“Distance learning” has undergone many transformations in the past few years. It began as correspondence courses and moved to audio and videotape. Now, distance learning has entered the era of live, online classrooms.

Early forays into virtual classrooms focused primarily on video and video conferencing. The genre has included non-interactive classes, such as college courses on cable TV, somewhat interactive courses that use satellite feeds and button-boxes for response, and highly interactive classes that employ two-way video conferencing over broadband networks. Which type provides distance learning, then? Perhaps none of them.

What’s a virtual classroom?
Here are some of the key elements of a virtual classroom:

  • Interaction. The classroom must offer interaction by allowing the students to ask live questions of the instructor as well as to collaborate among themselves. This interactivity, and not a canned presentation, is what defines a classroom.
  • Content. The content of the class must be emphasized above the technology being employed. Students are in a classroom to learn new things, and thus the subject-oriented content should be the focus of the virtual classroom, not the technology behind it.
  • Practicality. As a practical matter, the classroom should not depend on high bandwidth or specialized hardware if it is to be successful for the general population. Too many distance learning initiatives have failed because they required students to attend from special labs, or to install satellite dishes or ISDN lines. These barriers are unacceptable to most learners and, in most cases, are unnecessary.

Case study: Improved virtual classroom from MIT
Professor Walter Lewin, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, teaches a class on Newtonian Physics via cable TV. While this is not an Internet-based, interactive classroom, it offers important lessons on the nature of information transfer, especially where technical topics are the subject matter.

For the past three years, I’ve watched this class on a fairly regular basis. When Dr. Lewin began, he did so in a very predictable way—the camera, which was placed in the back of his classroom, videotaped him teaching to a room full of students.

Although this approach worked, there were several problems. First, the content of the class was communicated, largely, in two ways: in Dr. Lewin’s voice, and in the illustrations he created on the blackboard. Neither came across well in this milieu:

  • The audio was muddy. Because Dr. Lewin spent much of his time with his back to the camera, writing on the blackboard, his voice was “reflected” sound.
  • The blackboard was hard to read. On a relatively low resolution TV screen, the blackboard was not much clearer than it would have been in a tiny RealVideo or CUSeeMe window. Because of the pixel size and because Professor Lewin kept standing in front of what I wanted to see, the camera’s view of the blackboard wasn’t much help.

Think about your experience in a classroom and what things you focus on when you’re concentrating. If you’re like me, you’ll agree that the most important elements are the voice of the teacher and the illustrative content on the white- or blackboard.

Recently, Professor Lewin’s classes have been produced differently (though you can still catch the old ones on repeats). Now, the professor sits at his desk, and a camera in the ceiling points down at his desktop. There he draws his illustrations on large sheets of bright white paper, using colored markers.

He wears a lapel microphone, and there are no echoes or student noises in the room to distract me from his voice. I can see, hear, and understand the good professor twice as well as I could under the old approach. I almost never see his face at all.

If not video, then what?
The lesson here is that video, itself, which seemed the natural place to turn when creating a virtual classroom, is not so much needed for the transference of content as it is simply a bow to tradition: Put a camera into the traditional classroom, and you’ve got a virtual classroom. But in most cases, that approach results in an unnecessary waste of bandwidth and effort.

So what elements define an effective virtual classroom, once video has been discarded? I’ll share my opinion on the state-of-the-art virtual classroom in a future article. In the meantime, if you’d like to share your opinion, please post a comment below or send me a note .

Scott Bain is the director of distance learning for EpicLearning.com .