Many online courses focus on pre-recorded content that students study at their leisure, submit some standardized assessments, and move on. It’s convenient and easy to scale up, but it is missing something – many online learning courses lack human connection.

Virtual classrooms solve many of today’s issues with distance learning because virtual classrooms connect people. Teachers can interact with their students in real-time, students can collaborate with peers, and the system is still scalable to educate an ever-growing number of digital natives who may want to supplement or replace traditional learning paradigms.

Keep reading to learn more about virtual classrooms and what to look for in an effective distance learning tool!

Illustration of the different ways to participate in a virtual classroom

What is a Virtual Classroom?

A virtual classroom is an online space that simulates a live classroom. Lessons are usually synchronous with the educator and the learners all appearing in an online space to interact in real-time. However, many virtual lessons include pre-recorded components depending on the needs of the educator or learner. Like real-world classrooms, virtual classrooms are flexible to the style and needs of all users.

A virtual classroom often includes the following features:

  • Videoconferencing that facilitates communication with both the teacher and with peers.
  • A digital whiteboard to offer real-time explanations and/or collaboration.
  • Instant messaging for low-bandwidth communication.
  • Participation controls so that students can still “raise their hands” or otherwise participate in lessons.
  • Sub-chats or group chats (breakout rooms) for students to collaborate in small groups online

Types of Virtual Classrooms

1. Enriched Virtual
An enriched virtual program is one that is mostly taught online with occasional offline components to augment the lessons. In many cases, the in-person component takes the form of one-on-one meetings with teachers or instructors for face-to-face assistance and personal connection.

2. Rotation
The rotation model of virtual classroom combines virtual learning with live, in-person lessons in a fixed schedule. The rotation model is typically reserved for single-subject classes at higher levels like high school or university.

This often works as part of a flipped classroom where students do their primary learning at home – usually online – and time in the classroom is reserved for review and reinforcement.

3. Fully Online Classroom
A fully online classroom is a virtual classroom that only exists on the Internet and does not include a real-life version. In this type of online learning, the virtual classroom represents the only time students and teachers will interact with each other directly, and many fully online courses are asynchronous and have no real-time interactions at all.

4. Flex
A flex model applied to distance learning usually involves a virtual classroom that remains open and available for students to visit on their own time. Students are encouraged to work digitally on their own or in small groups. The teacher will be available periodically, either online or in-person depending on the needs of a particular course.

The flex model is especially popular in trying to reach non-traditional learners that may not respond well to rigid structures but are still interested in learning. As the name suggests, the flex model provides a great deal of flexibility to how students opt to learn.

5. À La Carte Model
An à la carte model is one that combines a variety of digital teaching models and makes multiple channels available to students. This mix-and-match nature of these virtual classrooms can be up to the person or institution running the course, or it could be student-driven.

This is by far the most flexible model, but it sacrifices structure and ease of setup for its flexibility.

Why Virtual Classrooms are Important

Virtual classrooms fill a number of needs in education that have gone unaddressed for too long. Though technology in the classroom continues to evolve, we need to develop other learning channels. Here are just a few reasons why we need to develop and implement virtual learning online now and in the future:

  • Educators can supplement existing classes with virtual lessons, especially as part of a flipped classroom or blended learning.
  • Virtual education methods promote inclusive learning though accessibility to students who are differently-abled or unable to physically attend classes.
  • Extend the reach of educational materials without sacrificing the interactivity or collaboration of synchronous lessons.
  • Implementing a virtual learning infrastructure maintains educational continuity in the face of school closures, especially long-term closures.

What are the Advantages of Virtual Classrooms?

Given the ever-growing need for innovation in education, educators and institutions need to be ready with solutions. This will inevitably mean picking increasing the availability of digital learning tools, including both distance learning and virtual classrooms. Additionally, as they assess the needs of their students, schools will have to take a good look at the best system for their desired learning outcomes. So while virtual learning environments aren’t perfect for every situation, they have distinct advantages as an online synchronous learning system and overcome many challenges of distance learning:

High Interactivity: As previously mentioned, an effective virtual classroom will have multiple communication channels. This would include instant messaging, voice chat, and videoconferencing. Ideally, there would also be the ability for students and teachers to use shared workspaces to maintain engagement with the course materials.

Collaborative Learning: Related to interactivity is a virtual classroom’s ability to collaborate, and often in real-time. Through shared chats, files, and digital whiteboards, students can work together on solving problems and reinforcing course materials. To simulate group work, breakout rooms allow students to work in pairs or small groups similar to group work in a physical classroom.

Student-Centered Teaching: One of the challenges of digital learning is the fact that pre-recorded materials naturally make lessons more teacher-centered. While standardized teaching materials like texts and videos are convenient and easy to teach at scale, they are harder to adapt to individual students’ needs. A virtual classroom – especially a live one – has much of the agility and responsiveness of in-person education.

