This guide answers the following key questions
- What is meant by a virtual classroom?
- What is a virtual classroom example?
- What are the uses of virtual classroom?
- What are the different types of virtual classrooms?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of virtual classroom?
- How do you make a virtual classroom effective?
- What are the top virtual classroom tools and software available in the market?
- List the equipment used in a typical virtual classroom
What is meant by a virtual classroom?
A virtual classroom is basically a classroom where the instructor or teacher and the students are NOT co-located. Put another way, in a virtual classroom either the students are at a different location or the teacher is stationed at a different location.
Since the very idea of a virtual classroom is a rapidly evolving one, there are next to no standard references on how to define the concept authoritatively. And thus, in the absence of a standard definition, the idea of a virtual classroom is best understood anecdotally.
What is a virtual classroom example?
Suppose the instructor or the professor is in Delhi and the students are located in Mumbai. The classes are being conducted online through video conferencing or a media collaboration application. And there is also two-way communication between both the sources. This is a classic example of a virtual classroom.
Again, this goes without saying that virtual classrooms are of various types, budgets and features. And each of these different categories will come with their own examples. The example above is a high-level example that covers most applications of virtual classroom within its ambit.
What are the uses of virtual classroom?
Broadly the uses of virtual classroom can be summarized as allowing remote students to join a class being taught by a professor and allowing a remote professor to teach a physical class.
Both these ideas are elaborated as follows:
- Remote students present at one location remotely or dispersed across multiple locations can be joined in onto a teaching session with a professor. This can be accomplished using a fully hardware-based solution or a combination of hardware and software-based system. The choice of the system or solution will largely depend on the budgetary as well as spatial or technical constraints of the buyer.
- Many a times, in a college or a university, guest faculty are invited to lecture on a topic of academic interest. Due to geographical constraints, these faculty may not be able to fly out to the physical campus. As a result they may be invited to join remotely on to the class. Barring some audio hardware for the virtual classroom, a simple zoom or MS Teams or Google Classroom based application should fully suffice this requirement.
- A third application, although rarely used to allow for the expansion of classroom using virtual classroom. In this application, the virtual classroom hardware is used to duplicate and relay the proceedings of one classroom into another classroom. This is often done because physical classroom is not able to adequately seat all the students admitted in a program. And thus, multiple physical classrooms are brought together via technology to ensure that classroom instruction goes on unimpeded.
What are the different types of virtual classroom?
Although there are many ways of segregating virtual classrooms into various types, they can largely be neatly divided into two types:
- Virtual classrooms with 2-way communication
- Virtual classrooms with 1-way communication
- Virtual classrooms with 2-way communication: Virtual classrooms with two way communication are basically classrooms where both the faculty and the students are able to interact with each other. In these types of classrooms, the student may interrupt the faculty member to ask doubts, clarify and seek further explanations for concepts that were not clear. Such classrooms can not replace or replicate physical classrooms but they come a close second in extending the reach of instruction and education.
- Virtual classrooms with 1-way communication: Virtual classrooms with one way communication is basically a streaming service. The origin of the stream is essentially the faculty camera and microphone relaying lessons and instructions. The recipient of the stream is essentially the student either sitting with other students or sitting independently in a far-end location. Such streaming services for virtual classrooms suffer from the problem of not holding the student’s attention long enough to meaningfully educate them.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of virtual classroom?
A virtual classroom has many advantages and disadvantages. It all depends on the context in which the setup is being looked at. When compared to a physical classroom, a virtual classroom will necessarily have drawbacks. But when compared to not teaching at all due to geographical constraints, virtual classroom offers possibilities which were not available even a decade ago.
The following are the advantages of a virtual classroom:
- Virtual classrooms allow for connecting remote students and remote faculty with each other.
- Virtual classrooms ensure that there is no disruption of academic schedules due to unforeseen black-swan events like the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Virtual classrooms allow for the extension and enlargement of classrooms through duplication and triplication of the physical classroom.
- Virtual classrooms help leverage online solutions and media collaboration softwares to teach students with minimal expenditure on hardware. All the students require is a laptop to connect with and join the virtualized classroom.
- Virtual classrooms help in monetizing content of teachers and instructors located in far-off places.
- Virtual classrooms help in active collaboration in research and instruction.
The following are the disadvantages of a virtual classroom:
- Virtual classrooms suffer from the lack of human contact which physical classrooms bring with them.
- Virtual classrooms offer a 2-dimensional view of instruction, whereas physical classrooms offer a 3-dimensional view of instruction.
- Virtual classrooms could become unwieldy if the internet bandwidth is unstable or of a lower quality.
- Virtual classrooms could create an acoustic echo in the room wherever there is lack of audio or acoustic control in the room in the form of a Audio Digital Signal Processor.
- Low cost virtual classrooms require stable bandwidths at all remote locations. Lack of stability results in wavering connections which could adversely affect the learning experience of other virtual classroom participants.
