Digital learning: the health crisis imposes the virtual classroom

A woman attends an online course from her living room.
With the COVID-19 pandemic having greatly reduced in-person training, businesses have largely turned to the virtual classroom. Reproducing the workings of a classroom, this new learning format fosters peer interaction and discussion.

“A virtual classroom must not identically reproduce the sequence of an in-person course. Interactivity must be omnipresent.”

Training has most certainly been the HR process most impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Businesses had to abandon in-person training overnight and massively switch to online training. This paradigm shift took place precisely at a time when they had a considerable need for training. Indeed, with the generalization of teleworking, there was a need to train staff in collaborative working tools, and their supervisors in distance management.

Organizations therefore turned massively to digital learning in order to sustain their training efforts. According to the 2020 edition of the Cegos European barometer, 86 % of human resources directors used distance training more last year than they did before the crisis. New modes of learning, from using a smartphone to learning in augmented reality, through MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) or video tutorials, have thus come out of the crisis stronger. There is however one that stands apart, and that is the virtual classroom. According to a joint study by consulting firm Féfaur and editor Talentsoft, conducted among over 600 European training managers, 77.4 % of French companies have used virtual classrooms since the beginning of the crisis.

Staying in touch

It is true that the virtual classroom is the format that comes closest to in-person training. As its name implies, it reproduces the workings of a classroom virtually. Using a single interface, both trainees and trainers can converse in synchronous mode both by videoconference and by chat, as well as share online content. Coached by the trainer and able to have conversations with their peers, learners are no longer left to their own devices, which is one of the most frequently encountered pitfalls of online learning.

Associate director of Féfaur, Michel Diaz says this success is a result of learners wishing to stay in “live” touch with their company and with their peers. He thinks that even a well-written, well-filmed MOOC cannot replace what takes place in a virtual classroom. “Contrary to what we believed, it is possible, to some extent, to distance learn live the specifics, the ways of working, and even the soft skills of trades, without however reaching the richness and depth of certain courses delivered in person”, he believes.

Furthermore, Michel Diaz notes that the skepticism of trainers regarding this live learning has diminished greatly. Faced with the disappearance of in-person learning, they took courses on designing and delivering virtual classes. Equipped with new skills, they have come out of the ordeal stronger, the expert believes.

No copy-and-paste

As Learn Assembly explains in a white paper, copy-and-paste is to be proscribed. A virtual classroom must not identically reproduce the sequence of an in-person course. Following a recipe of “30 % top-down and 70 % interaction”, it is about writing a lesson that will not exceed two hours. A healthy dose of quizzes, fun activities, tests, and open questions helps to keep learners engaged. They can also work in sub-groups and converse with each other, thus creating a feeling of community, with informal discussion being an integral part of professional training. The coffee break is often the key time for clearing up any queries raised during the lesson.

What’s more, the virtual classroom must fit into a hybrid training path that combines both in-person and distance modules. For example, a learner may start the learning process at home using online content (videos, podcasts, etc.) then, having acquired this initial knowledge, join the trainer and other learners in a virtual classroom. They will then work in sub-groups on a project that they will present during an in-person half-day session.

A booming ecosystem

The spectacular rise of the virtual classroom has revitalized a whole sector of activity, in which we are seeing the historical players of digital learning and in particular LMS (“Learning Management System”) and LXP (“Learning Experience Platform”) editors, such as Docebo, 360Learning, or Cornerstone OnDemand.

More opportunistically, videoconference specialists such as Zoom, WebEx, or Microsoft, and their partners, have added virtual classroom modules to their platforms. Since December, Microsoft Teams has offered working rooms called “Breakout Rooms”. As for ClassEDU, it distributes a virtual class layer for the Zoom platform. Facing these heavyweights are some startups trying hard to be heard, such as Classilio, Glowbl, Bizness.

In the world of EdTech, more and more startups are attempting to make technology and pedagogy go hand in hand. It is worth mentioning Ubicast and Wooclap. These fresh startups intend to break from the traditional lecture-style approach where teaching is only top-down, and the student is passive. They are a breath of fresh innovation within the French national education, whose resources reached their limits during the second lockdown. The national digital working environment and the distance education website were both paralyzed in early April 2021, either unable to support the increase in traffic, or the victims of cyber-attacks. An upgrade in capacity will make it possible to accompany and amplify the digital learning dynamic.

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