.
The options are more limited: you can have a teacher-centered classroom, wherein the teacher speaks to all the students, or you can have a classroom with multiple centers, wherein students interact in separate rooms (breakout rooms in Zoom, channels in Teams, etc.).
If the class is capable of it, you can also have a large group discussion in the main room of the virtual learning space where there is no center.
All of these interaction patterns are helpful for certain kinds of learning: just remember, keep variety in the learning experience to give students the feeling of a vital spontaneity in their learning.
The three virtual learning software we’ve covered today (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom) have plenty of tools that the respective companies have integrated to allow for variety in the classroom or conference room.
New teachers should maximize their use of these platforms by trying out all the available options for the software.
In Zoom, for example, the whiteboard tool is helpful for classroom instruction, whether it’s math class, science class, or any other subject. What’s more, you can use the whiteboard tool on either a whiteboard or on a share screen.
In practice, this means you can highlight useful information on your screen before taking a screenshot (or having your students do so), giving them quick and easy access to the resources you used in class.
Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom have even more functionality — before you begin virtual teaching, explore all your options and plan your lessons from a pro-technology point of view.
Don’t Be Afraid Of Silence
Veteran teachers understand the utility of silence in the classroom, borne of the eternally ephemeral truth of what it means to teach and learn. That said, however, some teachers can enter the online space and completely forget their strategies.
Because the entire classroom is so immediate in an online classroom (the computer is no more than three feet from your face), some teachers can feel a need to ingratiate themselves to their students, talking and filling the gaps when no one is speaking.
Give Up Control (Sometimes)
Virtual classrooms can be deceptive in that they can trick teachers into thinking they need to be in control at all times. However, as teachers who have been in the classroom for many years will tell you, a student’s peers are just as important (if not more important) a teacher as the teacher.
That said, a teacher needs to give the reins over to students when the occasion calls for it. Frequent use of separate rooms whereby students can interact without the watchful eye of the teacher can be helpful in the virtual learning space.
Furthermore, a teacher might consider allowing students to send private messages to each other during class (depending on the class’s maturity, this may or may not be a good idea). Students should be encouraged to be independent. Allowing students to share screens or have a laugh amongst themselves at the right moment can be a great way to foster this.
Remember, the virtual space has significant advantages that the in-person classroom doesn’t. Utilizing the multimedia aspect of a virtual classroom can be an extremely effective way to keep students engaged.
For example, you might show a short video clip or play some audio as a reward for students doing their homework or being good on a particular day. Remember, though; multimedia tools can also be a very effective way to teach digital natives.
Use Software That Aids Learning
There is tons of software and activities out in the world today that can make learning engaging for students.
Sizle is a virtual tool that is free to use, whereby teachers can share documents with their students. Students can use Sizle to view and annotate lecture slides and compile and organize their documents. Meanwhile, teachers, coaches, tutors, and other educators can send notes, lectures, presentations, and more.
This tool has found a lot of success in education — if you’re interested, you can view the Sizle website for more info.
Google Jamboard is best-optimized for Google Classroom use. That said, it is an indispensable tool no matter what your learning platform is.
Teachers will immediately recognize the utility of this learning tool: Jamboard lets students interact with their learning in a tactile way. Jamboard is phenomenal for all learners, but particularly those with a kinesthetic bent.
Kahoot is a free-to-use online quiz administration tool. Students love the quirky music and colorful design. Teachers love the ease of use and flexibility of the software.
Reframe (You’re In A Frame)
This point is especially helpful in early learning. What is early learning in a virtual space, many teachers will ask: so much about being a child is about using the body in the world, about learning through touch, taste, and smell.
It seems, in fact, that the virtual classroom is anathema to early learning. In virtual early learning, you may think of yourself as an actor in a children’s TV show.
The rules of variety are even more applicable in the virtual early learning space. Students’ minds need constant stimulus at a young age, and long lectures will be lost on them.
That being said, you can use the fact that you’re in a frame to your advantage! Use plenty of props, like puppets and action figures to help aid your students’ learning. Treat your screen as the frame for the children’s favorite TV show. Put on the role of their favorite actor, and let the learning happen through fun.
Give (The Illusion Of) Choices
One helpful way to keep up the variety in an early learning classroom is to give your students the illusion of choice. For example, perhaps you have two lessons prepared on a given day. The students will get both lessons eventually. In this case, however, it doesn’t matter to you at what point they have them.
You can turn the lesson of the day, then, into a game in which students debate or vote on what they want to learn. What they don’t know, of course, is that they’ll get both eventually. In teaching, secrets of this nature can be helpful.
Our final tip for success in the virtual classroom is to reflect on what works and what doesn’t work. Ideally. A teacher should be keeping a virual learning journal, where they document each class.
In this journal, the teacher might write beforehand what they plan to do and then follow up in the journal immediately after the class (or at the end of the day) with exactly what they did in class. Keeping this record (and regularly going back to look at it) can be an excellent way for a teacher to develop themselves in the unique classroom that is the virtual one.
What is virtual learning, some teachers might ask. Is it really even learning? In some classrooms, the very essence of what brought teachers to teaching seems to evaporate from the group. Disengaged students with their cameras off can be a real threat to an instructor’s happiness and, by extension, their effectiveness in the classroom.
Using these tried-and-true methods, however, teachers can transform the virtual classroom into a place of learning and, indeed, fun.
How to make virtual learning fun? Remember, maximize the online experience with fun software like Kahoot, while keeping the classroom extremely organized and stress-free with tools like Sizle which can help you to organize documents for both collaboration and presenting.