- Online classes may lead to proliferation of lower quality content. In such a case, free markets come into the picture by allowing the consumer to decide which content is low quality and what is good.
How do you make a virtual classroom effective?
A virtual classroom has basically two components – video and audio feeds. Each of these feeds need to be near perfect for the experience to be enjoyable. Good audio feed without a commensurate good video feed is ineffective. Similarly, a good video feed without a commensurate good audio feed is ineffective.
The following are some key issues that make any virtual classroom solution ineffective:
- Constant echo during the online classroom session. This is basically created when the output of a speaker enters back into the input of a microphone. This creates a feedback loop that causes audio discomfort to the audience.
- Cross interference between different microphone frequencies. This happens when multiple audio input devices, viz. Microphones are running in close proximity to each other. Since each microphone is designed to run on a typical assigned frequency, multiple microphones running on a single frequency could end up creating a signalling mismatch thereby causing noise to mix with the audio signal.
- Jerky video in a virtual classroom. The inherent nature of a virtual classroom is to run via the internet. If the internet connection is unstable or the bandwidth requirement is inadequate, the viewing experience of the virtual classroom may not be smooth. This is problematic for classes that run for a longer period of time. Virtual classrooms in colleges and universities run for hours on end and may sometimes last an entire working day. Such lengthy classes may become untenable if classes are online.
- Lack of synchronization between audio and video feeds. This can be both a result of bandwidth or hardware based problems. Since audio signals are lighter than video signals, they travel faster and more efficiently creating a lag between audio and video feeds. The situation becomes more complex if multiple system integrators are involved in the virtual classroom solution or system execution.
- Too many moving components making the entire solution unwieldy. As the saying goes, ‘complicated is easy, simple is difficult’. It always pays to have fewer components in the virtual classroom system. Too many hardware components create confusion and may end up making it unmanageable. Every single component added to the solution needs to have its assigned place in the system.
The following are the recommended remedies for making any virtual classroom effective:
- Managing echo in the classroom – An Audio Digital Signal Processor with Acoustic Echo Cancellation takes care of most of the echo in the classroom. Fine tuning an Audio Digital Signal Processor for a virtual or smart classroom is an art that a skilled Audio Video System Integrator would possess.
- Cross interference between microphones – Most excellent audio companies routinely publish frequency tables to guide buyers on potential frequency conflicts. And therefore, one must only procure virtual classroom microphones from such OEMs who publish such frequency tables.
- Jerky videos – Bandwidth for virtual classrooms is a nagging and an open ended question. One that has not been adequately answered authoritatively. In our experience, 1-3 mbps of a dedicated leased line connection is sufficient to run a live 720p to 1080p i.e. HD and Full HD feed in the classroom. There are various variables in this assessment but the above calculation suffices as a rule of thumb.
- Lack of synchronisation – Virtual Classroom cameras are the lifeblood of any virtual classroom solution. A poor quality virtual classroom hardware will create innumerable problems. Decoding and encoding of signals at the hardware level is of utmost importance. And thus buy your virtual classroom gear once, and buy it well. Paying a premium for robust equipment is always a good idea.
- Too many components – Empanel a high quality audio video system integrator to do the job for you. Most of these problems as enumerated above are taken care of at the design level. If the design is faulty or unnecessarily complicated, the integrated system in all likelihood will stutter at best, and falter at worst. Best designs are the simplest – to both understand and implement.
What are the virtual classroom tools and softwares available in the market?
Tools and softwares are important to make any virtual classroom studio functional.
In its most functional sense, virtual classroom tools and softwares modify the solution’s hardware and orient it towards its actual intended use. For instance if the virtual classroom camera is to capture video feed, the kind of video feed and intended focus can be determined by these tools and softwares.
While buying a virtual classroom solution, along-with the hardware which carries with it the bulk of the costing, it is imperative upon the buyer to pay close heed to the various add ons. The normal course of any virtual classroom project implementation is to first understand the use case of any project which basically entails identifying the main users and intended beneficiaries of the virtual classroom. Thereafter, suitable tools and softwares are to be procured or sourced in order to mould the solution to fit the usage requirement of the user.
The following is a non-exhaustive list of tools and softwares available for use in conjunction with the virtual classroom:
- Browser extensions – Many commercially available browsers on the world wide web consist of extensions that make the virtual classroom experience more engaging. For instance, Google Classroom is a handy extension. Even though it is an extension exclusively for Google Chrome, the readymade integration with a web browser offers both convenience and ease of use. There are hundreds of such extensions available for browsers that help transform the virtual classroom experience from being cumbersome to seamless.
- Recording softwares – Virtual classrooms and online classroom recording are complementary functionalities. One aids the other. Free to use softwares available on the internet helps exponentially aid and increase the utility of the primary software being used for virtual classrooms. An excellent example of this is the Open Broadcaster Software. Such open source softwares help in readily launching recording functionalities in online classes and help enhance the institutional memory of the user. Such well maintained freewares cost nothing, but provide disproportionate value.
