Online Classroom Requirements

I have had the honor to visit perhaps 1,000s of classrooms over the span of my career. A classroom is a “space” that has a particular feel, a particular set of conditions to help impart learning. You know a good one, the minute you walk in the door. Lighting, fresh air, layout, order, tools and materials in place.

But what about an online classroom? What are its online requirements? With the zoom to Zoom, I think a lot of essential “must-haves” of the online space where learning occurs have been missed. What’s missing? What’s essential? What does the online classroom need to succeed? Here are my thoughts and what I think is “required” for learning to flourish and the teach-learn dynamic to really be top-notch online and echo the success of a well-designed, smoothly functioning brick ‘n mortar classroom. See this discussion at ELT Professionals on LinkedIn related to this question. Download the infographic.

  1. Ownership. Just like a home that is loved and cared for, you get the impression this is a space that someone “owns” and values. Not some anonymous, blank room. When you enter the online classroom, is there a bright welcome message? Is there the logo/brand of the school clearly visible? Is the teacher’s face and name front and center? Does it look attractive, have a nice image or prompt for you before the lesson begins? Is there one link to everything, all there in your space? How is this room “owned”?
  2. Communication. A classroom should be designed to foster communication. Is the “tech” good, making sure students don’t have problems listening or responding? Are all connections checked and assured for said quality? Is there the ability to chat, to instantly contact the teacher with questions, a place for discussions both synchronously and asynchronously (when the class isn’t in session)? Are breakout rooms set up so that students can easily form groups and work together? Is student speaking and interaction data provided so you know students are communicating and not just ghosting?
  3. Affordances. Donald Norman (1988) describes an affordance as the properties of a thing (classroom) that suggest and determine how it will be used. Affordances are the things the classroom enviroment allow you to do with it. Does the classroom have a whiteboard with editing tools to modify the text and assist learning? Does the classroom have a library – for language learning, a content set easily accessed to promote negotiation of meaning, discourse? Are there different modes based on the size of the class? For example, a mode for face to face (pair) teaching, for larger numbers etc … Can the classroom be resized, be rearranged and adjusted for different types of lesson delivery? What does the classroom afford the students? Can the students respond in real time, or offline at their leisure? Can students upload files, change privacy settings, modify how they appear and their account? There are many more possible affordances we might discuss – see this paper for a good discussion of many.
  4. Comfort. Accessibility. Ease. A classroom needs to be a space that “simply works”. It should exude simplicity and students need to feel comfortable with the technology. Is it easy, one click, for students to enter the classroom? Do the students have access to help and faqs in the classroom itself to find answers to any problems they face with the technology? Is the layout and design “logical” and made for easily understanding and accessing the complete set of functions the students need?
  5. Memory. A classroom space is a historical record of learning and the time spent by the teacher and students. It’s not a blank page, restarted each time. A cold, white void. Does the classroom have the ability to record the learning, the session, the whiteboard, student interaction? Does the classroom “persist” and when you return, the online classroom has content from the previous sessions for review, for continuity? Can a teacher monitor classrooms not just in real time but after the classroom session?
  6. Accountability. A strong classroom space makes all participants accountable to the world outside the class and to each other. Can you see all students? Is there a clear and accessible code of online conduct available? Is there an attendance feature and other ways to “know” students are there and not just “ghosting”? Are there notifications to all parties if a student isn’t in attendance and not there? As related above, is there a record of the learning to show other stakeholders like parents, DoSs, admins etc …?

There are many considerations. One might also think of online classroom technology through the lens of my fellow Canadian, Marshall McLuhan’s “tetrads” and consider what it enhances, reverses, retrieves and obsolesces.

A story before I wrap things up. In 2008 – 2009 I started a company and with an eye to the future, I tried to build a great online classroom. There wasn’t much on offer back then. Skype – like Zoom today wasn’t an option, rather an add-on, lacking lots of functionality. AdobeConnect and a few other business-focused applications didn’t address “classroom”. Alas, I had bad timing. For a lot of reasons but mostly because there wasn’t a lot of people with good bandwidth at that time. Also, technical problems involving latency, transfer, VoIP that hadn’t yet been solved. But if you don’t try, you’ll never succeed or as one famous hockey player said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” But that process did give me some perspective on what is needed in an online teaching environment.

My failed tech video teaching company circa 2009.

There is a lot to be considered when designing and choosing an online teaching platform. Review the questions I’ve posed above and your own requirements. In my own evaluation, there still isn’t a lot out there really doing justice to online teaching. One solution I do recommend is LearnCube checking off most of the boxes I’ve outlined above.

In ending, there is a lot to consider but I DO believe an online classroom can be designed that is as strong or stronger than that one we are all so familiar with. Teachers, schools don’t have to sacrifice and see online instruction as a compromise and imitation.

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