How to Design a Virtual Classroom 10 Easy Steps to Follow
Sam Hsu, Ph.D.
Oge Marques, Instructor
M. Khalid Hamza, Ph.D.
Bassem Alhalabi, Ph.D.
Center for Distance Education Technologies (CDET)
Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida
Before attempting to describe the steps toward a successful implementation of a virtual classroom, let us start with a few basic and important definitions.
A classroom can be defined as a communication system that makes it possible for a group of people/users to come together to dialogue about something they want to learn, and to look at visuals (pictures, diagrams) and text that might aid them in understanding. The conventional classroom is surrounded by walls that provide protection from outside noise and interference, contributing to a more effective learning process (Tiffin and Rajasingham 1995).
A virtual classroom, on the other hand, is a system that provides the same opportunities for the teaching and learning process, beyond the physical limits of the traditional classroom's walls, thanks to the use of computer communication networks. Due to the ubiquity and popularity of the Internet -- particularly the World Wide Web -- most virtual classroom implementations are Web-based.
Some of the benefits of a Web-based classroom are its geographic, temporal and platform independence, and its simple, familiar and consistent interface. Some of the drawbacks are: limited access to the Internet worldwide; resistance to shift to new and alternative teaching and learning paradigms or methodologies; privacy, security, copyright and related issues; and a lack of uniform quality (McCormack and Jones 1998).
In this article we summarize the process of conceiving, planning, designing, implementing, and maintaining a virtual classroom in ten easy-to-follow steps. The article is aimed at the reader who has a previous understanding of the basics of Web-based education and wants a structured simplified view of the steps that ought to be taken in order to successfully implement a virtual classroom. Also, the authors have created the V-model (Fig. 1) for the convenience of accessing the information in this article to graphically communicate the concept and any needed information.
Assess the needs and the necessary conditions to satisfy them.
The main purpose of this step is to assure the existence of a need for the proposed virtual classroom and the basic infrastructure to develop it. Put simply, you assess 'what is,' or the current state of conditions, available system, etc., and 'what ought to be,' or the desired output. By assessing what is and what ought to be, you have assessed the need and figured out a gap to be bridged (Hamza and Alhalabi 1999). Thus, some questions that should be answered at this stage are:
Are there remote students for that course?
This is a simple, though essential, question of economics. Unless there is a minimum number of (remote) students who will benefit from the virtual classroom implementation, the initiative will be seen by the upper management as a waste of time, money and resources.
Will they be able to access the course site and ?perform all the necessary interactions?
Web-based education assumes the remote students will have the necessary technical conditions to access the course contents from their personal computer. The minimal hardware, software and Internet connection requirements must be assessed in advance, and their costs estimated.
Is there institutional support and interest?
A virtual classroom is normally too big of a task to be carried out alone without the explicit support of the institution. Support must be present in terms of funding, time allocation, technical resources, and investing in a well-trained staff.
Are there administrative policies and procedures for these cases?
Implementing an online version of an existing course or creating a new, Web-based course will probably require changes in some administrative policies and procedures. Some of these are registration, admission, fees, prerequisites for taking the course and withdrawal from the course, to name a few.
Estimate the development cost, effort, and implications.
The main purpose of this step is to reach a clear, accurate, quantitative estimate of the overall cost of developing the virtual classroom. Some important questions at this stage are:
How long is it going to take to develop the virtual classroom?
It is always hard to estimate the duration of a project, and the development of a virtual classroom is no exception. A good way to break down this question and achieve a reasonably accurate estimate would be to quantify (in persons-month, PM) each and every stage of the detailed implementation plan. A warning is in place here: content creation, conversion to digital format and manipulation takes much longer than one might originally expect.
What technological tools will be needed? How much will they cost? What types of equipment will they require?
A complete list of hardware and software tools, their cost, and corresponding hardware/software requirements should be produced. It is always important to keep in mind that there is a minimum set of requirements (hardware and software to produce and distribute a pure-HTML-based course) that can incrementally (and sometimes exponentially) grow as more sophisticated features are added. Be sure to draw the line at a reasonable compromise of technical features versus cost.
