It’s time to snap out of black-and-white thinking when it comes to eLearning and reimagine the virtual classroom.

The concept of synchronous learning, where the instructor and learners are online simultaneously and interaction occurs in real time, is practically baked in to the definition of a virtual classroom. Why would you need a “classroom”—metaphoric or real—for asynchronous learning?

And, although asynchronous eLearning offers learners the greatest amount of control and flexibility—they choose when and where to do it—it unfortunately also offers the option of “never.” On the other hand, synchronous eLearning offers the advantage of greater accountability: The instructor knows who’s there and who’s actively participating.

Why choose?

The eLearning “conventional wisdom” that instructional designers (IDs) must choose between synchronous and asynchronous learning presents a false dilemma. You can, in fact, have the best of both worlds. A creative blended eLearning solution combines synchronous sessions with asynchronous elements, adopting elements of the “flipped classroom” in the process. The results can be a win all around: Learners have a better experience, and the format encourages collaboration and improves outcomes.

A blended solution forces IDs to let go of two relics: the view that a virtual classroom is simply a traditional classroom that has been moved online and the image of teaching as presenting information to passive learners. While a lecture or webinar can be part of the synchronous eLearning experience, it is—or should be—only a small part of the package.

Even at their best, lectures are not the ideal instructional approach. And, lacking the physical connection that an in-person session offers, a lecture delivered online can be tedious, even in a setting that permits discussion. A synchronous eLearning session should always include more than just a talking head presenting information. And even during the presentation, an instructor can integrate interactivity: add polls, brainstorm ideas via chat, share the whiteboard. In other words, let learners join in beyond asking questions.

Flip the virtual classroom

Instructors can back farther away from the dated “sage on the stage” approach by applying flipped classroom concepts to their virtual classrooms. Some suggestions:

  • Consider turning (short) lectures into asynchronous assignments by recording them. Ask learners to watch the lectures and prepare a question or comment or write a response—as homework. These assignments then form the foundation of a discussion, exercise, or quiz in the next synchronous session.
  • Use breakout rooms or paired chat for part of the synchronous session. Most virtual classroom platforms offer these features, which make short collaborative assignments or discussions easy to implement and supervise.
  • Collaborative or individual projects completed as asynchronous elements of the course can then be shared via the virtual classroom’s whiteboard for synchronous discussion and analysis. Alternatively, the instructor can turn over the microphone for part of the live session to permit each learner to present a project to classmates. Sharing in these ways fosters a community feeling, even when students are meeting only virtually.

Asynchronous collaboration builds community

Additional asynchronous elements like discussion boards, collaborative blogs, and course wikis build community and increase learners’ engagement with one another.

  • Many instructors structure discussion boards around particular topics and require learners to comment on and engage with other learners’ posts. Alternatively, in smaller courses, each learner could run a discussion, curating content and moderating other learners’ contributions.
  • Blog posts—generated by the learners or posted by the instructor—can also form the basis for asynchronous discussion, with learners required to post comments and respond to other learners’ comments.
  • A course wiki is a forum for collaborative research.

These asynchronous elements provide spaces for learners and instructors to generate content, share curated content, or shape a final product together.

Put it all together

As instructors ramp up their virtual classrooms to include more interactive and collaborative elements, the demands on them increase. Preparation is essential, not only to get the content ready but to become comfortable using the tools—whiteboard, chat, polls—while teaching. Lecturing to passive learners is easier, but taking the easy way out will show in the results. It’s time to reimagine and reinvigorate the virtual classroom.


Christopher, Darlene. The Successful Virtual Classroom: How to Design and Facilitate Interactive and Engaging Live Online Learning. New York, NY: Amacom, 2015.