Teaching in virtual classrooms

A virtual classroom is a video conferencing tool where instructors and participants engage with each other and with the learning material. The difference with other video conferencing tools is that virtual classrooms offer an added set of features that are essential to a learning environment. Commonly used virtual classroom environments at SCU include Zoom and CollaborateThe following article provides suggestions and advice that can help you and your students get the most from using virtual classrooms in your teaching.

How can I use a Virtual Classroom?

Student Presentations

Virtual classrooms provide students with opportunities to present live to their peers. Students can undertake a short practice presentation in the virtual classroom that can be used for self-critique purposes (using recording) prior to their main presentation. Student presentations can be submitted as a recording for marking, if appropriate. If students are presenting via a virtual classroom they can record a practice presentation and then review and use it to improve their performance.

Create a Collaborative Space

Virtual classrooms provide valuable opportunities for building collaborative spaces for students. In group work, virtual classrooms can be used by students as a recordable meeting space. Guest lecturers and expert presentations can be facilitated through virtual classrooms, and included in assessment where appropriate (e.g. student reflection or follow-up analysis). Other options include online student debates or panel discussions in which students move between 'breakout rooms' to interact with staff from across an entire course (e.g. as an online orientation).

Don't forget the value of encouraging the use of the space for study groups and social exchanges.

Watch the following Collaborate presentation by  Mark Bailye on Stimulating the creative use of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Many of the strategies shown in this video apply to any virtual classroom environment. 



Plan the virtual classroom environment

Before you start, it is a good idea to plan your virtual classroom and become familiar with the online tools available.

Avoid giving the perception that you, as the teacher, are going to 'do' content for the students. 

For example, use online sessions to enrich and deepen the work students have already undertaken, or encourage them to return to specific parts of the content.

Give first priority to attendees of the session. 

For example, start by focusing on answering questions posed by students attending the session. Ask students to post these questions on the whiteboard or in the chat area.

Use asynchronous forums to support the live sessions. 

For example, address the questions and issues posed by students in the Discussion Forums over the previous week. Have a slide prepared, ready to address these questions.

Teach for active learning, as you would in any type of classroom. 

For example, encourage students to articulate their question or issue in order to discuss and flesh out what the barrier is to their understanding. Encourage discussion to deepen the students' understandings.


Is it critical that students attend your live sessions?

Student attendance is not everything and it doesn't mean that students aren't learning. Session recordings still provide a valuable means for students to engage with the content when they want and how often they want. Student discussion forums that feed student questions into the live sessions aren't always essential to student learning either. It is also possible to monitor if students are engaging in other ways, using Eesysoft reports. Don't make the flexibility of online learning inflexible.

If you are concerned about attendance, consider ways that make it worthwhile to come to your session. This could include:

  • providing content not available on the Blackboard site
  • providing stimulating and engaging activities that are best experienced synchronously (by being there with you)
  • thinking about what you bring to the experience because you are the drawcard for these sessions
  • considering that there may be very valid reasons why students can't attend and the recording provides access to students who may have not been able to study otherwise.

Watch Steve Rowe discuss his thoughts about managing the issue of student attendance.

How can I engage students in live online sessions?

Engaging students online is often a challenge, and barriers exist with personal communication, technology access and busy schedules. Students are better engaged and perform better in online sessions where active learning approaches are adopted. Active learning is any learning activity where students participate or interact collaboratively with the learning process, as opposed to passively taking in information. 

'Active learning takes time in every session. Don't waste valuable time with content. Use it to empower students to show what they know and most importantly where the gaps are' Steve Rowe, School of Business & Tourism, SCU.

Watch the video below to listen to Steve Rowe discuss how he utilises Blackboard Collaborate to engage students.


Quick tips for virtual classrooms
 Advice for staff new to teaching in virtual classrooms

Get out of the way! 
Step out of the students' learning space by looking for opportunities to get the students active in the session, whether through discussion or other activities.

Use session recordings for professional development. 
Reflect on how you could improve and adapt your approaches. Ask a work colleague to review the recording, as a form of peer review after you have undertaken a self-review. 

Use whiteboard tools for guiding students through a slide or other content. 
For example, use a pointer, or use a white box (on a white slide) to reveal the content as you speak.

Harness the poll tool. 
Student polls break up the presentation, keep students active and test their understanding.

Leverage the 'silent majority' through the chat area. 
'Pausing' the session to address student questions and comments in the chat area gives everyone time to reflect on content. Silence is okay. Aim to make students' contributions central to the session, while addressing areas of difficulty.

 Encouraging student participation in virtual classrooms

Use the chat area to personalise the learning experience.

  • Using audio and chat simultaneously allows a broader range of contributions in far less time than waiting for all to speak.

  • Right-clicking on a whiteboard object shows you which student created it.

  • Demonstrate the value of student contributions by referring to specific contributions, highlighting differences and similarities.

  • Cut and paste important student contributions from the chat area to the whiteboard as the basis for further student activity.

Use the polling tool as an educational technology.

  • Harness any similarities and differences in polling results as a basis for group discussion.

  • Publishing poll results to the whiteboard provides an enduring artefact for group discussion. The same poll may be repeated after a group discussion to discuss how results have changed.

  • Decide whether it is appropriate to set the poll so students cannot initially see the responses of others.

  • Polls provide a quick way to gauge student understanding on a topic being discussed.

Remember the asynchronous dimension of virtual classrooms.

  • Where appropriate, include instructions for students who are watching the recording. They are really additional silent members of the room.

 Student attendance in virtual classroom

Student attendance is not everything.
Session recordings provide a valuable means for students to engage with the content. This is also the case for student discussion forums that feed student questions into the live sessions. Don't make flexibility inflexible.

Add value for student attendance.
For example, only provide PowerPoint slides via the live session or the recording (as a download).
Remember to take advantage of those students who are attending, as their questions are often important for those students watching the recording.


Tools for Virtual Classrooms

At SCU we recommend using the Blackboard Collaborate Ultra tool as the environment in which to conduct synchronous (live) sessions with your students. There are a variety of other tools that you may consider such as Zoom and similar principles apply regardless of the platform (environment). Both of these tools are supported by the Technology Services Help Desk.


(Please note - it's better to refer to the Online version rather than export, as it's always up to date)