How many people with which specific skills will be needed?
Creating and maintaining a Web-based course is certainly not a one-person effort. There are many tasks complex enough to be assigned to specific people with the required technical skills. Examples of these are graphical creation and manipulation; CGI-based programming; software assessment and evaluation; Java programming; and network setup and maintenance, to name a few. At the bare minimum we suggest an instructional technology staff of two versatile, motivated and creative individuals: one for graphics/media creation, digitization and manipulation, and another one for Web-based programming and instructional design.
How much will the development impact the instructor's workload?
Developing a virtual classroom will add a significant amount of work to the instructor's daily routine. This extra effort should be quantified (and limited to a certain maximum, if possible) beforehand and measures should be taken to work around the impact of the new tasks on the instructor's overall schedule.
How much will it impact the teaching methods used so far?
Teaching a course using the Web is, or at least should be, much more than merely converting the course notes into HTML format and adding appropriate links. There is a whole adaptation process (which will result in many changes to policies, strategies, administration, curriculum offerings, and the way by which the course is delivered and learning is assessed) that will take place. Thus, if an institution senses the need for such changes, a committee composed of computing and technology professionals should be appointed to approve or disapprove the need for changes -- in order to ensure the quality and consistency of the institution's offerings (McCormack and Jones 1998).
What are the institution's Web publishing and Internet access policies?
It is essential to check whether the institution has a Web publishing policy, what it says, who is responsible for enforcing the rules and whether or not there are tools to help developers meet the policy's specifications.
How much of the total content is already available in electronic format?
Considerable time and work can be saved if part of the course contents already exist in electronic form. Text can be easily converted into HTML format. Images, audio and video can be edited and incorporated into the virtual classroom much more easily than when text typing, image scanning, audio recording, and video shooting have yet to be performed.
What will be the software/hardware requirements for the client (student) machine?
The student's machine must follow a minimum set of specifications including hardware (CPU, RAM, disk size, etc.), operating system and application software (Web browser and plug-ins, e-mail software, word processor, etc.) requirements. These requirements will always be changing and must be updated accordingly
What will be the software/hardware requirements for the server machine?
The Web server specifications include hardware (CPU, RAM, disk size, etc.), operating system, and application software (Web server, mail server, newsgroup server, CGI server, etc.) requirements. Once again, these requirements must be updated as technology evolves.
Plan the virtual classroom.
Now it is time to look more closely at the project from an educational perspective. Some questions to help assessing the pedagogical feasibility of the proposed project are:
What are the educational goals?
Developing a list of educational goals is an essential part of the planning process. Difficulties in coming up with such a list might be a warning about the overall validity of the approach. Examples of such goals are (ibid.):
- Ensuring that all students and teachers have equal access to instructions and receive all instructional material on time
- Providing students with on time, continous, and frequent feedback opportunities to assess their understanding and skills of subject matter
- Supplementing theory with a variety of practical tutorials and activities
- Increasing student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction -- in and outside lectures
How will these goals be accomplished?
After having set educational goals to be accomplished, it is time to specify how to achieve them. It is a brainstorming activity whose effectiveness can be increased by following some guidelines such as (ibid.):
- Try to innovate approaches (be creative) and do not restrict yourself to existing methods or traditional strategies.
- Keep in mind the class's characteristics and needs, and know your audience.
- The Web is only one tool. Do not use the Web for everything.
- Use diverse approaches in reaching your educational goals and reaching out to your students.
- Share your experiences with other educators and attempt to learn from their own experience.
- Try our new maxim: 'Keep it simple and creative!' (KISAC).
Which goals will possibly not be accomplished and how can we compensate for them?
It is known from the beginning that a virtual classroom will present several limitations. It is important to anticipate those shortcomings and derive ways to overcome them.
What approaches could be used to achieve a given goal? Which of them is more viable?
It is very easy to understand, or at least to accept, that even within the realm of Web-based distance education there are several different ways of achieving the same educational goal. Student-to-instructor communication, for instance, can be achieved through e-mail, live chat, audio or video conferencing.
