Over the past decade, the growing appeal of web conferencing for delivering training and education can be attributed to many factors, including reduced costs, convenience, global reach, and recorded events for on-demand access. However, as is often the case, new delivery media are initially used to perform “old jobs.”

Most virtual classrooms are attempts to replicate live classroom lectures. Unfortunately, attendees often multi-task and frequently disengage. Decades of research in educational psychology have shown lectures to be one of the least effective instructional approaches for learning. Why then do we continue to use them for virtual classrooms?

One potential approach for improving attention and engagement (and therefore, learning) has emerged from higher education. This blended instruction model is often referred to as the flipped classroom. The flipped classroom “flips” traditional instruction by converting lecture material into self-paced tutorials for access outside the classroom, often using video and multimedia. This reserves the live classroom for more in-depth learning activities, active engagement, and interaction with experts and peers (Figure 1).

Figure 1: In the flipped classroom model, traditional lecture material becomes self-paced tutorials, and the virtual classroom time is used for engagement and interaction

The flipped “virtual” classroom

Elements of the “flipped classroom” bring together a tight integration between in-class and out-of-class learning activities that you can also apply to virtual classrooms. The flipped strategy in a virtual classroom is twofold. The first component requires designing pre-work that must be completed prior to the live classroom with the intention of priming and preparing the learner. The second element is the synchronous classroom itself, and its purpose is to leverage higher levels of interactive learning. The key differentiator here is active learning.

Explore ways to replace lectures by shifting the content to other delivery mediums. For example, design self-study pre-work using mixed modalities of text, images, audio, video, and quizzing with immediate and corrective feedback. You can then use the live virtual class to help learners apply pre-work concepts, observe worked examples, and engage in discussion via chat. Following are some general principles to keep in mind when designing a virtual flipped classroom.

Principles for designing required pre-work

  1. Introduce foundational content to aid formation of mental models.

    Leverage the opportunity to introduce foundational content in the pre-work. This helps learners build structural mental frameworks. Focus on essential key concepts and overarching structure. Length should be brief, and encourage learners to complete the learning at their own pace. The complexity and depth of the material will best determine scope and length. William Horton’s three types of learning activities (Absorb, Do, and Connect) provide a useful framework here. You would focus activities related to self-paced learning more heavily on “Absorb” type learning activities.

  2. Apply the personalization principle to establish the perception of instructor presence.

    Create and design instruction to give the perception of the instructor being present. Include scattered images or video of the instructor, as this creates the perception of connection to the expert while learning is taking place. Well written text using an informal conversational tone can be just as effective, easier to produce, and simpler to make changes to later. Do not feel compelled to use video and/or audio unless they’re necessary.

Principles for designing the synchronous classroom

  1. Facilitate higher levels of learning through application, synthesis, and feedback.

    The classroom experience should not look and feel like a lecture where learners are passive. Avoid redundancy by not reviewing concepts learned in pre-work. Instead, leverage live-class time for higher levels of learning such as analysis and evaluation. Referencing Horton’s learning activities, you can apply “Do and Connect” type activities here. Engage in group problem-solving activities that build upon concepts covered in the pre-work. Ask deep, thought-provoking questions throughout and encourage participant responses in the chat queue. Some of the greatest learning comes from the learner-instructor interaction where interfacing with the expert adds value.

  2. Maintain a conversational feel and informal tone throughout virtual classroom.

    Instructors should use natural, conversational deliveries. If you script and read virtual instruction verbatim attendees quickly disengage. Given the faceless medium, learners pay more focused attention when words are conversational. You may also use webcams on the front-end to establish presence and place, but then you can turn them off to focus and direct attention to other visual points of focus.

As professional educators and trainers serious about effective teaching and learning, the virtual classroom is ripe with opportunity for improvement. Given the tools, online technologies, and affordances at our disposal today, we have little excuse for not creating active learning and engagement. The flipped virtual classroom is one potential alternative to re-designing the virtual classroom, and ideally, aiding learning.