- Learning Management Systems (LMS) – Such LMS platforms complete the virtual classroom solution. The virtual session, if recorded needs to be hosted online for further referencing and later viewing. A robust LMS can fulfil that need without much trouble. To this end, the Moodle platform – again a free to use platform – works excellently. The platform is fully customizable and is trusted by thousands of learning institutions across the world – from colleges to universities to training establishments, the platform caters to one and all. Themes and plug-ins add a fresh dimension to the software. Once fully integrated into the virtual classroom system, the LMS brings to life the virtual classroom after the live online teaching and learning is over.
- Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) – The VLE is an advancement on the LMS and thus it begins where the LMS ends. The LMS is designed to be reactive and not proactive in nature. As a result many elements of learning like assignments, quizzing, testing, polling, attendance, presence, group and team work, seminars and the like are usually not a part of the LMS. If the LMS is designed to run supplementary to the actual classroom, the VLE is designed to simply replicate and if feasible even replace the actual classroom. We all understand how important physical presence of the student can be to education and training, but VLE is a worthy goal to chase considering the educational penetration that is still required in a country like India. As the saying goes, ‘some goals are so worthy that is even better to fail than to not participate at all’.
List the equipment used in a typical virtual classroom.
Equipment to be used in virtual classrooms or online classrooms can be neatly divided into two streams – Video equipment and Audio equipment. Video equipment can be further divided into Video input equipment and Video output equipment. Audio equipment can also similarly be subdivided into Audio input equipment and Audio output equipment. Such classifications are raw and broad but they give structure to our Bill of Material (BOM) or Bill of Quantities (BOQ).
These divisions can be explained as follows:
- Video Equipment – Such equipment basically captures or displays two-dimensional imagery of the classroom.
- Video Input Equipment – As the name suggests, such equipment captures the moving picture within the teaching and learning space. In much simpler words, this is basically a reference to the camera. One of the most critical components of a video input equipment, a camera can be a standstill camera or a PTZ (Pan – Tilt – Zoom) Camera. The latter type of camera moves and captures the point of interest within the virtual classroom or the virtual studio.
- Video Output Equipment – Such equipment outputs or displays the captured moving picture to the far-end audience. Such equipment can be a display screen, projector, monitor, interactive flat panel or even a video wall. The video output equipment can be both capital intensive and or budget-wise minimalistic. For instance, a video wall may cost somewhere like 20 to 30 lakh rupees whereas a 3500 ANSI lumens long-throw projector of a renowned OEM may not cost more than 40 to 50 thousand rupees. Both have similar functionalities, but then the price is proportional to the quality of the video output.
- Audio Equipment – Such equipment basically captures or outputs sounds and voices of the classroom.
- Audio Input Equipment – In simpler words, microphones squarely fall in this category. Virtual Classroom Microphones within the Audio Video industry are available in a range that extends from a few thousand rupees to a few lakhs. But it would be fair to state that individual microphones that need physical passing from one participant to another are not exactly conducive to the virtual classroom setup. What works are the hands free versions of microphones which are non-intrusive and are installed either on the ceiling or hung from it or on the benches or desks of the students. Such microphones are either automatically controlled through a controlled processor or are actively managed by an operator.
- Audio Output Equipment – Again in simpler words, this is a reference to PA Speakers. Such speakers perform the function of outputting the local or the far-end audio into the virtual classroom. Virtual Classroom speakers can be deployed either from walls or into the ceiling. If the microphones used are ceiling tile microphones, then it is highly recommended that ceiling speakers be used in conjunction so as to avoid cross interference between audio input and output equipment. In all other cases, the positioning of speakers is basically immaterial and not very important.
- Auxiliary Equipment – Such equipment aids and amplifies the roles and functionalities of the other equipment in the classroom.
- Audio Digital Signal Processor – Although a very versatile device, such a device effectively is used in a virtual classroom for Acoustic Echo Cancellation. The device can thus be programmed to perform this and a range of other audio related functions that have the effect of imparting clarity to the audio feed.
- PA Amplifiers – In a virtual classroom, the amplifier has a one point aim viz. to increase the sounds emanating from the participants in the classroom. In doing so the amplifiers enhance the listening experience of other participants – present locally as well as at the far-end.
- Control Processors – Control processors bring to the virtual classroom processing power such that any synchronisation required between audio and video feeds may not be routed through a PC or a laptop. Instead it can be routed via control processors. Modern control processors have inbuilt digital signal processing, thereby giving two-in-one functionality to the user.
- Electronic Lectern or Digital Podiums – Electronic lectern or digital podiums offer a teaching and learning platform to the teacher within the virtual classroom. The many features and modalities of the virtual classroom can make its usage and operation slightly cumbersome. A control system on the digital podium gives control of the entire virtual classroom to the professor or the instructor readily and makes its operation seamless.
Note: The list of equipment as described above is only indicative and is not exhaustive. You are requested to kindly consult us or any other renowned system integrator for designing a holistic and fool-proof solution.
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