Design the virtual classroom.
Now that the pedagogical aspects of the proposed project have been assessed, it is time to start the actual design process. Here are some questions to help at this stage:
How will the (maybe thousands of) HTML pages be structured?
The HTML pages containing the course material should be organized in a way that makes navigation easy, simple and consistent and reduces the amount of work necessary for site maintenance. Regardless of the organization strategy (hierarchical tree, linked list, etc.), the final outcome should always provide for a user-friendly, easily maintainable navigation scheme.
Can we provide a consistent 'look-and-feel' for the Web pages?
The course's HTML pages must necessarily have something in common, both for aesthetic as well as functional reasons. Much work is saved if a small set of pages with little or no content is developed before the actual course contents are converted into HTML format. These pages can be useful to test the 'look-and-feel' of the whole site, and can eventually be used as templates for everything else.
What should be the layout for a typical course page?
After having decided on the basic template for the course pages, it is time to refine it, making sure all the necessary and desirable elements will be included. Navigation buttons are of utmost importance, regardless of their appearance. At the very least, students should be able to know, just by looking at any HTML page, where they are, how to move forward, backward, up, or down, and how to return to the course main page.
How fancy should the pages be? What is the related hardware/software/technology impact?
Before adding any item to a page one should ask how much that piece of data will add to the overall educational goals of the course and what is the price to pay (slower transfer, more strict hardware requirements, need for special plug-ins, etc.).
Prepare and distribute contents.
What authoring tools should be used?
It is strongly advisable to research, compare and evaluate Web-design tools and supplementary software before adopting a certain set of tools.
For HTML editing, one can choose from simple, free tools, such as Netscape Composer, to fully featured packages such as Macromedia Dreamweaver or GoLive CyberStudio. Platform compatibility is an important issue. While products such as Adobe PageMill have both Mac and PC versions, others are bounded to a specific machine/operating system, such as GoLive CyberStudio (available only for the Macintosh). A list of authoring tools and corresponding reviews is available at http://home page.interaccess.com/~cdavis/edit_rev.html.
How to import, create and edit images?
Images can be acquired in several ways, such as: scanning printed pictures, taking your own pictures using digital still cameras, capturing digitized video frames, or buying CDs containing collections of high-quality images related to a certain subject. Images can also be easily created, edited, processed, and manipulated using various software titles, such as: Graphic Workshop, ACDSee, PaintShop, PhotoPaint, etc. The final result should always be stored in either GIF or JPEG format to be easily and directly included in an HTML page.
How to import, create and edit sounds?
There are several possible sources of sounds and many tools to import, create, and edit digitized audio files. One thing to remember is that the higher the quality of the audio file (stereo, high number of bits per sample, high sampling rate, etc.), the longer it will take to transfer it over the network.
How to import, create and edit graphics and animations?
Make sure you address the impact of the hardware, software and time required for these tasks and be prepared to justify the pedagogical reasons for using a given amount of graphics in your courseware. The most popular way of animating pictures is client-side animation using the GIF89a graphic file format. There are numerous tools available on the Web for animated GIF creation and editing as well as for converting digitized video into animated GIF format.
How to import, create and edit videos?
Video creation, processing and distribution normally require extensive and expensive hardware and software support. Digital video cameras are just starting to appear in the market; meanwhile, the best solution is to use an analog camera and a VCR and convert the resulting video into digital format using specialized digitizing boards. Very large hard disks should be set aside to store digitized, compressed video clips.
Where will the Web pages be hosted?
The virtual classroom should be hosted in a fast, reliable machine, with a high bandwidth connection to the outside world.
Effective communication between instructor and students and among students themselves should be a high priority issue during the design of the virtual classroom. Some pertinent questions are:
What form of communication?
There are basically two possible ways of implementing communication between instructor and students in a virtual classroom: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous communication tools, such as ClassPoint or NetMeeting, allow the instructor to teach live lectures through the Web using resources such as audio and video conferencing, whiteboard and text-based chat. Students can interact by asking questions, normally using a text window. Some type of floor control is normally desired, to prevent chaos and ensure that students will have their questions answered in a first come first served basis.
