Ellen Van de Woestijne, Strategic Director of Education and L&D at Barco

Fuelled by the coronavirus crisis driven need for social distancing and spurred on by the evolution of digital technology, it is more pressing than ever for universities, academic institutions, business schools and corporate learning and development teams to embrace the growing demand for distance learning.

However, this shift online is fuelling a debate as to whether a ‘virtual’ approach to education delivers the same quality of social and emotional interaction provided by a traditional classroom setting.

Interactive engagement between students and teachers

A gifted teacher has the ability to bring out the best in their students. They encourage them to socially engage, igniting their curiosity and drawing out their passion for learning. After all, people are social beings and need emotional cues to be inspired and open their minds to new content.

Yet the majority of online learning resources are asynchronous, meaning that learning activities do not take place in real-time. This can limit the level of interactive engagement between students and teachers. Communication is instead reliant on more traditional forms of digital contact, including emails, conference calls, text-led chat groups and one-way video presentations.

While these tools can deliver course content and a measure of student-teacher exchanges, they fail to provide the intense level of collaborative engagement comparable to a classroom setting. In essence, online learning has previously been restricted to ‘hear and learn’ with little scope for social or emotional interaction. This is frustrating for both teacher and student and may result in a mediocre learning experience.

Key components of the learning experience

Despite this, we continue to see an increase in demand for distance learning, in part due to more professionals re-entering education at various points throughout their careers. Learning as a way of improving one’s prospects is now seen as a lifelong endeavour. But for many, work commitments, family obligations and journey times present very real obstacles to attending a fixed class.

We should not allow these barriers to impede personal development so we must now ask more of our technology.

As with students in a physical classroom setting, distance learners also benefit from face-to-face interaction, group participation and the ability to ask and respond to questions in real-time. Moreover, these key components of the learning experience, evolved in a digital format, can enable things that aren’t always possible in a physical classroom, such as collaborating in a workshop with someone who lives and works on the other side of the world.

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A truly interactive learning experience

With advancements in digital technology, we can now deliver all of this by inviting students and teachers to collaborate in a ‘virtual’ classroom. It is now possible to deliver a truly interactive learning experience where participants collaborate, engage and respond to each other in a ‘real-time’ ecosystem that is equal to, and often more productive than, attending a physical classroom.

What’s more, the virtual way of learning suits the mindset of today’s distance learners as the majority have grown up in a hyper-connected digital world.

The virtual classroom model is set up much in the same way as a traditional classroom. The audio-visual streaming technologies and interfaces mean that participants are able to interact more naturally with their tutor and peers, so they feel socially included and emotionally involved in the academic process.

The teacher views all the participants’ faces on a wall screen and, inversely, students too can see and interact with their tutor and peers. Microphones and headsets provide the live audio. There are even virtual breakout rooms where smaller groups of classmates can work on specialist projects, the teacher can access these rooms to guide and feedback much in the same way they would in a physical setting, and then groups can return to the main ‘room’ to present back ideas.

The tutor is still able to guide the students through a lesson and undertake activities such as illustrating on a white board, answering questions and adding additional explanation in the same way that they would in a classroom environment. Physical actions, vocal intonations and nonverbal cues can be observed and responded to accordingly.

Intercultural skills are an increasingly valuable commodity in a globalised economy

The online experience is no longer focused on one-way video presentations and never-ending PowerPoints, which students often find underwhelming and unengaging. A further advantage is that students from different backgrounds and locations around the world can be brought together to learn. Intercultural skills are an increasingly valuable commodity in a globalised economy.

Additionally, it is super intuitive and easy to use. For instance, Barco’s own weConnect solution is hosted and accessed via the cloud so students do not need to download additional software and can log into a session from any device.

In this brave new world, the laptop or smartphone screen is no longer a barrier to human interaction but has the power to open up a window of opportunities for enriching hungry minds. Virtual learning will not replace the traditional classroom experience, but it will increasingly be used to compliment more traditional teaching methods, particularly where physical attendance is difficult.

Universities and institutes should welcome this shifting landscape and incorporate ‘virtual’ technologies into their own educational offering – enhancing the quality of their offer and opening up valuable new revenue streams.

Those institutions that take an early lead on this will greatly benefit, and as a society we will see distance learning become a fulfilling emotional and social experience where human interaction plays centre stage.

Ellen Van de Woestijne, Strategic Director of Education and L&D at Barco

About Barco: Designing technology to enable bright outcomes around the world. Seeing beyond the image, Barco develop visualization and collaboration solutions to help you work together, share insights, and wow audiences. 

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