I have worked for over 14 years helping educators teach students online.
The focus of my work has been BigBlueButton, an open source project with the mission to create the world’s most effective virtual classroom. Our approach to building BigBlueButton is simple: understand the goals of the educator and student, and help them achieve these goals before, during, and after the virtual class.
The need for Online Learning has grown substantially over the years, and so has BigBlueButton. Today, it’s localized into more than 55 languages, with a network of supporting companies that further evolve it to help educators and students worldwide.
In 2020, everything was going well. The community was growing, but then the pandemic came along, and everything went crazy.
The craziness came from nearly every educational institution in the world shifting online so quickly and abruptly that the shift was aptly named Emergency Remote Teaching. During the shift, use of BigBlueButton skyrocketed (that is an understatement). We suddenly saw millions of new educators teaching billions of minutes of virtual classes around the world using BigBlueButton. For example, Baden-Wuerttemberg, a state in Germany, peaked at 185,000 concurrent teachers and students across 3,000 schools — all using BigBlueButton at the same time.
Our future depends on a world filled with educated, thoughtful, skeptical, and curious learners. We believe every student, regardless of where they live, should have access to a high-quality Online Learning experience, and the shift to online has opened up more opportunities for students to access more and better learning opportunities.
Many educational institutions moved online using familiar video-conferencing systems such as Teams, Zoom, or Meet. Replicating the face-to-face experience of a physical classroom using a video conferencing system seemed the obvious choice, but did it meet the needs of educators and students?
Results were mixed. Many educators, with no prior experience teaching online, were forced to approach Emergency Remote Teaching by simply replicating the face-to-face experience. But if that was the right approach, why did so many have a poor experience?
Reflecting on Emergency Remote Teaching
Delivering a virtual class is a complex undertaking with many underlying success factors. To break-down the complexity, you can look at virtual classes across four broad dimensions: management, relationships, engagement, and assessment.
We list them below as use cases for the educator, each description prefixed with “As an educator I want to …”
By expanding on these dimensions, we can better understand why Emergency Remote Teaching was challenging.
Management – Time is the educator’s most valuable resource. Prior to Covid-19, educators would have worked together with instructional designers to adapt their content for the Learning Management System (perhaps they applied a standard such as Quality Matters to ensure proper adaptation of the content). When Emergency Remote Teaching happened, there was no time to adapt content for the virtual classroom. Overnight, educators were forced to deliver their in-class materials online in an unfamiliar medium with little preparation or training.
This led to treating the virtual classroom as just another form of the physical classroom. Most educators used video conferencing systems, but such platforms didn’t understand what the educators and students were trying to accomplish. Also, such platforms didn’t offer any help for adapting content, nor did they help with basic tasks such as attendance and reporting on performance, ultimately taking more of the educator’s time away from helping students learn.
Relationships – For classes that moved from physical to virtual, even though relationships were already established, there was a profound sense of disconnection with the teacher and with other students, especially for younger students. Educators who relied on video alone for building relationships quickly found that when a student didn’t share their webcam, they were largely invisible, making it harder to connect with them and, in turn, harder to get them to engage.
Engagement – The mantra for a virtual classroom should be “We are not here to meet, we are here to learn.” With a video-focused and screen sharing approach, there is a limited opportunity for meaningful applied learning within the video conferencing platform, causing educators to sample engagement with 3rd-party tools, leading to multiple logins, interfaces, and patchwork solutions with separate analytics (if the tools even provided analytics).
Assessment – This was most challenging. With the burden of classroom management, the need to use 3rd-party tools, and the lack of meaningful analytics, there was little data for assessment, aside from chat messages and webcams (if they were shared). With limited data, there was limited assessment. Without personalized feedback, the class became largely one-way, with students wondering if it was worth the effort to attend when they could save time by later watching the recording at 1.5x speed.
Our brains are not computers. Watching four hours of introductory German at 1.5x speed doesn’t engage the brain in ways that move the student closer to holding basic conversations. Our brains are muscles that need to be exercised through application of base knowledge. With little opportunity for applied learning and feedback during the virtual classes, meaningful opportunities for learning decreased, and so did student outcomes.
I should emphasize there is nothing wrong with video. The problem is that a video-centric approach only addresses a small portion of the overall needs for management, relationship, engagement, and assessment. So, let’s look at what the future of virtual classrooms could, and should, hold for educators and students.
The Future of Virtual Classrooms
Delivering an effective virtual classroom, as we’ve seen, is complex — and so is building a virtual classroom platform to support the educator and student! Let’s start with a simple statement of what an effective virtual class should deliver.
The virtual classroom should maximize time for applied learning and feedback.
If you take care of the educator and students in areas of management and relationships, you free up more time for applied learning and assessment, which leads to greater individual feedback.
Breaking this down, the platform should give the teacher back their most precious commodity: time. The platform should deeply integrate with the Learning Management System (LMS) and bi-directionally share data with it to save the educator time and make them more aware of students’ performance. For example, if a student has missed two assignments, this information should be available to the educator the moment the virtual class starts (as opposed to making them take time to manually check before the class). For adapting content to the virtual class, the platform should understand the slides contain information for teaching and learning and add interactivity to assist the educator, reducing the need for 3rd-party tools.
The virtual classroom should be a unified platform, not a basis for a patchwork of tools. Specifically, the platform should have built-in tools that are pedagogically focused (“we are not here to meet, we are here to learn”). These tools should generate meaningful analytics that enable the educator to easily correlate and assess performance in the moment, leading to insight on which students are struggling and why.
With that insight, the educator can give feedback to the class as a whole, to individual groups, or individual students. From the students’ perspective, as they apply themselves, they should perceive the educator is aware of them, cares about them, and gives them feedback to overcome barriers to learning. This feedback creates trust and accelerates their learning, creating a positive feedback loop: more engagement, more learning, more engagement, and so on.
The virtual classroom shouldn’t be a separate, disconnected environment. All these rich analytics should be integrated into an LMS to create unified reports for educators, administrators, parents, and students themselves.
The Road Ahead
In the BigBlueButton project, we are guided by a strong desire to help worldwide educators teach more effective virtual classrooms that maximize time for applied learning and feedback.
There should be no “back of the classroom” in a virtual class. Video is an important part of virtual classes, but video alone is insufficient to meet the needs of the educators and students. As a platform, we believe the virtual classroom presents an opportunity to create more time and space for applied learning, which could generate rich analytics that makes visible students that are struggling (whether they are sharing a webcam or not). The educator can then give feedback in the moment, accelerating students through the stages of learning (think Bloom’s Taxonomy). The virtual class should have bi-directional sharing of analytics with the LMS, empowering the educator with more insight to help the student on their learning journey before, during, and after the virtual class.
The world is a big place, and when the world went online during Covid, not everyone was able to join. According to UNICEF, at least 463 million children worldwide were unable to access remote learning during COVID-19 school closures in 2020. That is unacceptable. Internet access is spreading throughout the world, giving students the opportunity to go online and learn. Every student should have the right to access high-quality online classes, and every educator deserves the best platform to deliver them.
If you are interested in following our efforts with BigBlueButton, visit us at bigbluebutton.org.