What communications tools should be used?
It must be clear what educational goals are to be achieved using communication tools, why these goals are important, and what ways are available to implement them. Anything from conventional e-mail to fancy, sophisticated videoconferencing will do the job. Each of has different costs, requirements and effectiveness.
Implement online student assessment methods.
The following questions address the problem of assessing student performance in the virtual classroom environment:
Should the virtual classroom contain quizzes?
The main motivation for quizzes lies in the need for fast, frequent feedback, both for the instructor and the student, about the amount of information learned so far. There are several tools for creating online quizzes, such as Jquiz, Test 2000 and Test Creator. Moreover, fully featured packages, such as WebCT (http://www.webct.com), have their own quiz creation module.
What about online assignments?
Assignments, as opposed to quizzes, aim at evaluating whether students have acquired a more thorough competence in a topic or just understand the basics of it.
Should we provide some kind of student evaluation?
An evaluation is another method of assessing students' activities or abilities and can appear in several forms, such as: peer review, self-review, access records, level of participation in discussions and so on (ibid.).
How are tests implemented online?
Online tests can be considered a special type of quiz, in which extra restrictions (e.g. number of attempts, time to finish) are added and a more strict way of student identity verification and cheating prevention is used.
What about cheating?
The main issues behind cheating prevention are impersonation and security. Some possible solutions involve: requiring the presence of a proctor close to students while they take the test; establishing a time window during which all the students should attempt the test (avoiding impersonation of a colleague at a later time); and using randomly selected and sorted questions out of a (much) larger repository of possible questions.
How will assignments, tests, etc. be submitted, graded, and returned to students?
Online quizzes and tests should normally be made available through a Web-based form and submission of results should be as simple as pressing a button when done. For other assignments, the most common way of submission is e-mail with attachments.
Grading will strongly depend on the nature of the assignment, quiz or test. An online quiz composed only of multiple-choice questions can easily be graded (and the grade immediately sent back to the student, if desired) automatically. An extensive assignment or project might require manual intervention of the instructor.
Implement class management procedures.
Class management tasks are the clerical and administrative tasks necessary to ensure that a classroom operates efficiently (ibid.). These are tasks that many educators wish they did not have to perform, even knowing their importance for the operation of a class. It is natural to expect a computer-based virtual classroom to have some automatic tools to make these tasks easier. In fact, many tools, such as WebCT, include class management modules. Some questions that may arise are:
What type of class management information is relevant?
The exact list of items that should be kept track of by the instructor may vary from course to course or even for different instructors of the same course, but they will very likely be a subset of the following:
- Student tracking, to check students' progress throughout the course
- Time-tabling and scheduling, to ensure that all students know when, where, and what they are expected to do in order to complete the class
- Class promotion, to ensure a minimum enrollment and to clarify the purpose and requirements of the class to enrolled students
- Student counseling, to provide the help students might need in completing their studies
- Information management, meaning the retrieval, update and management of students' personal and academic data
- Assignment management, including submitting, distributing, grading and moderating assignments
- Grades collection, moderation and distribution
- Archiving of class-related information and records
Set up the system.
It is now time to get a little more technical and discuss some issues involved in setting up the system and making the virtual classroom available. Some of the relevant questions are:
Which hardware and software components are necessary?
The first step is to select the computer that will act as a Web server and its operating system. The choice of operating system is a critical one, since many other software components (Web server, mail server, etc.) will depend on the underlying operating system. The combination of UNIX-based machines running the free Apache Web server is a very common one.
What is needed to install, configure and protect the virtual classroom contents?
Installation, configuration, and security protection of a virtual classroom are too detailed and lengthy steps to be mentioned in this paper. At this point it is strongly advisable that instructors and their technical support team rely on specialized books, tutorials, and the experience of existing system administrators.
Maintain and update the virtual classroom.
