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Web Conferencing and Virtual Classroom Systems

A virtual classroom system can be quite sophisticated, but a common approach to creating such a system is to start with web conferencing technology. This technology is widely available both on an on-premises and hosted basis, and those who wish to create a virtual classroom system with a small budget can do so with a basic subscription to one of several web conferencing services.

Web conferencing functionality and the virtual classroom system
Web conferencing by itself isn’t specific to the virtual classroom, it is widely used in business for virtual meetings and collaboration, and it has become an essential tool in the salesperson’s toolkit. The basic functionality lends itself to many uses, and these functions include elements such as slide shows and the ability to integrate easily with presentation software, use of whiteboards and markup tools, and the ability to easily add voice either through computer-to-computer VoIP or through an integrated phone bridge.

While these tools have become expected components of everyday business, they are also proving very useful in the virtual classroom. In general, a virtual classroom system requires several features, all of which can be found in most basic web conferencing offerings:

  • Real-time interaction
  • A shared whiteboard
  • The ability to create presentations
  • Breakout sessions that allow smaller groups to interact during the session without disrupting the larger group
  • The virtual equivalent of “raising your hand” to ask a question of the instructor
  • Instructor tools such as polling, which can submit questions to the class for instant evaluation
  • Session recording, to create an archive of classroom sessions for later review

Features like application sharing and remote control can be particularly useful in some educational scenarios, especially when offering a technical training session. Application sharing allows the instructor to actually push an application onto the student’s desktop; and the remote control allows the instructor to take over the student’s desktop so that the instructor can carry out a task while the student observes.

When deploying web conferencing to create a virtual classroom system, the question of hosted versus on-premises will come into play. The hosted option is often very inexpensive and does not require purchase of costly equipment, although a video camera or webcam will still be necessary if a live video feed is desired. An on-premises option may be more appropriate for heavy users, assuming the organization has in-house IT talent to install and maintain the equipment.

If choosing a hosted option, consider the availability of support services from the provider. The best providers will for example, be able to offer immediate assistance for those that are hosting a session and encounter a problem. Further, scalability is also an issue. For larger classroom scenarios, some providers may be too limiting; make sure your provider can accommodate your anticipated class size. At the same time, if you are deploying a virtual classroom system on-premises, ensure that the system you deploy can accommodate your expected growth in attendance.