All successful classroom environments have a few things in common. They have some form of an information delivery medium, where instructors communicate material to students. They employ feedback mechanisms to allow students to respond to the material being taught. Students are able to ask questions of the instructor as well as ask questions and work closely with other students. These commonalties drive the learning experience—both in the traditional classroom and in the virtual classroom.

These four elements: delivery, feedback, Q&A, and collaboration, can all be achieved using technologies that exist now, without the need for broadband Internet connections or expensive studio environments to facilitate the events. Here’s how to make sure these elements are part of the virtual classroom experience.

1) Delivery
Without video, the primary media for delivering topical information in the classroom is the human voice combined with an illustration tool. This might simply be slides (PowerPoint, etc.) or something more dynamic, such as a whiteboard and drawing tools. Consider the example from my previous article of Professor Lewin at MIT teaching on cable television. In this situation, the strongest experiences for the students came when they could hear the professor’s voice clearly and watch as he drew diagrams on a large desktop pad.

Voice (as opposed to text in a chat room) is important for two reasons. First, it is extremely efficient in terms of the time it takes to deliver a given set of topic points. Most people can talk much more quickly than they can type. Second, in the virtual classroom, the voice provides the “human touch,” a bridge across the gap that technology can sometimes impose between us. Also, hearing your teacher tell you how things work is typically how we all learn, and thus there are existing mental pathways for this informational flow.

Illustrations are also important, which is why chalkboards have been present in the classroom for as long as anyone remembers. Illustrative content communicates on a different level than the spoken word, which is why the combination is so powerful. However, technology gives us a boost here; there is no reason that the “slide projector” and the “dry-erase board” cannot be the same tool, allowing the instructor the ability to prepare materials ahead of time without giving up the flexibility of “drawing it.” Also, technology allows us to capture these illustrations for later review, which can be difficult or impossible in the traditional classroom.

2) Feedback and response
One of the things that differentiates the live virtual classroom from a canned multimedia presentation is the student’s ability to respond to the instructor. In the physical classroom, this feedback can come in the form of facial expressions, hands raised in response to a query (“Who here thinks the answer is A?”), or by using quizzes and other response tools as a part of the class work. These elements must be preserved in the virtual classroom, and, by using the proper tools, they can be.

First, the instructor must be able to conduct polls, both as planned events and in an ad-hoc fashion, perhaps in response to the nature of the questions coming in from the students. Also, there should be a “mood” indicator of some kind that the student can control to give the instructor real-time access to their level of understanding and satisfaction with the class. This can be done using graphical icons (often called “emoticons”), color indicators, symbols, or the like. Whatever the method is, each student should have complete control of his or her indicator, and the instructor should have a constant display of “the mood of the room.”

3) Questions and answers
If you were to ask the average student why they would wish to be in a virtual classroom, as opposed to taking a self-paced, multimedia course, which is usually more convenient, the most likely response would be “So I can ask questions.”

Adult learners are self-directing by nature, and thus need the ability to channel the activity of the class by making direct requests for clarification and further elucidation in real time.

Here again, technology gives us some advantages. By requiring students to enter questions in text, we give them the opportunity to present better thought-out questions. Also, if the questions are “queued” for the instructor, this gives the student the ability to ask these questions as they occur (rather than waiting, “hand in the air” for the instructor to pause), while giving the instructor the ability to wait until finishing the current point before moving on to the questions. It also allows the instructor to answer questions in a different order than they were received, or to hold certain questions that will apply more appropriately to a later section of the class.

Also, this questions-by-text method is self-documenting, and tends to be less intimidating for some students who are fearful of “talking in front of others” in real time. Being able to compose a question carefully before anyone sees it can be a confidence builder to these students.

Finally, taking questions in this way makes it far easier to manage the whole questions-and-answers process, and will likely allow for larger class sizes without compromising responsiveness.

4) Collaboration
Virtually all the literature on adult education teaches us that adult learners are collaborative learners. They learn best when they work in teams, when they engage in mentoring, and when they have a large degree of control over the learning experience overall.

Ideally, then, the virtual classroom environment should be one that supports collaborative learning and mentoring, by allowing private or group communication during the classroom session.

In other words, it should be okay to “talk and pass notes” in the virtual classroom, since you will not be disturbing the presentation by doing so. There are multiple ways this can be done, including using chat windows and instant messaging.

Scott Bain is the director of distance learning for

Please share your suggestions for running a virtual classroom by posting a comment below or by sending me a note.