In order to avoid confusion it is important to highlight the differences between Video/Web-conferencing software and Virtual classroom software (VCS).
Video/Web-conferencing is based on a single ‘virtual’ meeting room, ‘hosted’ by the presenter in which video, audio (VoIP) and desktop application are shared between the presenter and one or several ‘invited’ participants. Controls over the data streams are usually held by the ‘host’ presenter although they can be handed over to any participant of the event. Additional features include text-based Chat and recording capabilities of desktop and audio streams to capture the event permanently..
Web-conferencing is widely used in delivering tutor-centric ‘low-level’ teaching/training sessions or introductory marketing offered as ‘Webinars’ with limited participant interaction, for example when introducing a new product or service to a potential customer. Example services include Cisco’s WebEx, Citrix GoToMeeting or if a less formal environment is acceptable Google Hangout or even MS Skype.
In conclusion Web/Video-conferencing software tends to provide a largely passive user experience.
Virtual Classroom Software offers in addition to the above a dedicated shared whiteboard, in situ file sharing, usage of breakout rooms’ for collaborative group work,followed by re-joining inside the plenary room.
There are several opportunities for direct learner interactions via ‘status’ announcements including voting, polling/quiz, ‘raising hands’ and expression of moods (via emoticons). Opposite shows an example of user input within three different but concurrent open question text areas with participants being able to enter the answers in real-time..
VCS will thus be more suitable for ‘higher-level learning’, in particular at PG-level. VCS will also allow a flipped online classroom approach where the learning content is provided up front to the students via the VLE (as a narrated PowerPoint presentation or lecture recording) followed by a carefully planned synchronous interactive online session executed using a detailed online lesson plan.
Examples of VCS software are eLecta, WizIQ or Adobe Connect.
Being more complicated to use VCS tend to be delivered via a team teaching approach, with the team comprising a host admin, the presenter and the presenter assistant.
The host admin controls the session, hands over audio/whiteboard to participants as requested, and also deals with any technical issues affecting the participants. The presenter will talks through the slides and runs all the VCS ‘activities’ such as polls, votings and shared spaces. The presenter assistant provides the ‘backup’ for the presenter and moderates the session, posts additional info into the Chat box (for example relevant Web-links via TinyURLs) and where appropriate resplies to messages in the Chat.
VCS are at the high end of the online course delivery spectrum and as such only tend to be offered as part of a high quality and suitably funded online and distance learning provision.
The learning curve for staff to use these products is significantly higher and the running of the actual session is more demanding than online webinars, and do benefit from a proper online lesson plan to be followed.
Therefore prior to committing to a VCS product one should make a sound business case including the intent and desire of teaching staff to use the software to its full potential prior to purchasing a licence.