The use of virtual classroom technology is becoming very common in Higher Education, but there has not been a corresponding rise in use within Primary (K-12) Education. Yet, the promise of the technology and the launch of a recent television commercial showcasing an ill student use case has raised the visibility of the issue. It’s certainly worth evaluating.
The Basic Technology Hurdle is a Starting Point
Before the discussion of the value and reach of virtual classrooms even starts, we have to begin with the technology basics. It’s more than just built in webcams on laptops or even a classroom camera and smart blackboard. In order to engage the students that are not physically in the classroom, we need multiple feeds and camera angles, and critically, a two way system that lets the teacher see what the remote student is feeling, focusing on, and in some manner, pick up on the visual clues that come from students. It’s not a TV studio, but, it is more than basic Skype like functionality. This can be an issue in a budget challenged district. There are some vendors with packaged virtual classroom solutions that are worth looking at.
Extending the Reach of “Specialist” Schools
School choice is a growing issue, and is unlikely to go away soon. And the use of virtual classrooms can be a means of taking schools that are “magnet”, “gifted”, or otherwise provide enhanced services in one attribute to a larger group of students. There is even a push among Catholic educators to use virtual classrooms to provide greater reach. One member of our local school board brought up the issue of using virtual classroom technology as a means of providing special education services for a number of districts at the same time, with one physical classroom, to reduce costs.
Virtual Classrooms for an Uncertain World
Another, and I believe highly important, role for virtual classrooms is for use during a weather event or other scenario where a large proportion of the student body is unable or unwilling to go to the physical school building. Clearly an event such as Hurricane Sandy would be an example, but even the recent influenza scare going through the Northeast may result in many children staying home to limit exposure to the virus. In these situations having the ability to conduct some level of virtual learning would be an improvement on just missing school completely. Of course if there is no power or communications network, this is a problem. However, during most events there is some level of connectivity that can be achieved. School districts would have to have technology contingency plans in place. These need not be expensive. Having a standing Webex site and teachers equipped with webcams is a very basic way you can start implementation. It’s not going to be the same as an actual class, but it would be better than just missing days.
Virtual classrooms aren’t just for colleges and universities any more. Yet, this isn’t a simple plug and play technology, and districts will have to spend the time to create very finite plans for how the virtual classroom will be used. But the benefits are there. There are even potential ways to save costs, and that can help pay for a virtual classroom initiative. The future is now and it is time to start the process. In 5-10 years, the role of virtual classrooms will no longer be an issue as they will become a common part of the educational process.