Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK, we had been in talks at Weston College about developing a virtual classroom - somewhere that staff would feel comfortable to share their lessons with students in different locations. Little did we know that the world was soon to follow suit, adapting to video conferencing technology to maintain teaching and learning through lockdowns and other restrictions.
The last seven months has been a whirlwind for the sector, with institutions working against the clock to make sure students can continue studies and feel supported. We were lucky that we were on the front foot with our principal Dr Paul Phillips CBE investing in a digital infrastructure ahead of the pandemic. Also, as the lead college on the West of England Institute of Technology, we are privileged to be able to act on some of the innovative ideas emerging across education - one of which is the virtual classroom.
Enhancing the human
Using digital technology to amplify the human factor in teaching might seem counter-intuitive, but using tech in the right way can break down barriers and help educators facilitate learning.
It’s all in the design and implementation. We’ve tried to make our virtual classroom as straightforward as possible, so nobody needs a technical degree to work it!
The room itself has a bank of six 55-inch screens, which can show six students per screen. This allows for a ‘classroom’ feel, and cameras on each of the screens means that teachers can make eye contact with each student, which helps build a natural human interaction.
There are safeguards in place to ensure that only those that should be in the session can gain access, and teachers have full control of content flow and who can see what, via the virtual classroom software. Teachers can also pre-load content before each session so it’s ready to go, which avoids things like accidental screen-sharing and time wasted searching for resources, which can be an issue with video conferencing.
Making a connection
The role of the teacher in a modern classroom has moved away from the traditional didactic model to more of a facilitator, or curator role.
As video conferencing tools started to take over at the start of lockdown, we were a little worried of being nudged back into that didactic form.
We wanted to build a solution that a teacher could walk into, move around in, and control with ease. We wanted as few buttons as possible to be able to control the flow of learning content and activities, and to be able to interact naturally with students.
We also had to make sure that the quality of the connection between staff and students was top notch. We needed great quality in both video and audio, and that can present challenges when there are between 24 and 36 students attending each class. But we were lucky in that we already had a Janet Network connection in place from Jisc, which is more than enough to support the needs of the virtual classroom.
The software we’re using is hosted in the cloud, too, so it’s very 'lightweight'. There’s no need for students to download anything, as it’s all accessible via a browser. Before launch we tested the system on a low-end Chromebook to see how it would work, and full functionality was there. Again, we don’t want to create any accessibility barriers here. Especially in the current climate, we expect to see greater numbers of people accessing further education to retrain and upskill, and so there will be a wide range of digital skills and capability. To help, we have various programmes in place for learners who may not have access to technology, including data plans and loanable laptops, as well as basic IT skills development to support learners at all stages.
Of course, the virtual classroom will be of great use in the coming months as restrictions around campus attendance are still in place, but we’re not limiting it to that.
We are looking beyond remote delivery for the virtual classroom, such as considering it within the context of the Institute of Technology, how we could use it for interactive sessions with employers, and how we can share this resource in terms of workforce development.
We're open minded about its potential. It could, in the future, open up overseas opportunities, and offer a top-quality global experience.
Rather than building up its own wall of technology, our virtual classroom aims to break them down. Walls of distance, accessibility and COVID-19 restrictions - and who knows what else, in future.