Content Variety: Just like an interactive whiteboard in the classroom, a virtual classroom can easily make use of a wide range of media to present, review, and reinforce educational materials. Through links, files, and embedded media, the teacher can tap into a wider range of educational content to more fully engage with students across a wider spectrum of interests and abilities.

Safe and Comfortable Learning Space: A classroom filled with warm and welcoming people is much better than an empty or automated space. This much is true whether it’s a brick-and-mortar room or a virtual space. Having both mentors and peers to interact with goes a long way to helping students open up and engage with virtual learning, especially in a format that closely emulates the real-world equivalent.

Example of a Virtual Classoom Lesson

What to Look for in a Virtual Classroom

There are certain functions that are necessary to make a virtual classroom work while others are just nice to have and may improve the user experience (but you can still run an effective lesson without these frills). Here’s a look at some of what you should look for in a virtual teaching environment.


This is the bare minimum for communication. Students should be able to write directly to their instructors and each other to ask questions, participate, and collaborate. In some environments, text-based communications may be all you need.  Being able to read the text at one’s own pace – or re-read as necessary – can go a long way to improving understanding and retention, but it is also limited in how much can be shared how quickly with easy misunderstandings based on tone or writing style.

Voice Chat

Voice chat is faster than text and offers a more natural learning experience. It can also help connect participants to a real person on the other end of the line. For weaker connections, it isn’t as demanding as video.  However, in a lot of ways voice chat is a compromise between messaging and videoconferencing. It provides more natural communication than messaging but lacks the visual cues of video or in-person communication.

Video Streaming

Videoconferencing has been around for a long while in the business space, but it’s designed to handle small groups of collaborators. Most classes are larger than video conferencing can handle, so video streaming is used to teach full classes of tens, hundreds, or even thousands of learners all at the same time.

Video streaming to a virtual classroom is about as close as an educator is going to get to teaching in person. Although most students will not be able to broadcast themselves under this system, this restriction results in the whole group getting a smoother online experience.

File Sharing

Though nearly every communication platform has some degree of file sharing, it’s extremely important for a virtual classroom to have an integrated, two-way sharing system. Whether this is through an integrated cloud storage system or baked into the virtual environment, teachers need to have a way to share assignments and resources with student and students need a way to submit their work to teachers directly within the learning environment.

Participation Management

Participation management refers to students’ ability to “raise their hands” or otherwise signal they would like to participate in a lesson. The system is an effective way to allow students to offer input, answer questions, and otherwise contribute to the class as a whole. Additionally, the ability to switch students’ channels on and off gives the online teacher a classroom management superpower many educators wish for: the ability to silence disruptions.

The only downside to this system is that it does require the teacher (or a moderator’s) constant input to allow students to speak up. This can stifle some of the impromptu give-and-take discussions that pop up in lessons, but these can be brought up on other channels for later.

Digital Whiteboarding

A digital whiteboard is software that emulates a whiteboard. It allows for writing, drawing, and annotating just like the physical fixture; it also allows teachers to import pre-made content, rich media, and custom software. Many virtual classrooms also make whiteboards available to students – either as a full class or in smaller collaborative groups.

To get the most out of digital whiteboarding, it’s best to have a touchscreen device. The teacher should also seriously consider having a touch monitor available to facilitate lessons. Having the larger touchscreen more closely mimics the real thing (only with the addition of a wider range of available media).

Student Groups

For a complete virtual classroom, it is necessary for students to be able to work together in separate groups. Group work is an important part of exploring and reinforcing taught materials, so the online experience needs to include the necessary channels for collaboration.

However, setting up how students interact with each other will depend very much on the capabilities of your virtual classroom solution. In some situations, it may be enough for them to simply share a digital whiteboard. In other cases, however, they may need to communicate more directly as part of a breakout room or virtual huddle with messaging, voice, or even video.


In a digital learning environment, no system exists in a vacuum and no software performs every necessary function. A good virtual classroom will overcome its own limitations by supplementing its functionality with other services like Google Drive, Google Classroom, or Zoom.  While adding integrations to a system increase complexity and require users to learn more systems, it does help keep the purpose-built software focused on what it does well.

Summing It All Up

Distance learning is growing at an exponential rate, and it’s only primed to grow more. There’s no reason all education has to happen in the same physical space – a better-connected world means more flexibility for teachers and students alike.

Imagine a world where learning happens not just in our schools, but as part of a live event, while traveling and exploring the world, and even from the comfort and safety of our own homes. A virtual classroom is an ideal way to get a real connection in real-time from anywhere in the world as yet another tool in the digital educator’s toolbox.

(From the editor: This article was originally published on ViewSonic Library.)