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The webinar as a learning environment: the virtual classroom and the extended classroom

Pubblicato da Emanuele Pucci | 07/Oct/2020

Global scenarios linked to the pandemic have accelerated digital transformation processes already underway almost all over the world. Also in Education, as has already happened in other areas, real and digital intertwine today in an indissoluble way.

It is no surprise that Professor Luciano Floridi, Italian philosopher, Research Director and professor of philosophy and ethics of information at the University of Oxford, coined the term “Onlife”. This term derives from the contraction of Online and Offline, therefore from the union between the actions of our life when we are connected to the Internet and when we are not. “I coined this neologism a few years ago to highlight the hybrid nature of our daily experiences, partly digital and partly analogue” – said the professor.

Furthermore, learning methods have undergone changes due to the need for distancing or preventive isolation and more and more often, we use the virtual classroom  and the  extended classroom, therefore training and learning methods and tools that rely on the Internet and allow distance learning (FAD).

The webinar is a fundamental tool in this context. Webinar software is often used for training, but the more structured ones for learning and FAD have specific training features, which allow to remotely replicate the elements of a classroom training course and much more.

For example, the option of sharing multiple questionnaires live with immediate access to results for a live comment by the teacher, or the bidirectional integration with the e-learning platform to track all kinds of information, including the net participation time.

To give another example, webinar recording and direct communication with the teacher through the show-of-hands function; or that to allow the user to show “I agree”/“I don’t agree”, which simulates the nodding that a teacher observes during his or her presential lesson.

The webinar as a learning environment. Main elements.

Whether for  virtual or extended classrooms, training encompasses three main elements:

  • virtual environment
  • teacher
  • learners

By environment, we mean the application that connects the teacher and the participants, allowing them to interact, discuss, and collaborate. With webinar software, you may connect via videoconference, upload slides of presentations and make comments on them live, listen – also with video feed – to proposals or comments from participants, share any type of file, watch a video-tutorial together, create exercises to complete together, express opinions on proposed contents, chat between participants, post comments in a dedicated forum, and track the participation of each user in the class. Certain webinar software also offers certified training, a matter that is of increasing interest for training institutions and companies.

The teacher is responsible for organising content and conducting the lesson.

Learners are the remote participants and represent the class, in a numerical sense, the people to be trained.

Advantages of the virtual learning environment

First of all, a training project carried out through FAD allows the development of a teaching plan, even when social distancing is a must -as is the case today. But beyond the scenario linked to the pandemic, a remote training project allows:

  • to reduce training costs, always keeping skills updated
  • the integration of the lesson into an LMS (Learning Management System), transforming it by into reusable training content
  • to add to the project other trainers and teachers who we could hardly find locally
  • to monitor the satisfaction level with the lesson and the effectiveness of learning through real-time surveys or tests in real time
  • to transform traditional learning, based on “teacher – learner” verticality, into a peer training project
  • to encourage social collaboration mechanisms.

Definition of virtual classroom

What is commonly called a virtual classroom can be defined with the acronym VLE, Virtual Learning Environment. In this context, participants can attend the lesson, interact with each other, communicate or discuss about the lessons, or interact in joint presentations and projects. All this takes place simultaneously, in an environment that is virtual yet appears real precisely because the people behind the screens share three traits at that very moment:

  • same time
  • same place
  • same goal

It is therefore a training form that takes place synchronously, in real time, and that does not require physical presence at the training place.

The technology used in virtual classrooms is convenient and easy to use. In most cases, it is a question of using a webinar software with training-specific features, whereby several users can be connected at the same time to the internet, and electronically replicate everything that would happen in a physical, real classroom. Webinars allow participants to benefit from advanced interaction and sharing tools. In this way, they can collaborate through chats, forums and social networks. Lately, many software solutions also offer virtual reality or augmented reality features, providing even more a completely immersive experience for users.

Purpose of a virtual classroom

Virtual classrooms aim at imparting training courses that interest students who are distant from each other, or far from the school, or from the physical location where the teacher works. In addition to logistical features, a virtual classroom can meet goals that concern training effectiveness and thus improve the learning experience.

The virtual classroom also fulfils the task of fostering continuous training (lifelong learning), which involves a large part of the active population nowadays.

Furthermore, its characteristics are making it a popular option also for corporate training or information.

Definition of extended classroom

The extended classroom is an extension of the traditional classroom, which is made possible through simple technologies that can be used by everyone. In an extended classroom, the teacher can lecture in the classroom, but students can participate either in the classroom or remotely, i.e. online, as is commonly said, while maintaining interaction and listening ability.

The difference with the virtual classroom concerns the mix of real and digital elements: in the extended classroom, students can be present in the traditional classroom, live, while all others are remotely connected.

As with virtual classrooms, extended classrooms rely on webinar software with specific features for online learning, which allows the teacher and participants to interact, communicate, view and discuss presentations, engage in collaborative projects, in an online environment in real time (synchronous formation).

Here, too, the creation of an extended classroom allows to closely mimic what would happen in a physical class. Moreover, it offers advanced interaction and sharing tools for a seamless blend with the students’ current habits. The software, therefore, should be equipped with more performing tools, specific for distance learning, which go beyond chat, forum, raised hand, show your status (I agree, I disagree, ask to intervene in audio/video).

Purpose of an extended classroom

Extended classrooms aim to significantly expand the number of places available for learners. The concept of “number of seats” becomes thus meaningless, allowing hundreds or even thousands of participants to attend training from their preferred location

Of course, just like in live classrooms, the protagonist of the whole process is interaction. During a webinar in the extended classroom, the interaction and involvement of learners are guaranteed: participants can thus chat, use audio and video to intervene, ask questions directly to the teacher, answer questionnaires, participate in surveys, request and – if allowed – work all together on the teacher’s presentation.

Add to this that, in a real class, whether large or small, it can be hard for a teacher to monitor each student, assess their individual attention, learning retention, qualities and talents. A plethora of information that the extended classroom creates and makes available to the trainer.

With extended classrooms, both for online and remote users, trainers may:

  • be sure that the user has followed the lesson
  • have feedback that the user has actually retained a good percentage of the topics covered (learning retention), through the compilation of surveys, tests, quizzes, and live interviews
  • be sure that a username and an email correspond to a real person and to a specific individual
  • following the previous points, validate the training, also towards third parties.

In conclusion, we have seen that in a society characterised by “onlife” and other scenarios related to current health emergencies, it is possible to use webinars as a learning environment, provided the conditions for effective training are met: centrality of the user, maximum interaction, involvement, and active learner participation. Software can also give rise to specific developments such as virtual classroom and extended classroom, virtual learning environments that are increasingly widespread. In terms of learning, and for the sake of completeness, we should also point out herein the increasing use of webinars for conferences and training events.