Hi, I'm interested in implementing virtual classrooms... Could anyone offer any advice in terms of the best low cost solutions available, and in particular what are the technical 'must haves' to ensure a good learner experience and my business, gets a good ROI. Thanks

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I have been facilitating virtual classes for the last couple of years for some blended learning programmes.  To get started, I was able to get a free trial from a range of providers, such as Adobe Connect, Webex and GoToMeeting.  There is a huge number of them out there so we tested a few and made a shortlist.  

In the end we settled on GoToMeeting but all of the tools were fine really and tend to offer the same type of features.  I use this for relatively small groups of less than 25.  Audio is provided via VoIP or phone and the presenter shares their screen with the audience and uses other tools such as chat.  We don't use it year round so we only pay for the months that we do want to use it.  The cost for the package we use if €39 for a single month, so fairly cheap and I think the other similar tools are in the same ballpark.  I'm pretty sure there are some free options out there too, but I would expect they might have reduced functionality.  The main thing for me is, can the attendees use it with minimal troubleshooting.

My recommendation would be to trial a few products with your presenters and attendees and see what works best for your audience.  You might also find some potential vendors and other ideas at the Learning Technologies Exhibition in February.  Best of luck with it.

Hi Val

I've just seen this, so hope my late response is helpful! I have experience of designing and delivering training online-for a variety of client organisations.

Apart from James’s suggestions, have you considered using Google Hangouts? Used with other Google+ apps it’s possible to deliver quite sophisticated L&D – free if you are talking small numbers.

Agreed, a lot of the platforms on offer do much the same thing. Don’t go for lots of features that add complication and confuse users. For example, full-blown video conferencing sounds attractive, but do you need it?

Technically, you need to take a ‘worst possible scenario’ view of what might go wrong from participants’ perspective. If your participants are working in a variety of locations, maybe from home, you may need to ensure compatibility with a variety of software and hardware, and to consider bandwidth limitations. You need technical support. On occasions, particularly in the early stages of a programme we’ve used IT technicians to sit in on sessions and help with troubleshooting when needed. They also can provide an FAQ list of common problems and solutions.

The organisational and people issues are as important as the technical, though. There is a time and resource cost to this kind of learning: it can’t be done without time cost to the company. Managers need to recognise the benefits of virtual classrooms: get them involved and get them to understand staff still need time away from work to learn. But getting management/organisational commitment to L&D is an issue regardless of the medium.

Ensuring people are genuinely comfortable with the technology is also essential: a surprisingly large number of people are less IT-savvy than they imagine. I've generally worked with virtual classrooms as an integral part of blended learning programmes, used in conjunction with other media. If learners can see a reason why the medium is being used in conjunction with or in preference to other methods, they will accept and use it. If it’s viewed as a cheap and cheerful alternative to other forms of L&D, it might not be so popular.

Happy to say more but I feel I’ve said quite enough already!

Alan, I really like your suggestion of using a Google Hangout.  Not something I've tried before but I believe it's very easy to use and I'll definitely be looking into it.  

Your other advice is also very useful.  I completely agree that video conferencing is probably not needed in most situations and just adds needless technical complications.

Thanks James, Jo Kori did a presentation  on using Hangouts as a virtual classroom at last year's LT Exhibition. Jo has used Hangouts and other Google apps to deliver L&D for at least one client. She subsequently ran some demo sessions for people who were interested in trying it out. It worked pretty well although in my case I have to say the video bit didn't, and it took me 24 hours to figure out why.Which maybe bears out what we're saying about keeping it simple.... 

Hi Val and James - and hello again Alan :) I've been designing more and different kinds of virtual classrooms since March 2015 - usually in response to whatever technology people have already. I still have the set up for More Than a Hangout from last year that Alan attended, which goes through planning them using my Flipped Learning Model (there's an archived LSG webinar that I ran on the Flipped Learning Model in November 2013) and running them as an all Google apps solution. The great thing about More Than a Hangout is that it really trialled people being able to access the virtual workshop externally - and we encountered every kind of hiccup going. My own video issue was a tiny thing in the end - I used what I thought I should use to show an animation (inserted a file directly) and what I should have done is just shared my screen. We also had another issue with one of the hangout sessions where 2 people could hear the class and me, but we couldn't hear them - this ended up being okay as we used the text chat panel for them to speak and were just particularly considerate about asking them to contribute. If an organisation runs an all-Google set up it's a lot easier to guarantee technology-wise. But as Alan says, even though we had to accommodate everything you can think of when running virtual workshops for externals, it worked pretty well. The key approach is to try not to think about the virtual classroom as just information delivery - go in the opposite direction. Look at how you run your most engaging activity-led and participatory classroom session, and then find ways to run the same session virtually. If enough people want it, I don't mind running another More Than a Hangout this year, just let me know.

Hello, If you are going to the Learning Skills exhibition next week, come over to our stand R19 (Explosive Learning Solutions) where we might be able to give you some answers to your questions. We are a strategic partner with IBM (who will also be on our stand) who provide their LCMS platform - we come in where we design the blended learning solution through our virtual classroom 'stuff'.  

Always good to chat things through anyway.

Kind Regards

Ali

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