Creating a virtual classroom demands a lot of work, but that is just the beginning. As with any other computer-based information system, the virtual classroom requires maintenance and frequent updates to retain its usefulness. Some of the questions involved are:
What are the media, software and policies for backup?
Backups are essential maintenance measures in any computer-based system and virtual classrooms should be no exception. There are some issues of backup policy that have to be established and strictly followed, such as:
- Scheduling policy (when are backups performed)
- Frequency policy (how often)
- What to backup
- Who is responsible
- Which media to use
- Where to store the backup
What about software and hardware upgrades and maintenance?
An inevitable side effect of the rampant progress in computer technology is the frequent need for software and hardware upgrade. Provisions should be made for these tasks, both in terms of cost as well as in the possible technical consequences of such upgrades.
Should the site contents and links also be maintained on a regular basis?
The answer to this question is a big 'yes'. Once you have actually put the course site online, the real challenge lies in updating and maintaining it. Keeping your site fresh encourages people to return. Poor maintenance is a sure way of getting rid of visitors, perhaps permanently.
Despite the growing number of online courses available on the Web and the hype around Internet-based learning, the current use of Web-based virtual classrooms is very limited and the subject of intense debate. According to McCormack and Jones (1998), the main factors behind these limited results are insufficient technical and educational knowledge, reluctance from educators, and lack of resources and institutional support.
This paper tries to bridge part of this gap by providing the reader some useful, up-to-date and objective information about the process of designing, implementing and maintaining a virtual classroom. For a lengthier treatment of this subject we recommend Building a Web-Based Education System (McCormack and Jones 1998), In Search Of the Virtual Class (Tiffin and Rajasingham 1995), The Virtual Classroom (Hiltz, S.R. 1994) and Web-Teaching: A Guide to Designing Interactive Teaching for the World Wide Web (Brooks, D.W. 1997).
Sam Hsu, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Computer Science and Engineering department at Florida Atlantic University (FAU). Dr. Hsu's research interests and publication areas include Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM), computer networking and Internet-based distance learning (DL). He has published over 20 refereed journal/conference papers in these areas, and is currently researching Internet-based DL, including both instructional and infrastructural networking issues. He is a member of ACM, IEEE and Upsilon Pi Epsilon Honor Society.
Oge Marques is an Instructor and Ph.D. candidate in the Computer Science and Engineering department at FAU. Mr. Marques has several recent publications, including a textbook in Digital Image Processing (in Portuguese), and several conference papers and technical reports on topics ranging from video databases to Web-based learning. Among his recent awards as a graduate student are a Newell Doctoral Fellowship for the 1999-2000 academic year and a Graduate Scholarship awarded by the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi.
M. Khalid Hamza, Ph.D., taught and chaired the Computer Sciences department at a state college level for eight years. Prior to teaching, he worked as a systems analyst and programmer in private industry for six years. Dr. Hamza is the president and founder of Edutek Quest and has, since 1990, developed various alternative computer technology and academic programs, devoting substantial research to teaching and learning methodology, creativity, and cognitive technologies. His interests are in cognitive science, information systems management, and learning technologies.
Bassem Alhalabi, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Computer Science and Engineering department at FAU. His primary research focuses on developing pragmatic industrial and educational systems, digital systems, data acquisition and control, computer automation, mobile computing, distance learning and hybrid neural nets. Dr. Alhalabi has published in IEEE journals and various conference proceedings, and has founded multiform labs in five universities.
Brooks, D.W. 1997.Web-Teaching: A guide to designing interactive teaching for the World Wide Web. New York: Plenum Press.
Hamza, M. K., and Alhalabi, B. 1999. ' Touching Students' Minds In Cyberspace: 10 Creative Tips', Learning & Leading With Technology, (in press)-Vol. 26, No. 6.
Hiltz, S.R. 1994. The Virtual Classroom. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
McCormack, C. and Jones, D. 1998. Building a Web-Based Education System. New York: Wiley.
Tiffin, J. and Rajasingham, L. 1995. In Search Of the Virtual Class. New York: Routledge.
This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.