Building a Virtual Classroom (TM)

When I help instructors move from the classroom to online, I start with what they know (learning theory 101). It is easier to move forward one-step-at-a-time versus leaping. The following don’t have to be done in the order they are listed.


I ask the instructors to close their eyes and imagine the first day of class. “What is happening? What are you doing? What are your students doing?” Then I ask them to imagine that they aren’t there physically. “What would the students need to see in order for you to communicate with them? What would the students need in order to know what to do and know what is expected?” Then I ask them to imagine where the student would look for answers. “Where would you put this information? How would they know how to proceed?”


Students shouldn’t have to hunt for the course materials and assume how the materials are related. I ask the instructor to imagine a class without a time-line. They don’t have a course schedule that indicates read-before-come-to-class, come-to-class, and do-homework-after-class. “What do the students need to do to in order to meet the learning objective?” Put all those things together, bundle them.


This step is too large to cover in this short article. However, here are some insights that might help you think about engaging the learner online versus the classroom.

Today, many classrooms are more than read, lecture, and test. In fact, I hear from instructors that they don’t feel their classroom activities can be duplicated online. Some are right. But sometimes it is just a matter of looking at what is being accomplished in the activity versus how it is performed. Sometimes the essence of the activity can still be reached but using a different method, an online method.

For courses that aren’t active, the online environment allows the instructor to see the learning process differently. I ask the instructors to imagine how a student might learn a subject or topic if the instructor wasn’t there to tell them. “When you want to know something or learn how to do something, what do you do? What process do you use, besides signing up for a class?” Then I ask them to imagine they need to learn the topics they teach. “What would you do to learn your topics? What did you do to learn your topics without going to class?”

Think Outside the Box

The last tip I am going to share regarding building a virtual classroom isn’t necessarily limited to the online world but it seems easier to do online. The box that courses typically fit into is shaped with a read-lecture-practice-test process (i.e., behaviorist approach). I ask the instructors to tell me the context in which the students will use what they learn when they are done with the course. “Why does the student need this course? What will they do with what they have learned?” I have had some success with building virtual environments. For example, a virtual business that uses statistics to make everyday business decisions and a psychology clinic where the students have virtual patients and they create treatment plans and discuss their issues with the licensed clinician. The first example took basic business statistics and showed business students how statistics can play a role in the jobs they do after graduation. The second example gave the students the chance to apply what they were learning and imagine what it might be like to be a psychologist (one of the objectives of the course).


Each of the strategies above can be applied to a classroom setting. There isn’t any reason why we can’t make our classrooms more interesting. But, they are offered here because they work for me when I am helping instructors move from the classroom to online.

Published by Cindy McCourt

I wear many hats: author, website planner, Drupal consultant, instructional designer, trainer.

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