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What are virtual classrooms? A rundown of the most popular software by CKEditor

A digitally-drawn view of a child’s bedroom partially obscured by a tablet, which renders the scene as a virtual classroom.

Virtual classrooms are one method of distance learning, where education does not require physical presence at a school. To preserve as much of the traditional classroom atmosphere as possible, you need virtual classroom software that:

  • preserves as much of the traditional classroom atmosphere as possible,
  • is easy to integrate as possible,
  • minimizes interruption of workflows and schedules,
  • and has a small-as-possible learning curve — especially for those reluctant to embrace new technologies.

Above all, however, there needs to be a way to make classrooms function smoothly. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned digital learning from an intriguing option to an absolute necessity. An intuitive solution with the features students use most is the key to a seamless transition.

Before my time as your friendly neighborhood blogger here at CKEditor, I used virtual classroom setups as both a student and a teacher. As a student, I had to deal with professors who were unfamiliar with evolving technology, waving a dismissive hand at the idea of computers in the classroom. When I was training to become a teacher, I used virtual whiteboards with my fellow trainees during my online English teacher training course. As a teacher, I used Skype for online lessons and made sure to learn from my experiences as I managed my own LMS. Believe me when I say that the crisp setup and consistent functioning of your virtual classroom is crucial for everyone involved. Moreover, real-time collaborative writing technology with rich-text editing capabilities is a welcome addition to virtual classrooms everywhere.

A lot of academics, academic-decision makers, and professionals need help solidifying their e-learning solution, and we at CKEditor recognize that. Below, we survey some of the most common virtual classroom tools — not to compare, but rather to illustrate how they fit together like puzzle pieces. Whether you’re a school administrator in search of a solution, or a software developer in the educational realm, we hope you find this article useful.

A digitally-drawn graphic of Zoom-like software with an eight-person video call in progress.
Video conferencing has become a go-to tool, but it is not enough by itself as a stand-alone virtual classroom solution.

# The video conference platform

There is a high likelihood that you’re already using Zoom, the video conference software that has exploded in popularity. It works well as a quick fix for getting the class together, taking about as much effort as it does to master Skype. Many virtual classroom tools support dozens of webcams at a time. This is good because a scalable solution is especially important for larger classes. Recreating that face-to-face presence is crucial to the classroom dynamic. It is also important for having faculty meetings, counseling sessions and virtual study halls.

Outside school hours, video-based solutions provide a way to learn when not in the classroom. Younger students, especially homeschoolers and those in their elementary years, have taken to Skype, Google Hangouts, and even WhatsApp to do homework and share class materials in a group setting. Yes, video conferencing is a go-to tool, but it is not enough by itself as a stand-alone virtual classroom solution.

# The Learning Management System (LMS)

What’s more, Zoom incorporates LMS features into its platform such as attendee attention tracking, school-wide announcements, and student/staff counseling. You may even already be using LMS-centered software such as Blackboard, Moodle or Sakai that makes organizing and assigning work feel like second nature. These platforms help distribute entire semesters of coursework into organizational systems as instructors see fit. They also provide interactive materials that foster close communication between teachers and students, as well as grade-assigning and -tracking services.

LMS software is the beating heart of distance learning projects. It can organize class enrolments and other school-based activities automatically. They are also the gathering point for homework assignments, from group discussions surrounding assigned reading material to individual comprehension question assignments. Moreover, collaboration between faculty and staff is the most important in keeping track of a student’s progress, and deciding courses of action for each one.

# Are these enough for a complete virtual classroom?

These features are essential to powering virtual classrooms and eliminating distractions from the learning experience. However, trying out new technology in the classroom can be another distraction, especially if it involves wading through unwanted features to get to the ones you desire. With technology-averse staff members this problem is compounded. It can make the software adoption process off-putting and leave online students frustrated. A piecemeal approach of video conferencing for classes and learning management system-based platforms for assignments all deliver an incomplete classroom experience.

Even though certain software may already be familiar and trusted, it may not be best for students. New software can include components that do a world of good in the virtual classroom. The ability to work together in an in-class setting is absolutely essential to the learning process. The most common techniques for collaboration in distance learning setups include:

# The virtual whiteboard

Whiteboarding is common among the current crop of e-learning solutions. They often come with many features like annotation tools, subject-specific functions, and even collaborative editors for code. Yes, virtual whiteboards are excellent for teachers imparting knowledge on their students, but they are also the ultimate show-and-prove tool for students in higher education whose work requires an extra visual boost to illustrate ideas and theories. Children beginning their elementary school education also make use of this function for those good old time-tested arithmetic-at-the-board exercises. Virtual whiteboards make sure that a vital component of the classroom environment is not lost.

# The breakout room

The tendency to break the room up for groupwork purposes is also common. Virtual classroom solutions give teachers the ability to divide the entire class into breakout rooms (or small groups for in-class, task-based assignments). It is a must in leading online classes, especially when in-class assignments require an array of tasks to be done in a short amount of time toward the completion of a time-bound classroom goal. This is an area where collaboration is key. The need for students to learn to work as a team, and present their collective ideas, plays a pivotal role in education. Breakout rooms are perfect for in-class team games and quizzes to keep learning fun.

A digitally-drawn graphic of shots of video-conferencing software, LMS software, a pencil blurred with a question mark overlaid, a blackboard, and a vertical list of userpics, all interlocking as puzzle pieces.
Features like video conferencing, LMS, whiteboarding and breakout rooms fit together like puzzle pieces, but do they make a complete virtual classroom picture?

# Are all of these enough for a complete virtual classroom?

Taking these virtual classroom components into account, we assert that they are missing a crucial component: real-time collaborative writing. A real-time collaborative editor powered by WYSIWYG technology is a novel innovation for students at all levels, from elementary school to community college to post-doctoral work. For in-class task-based assignments, real-time collaborative editing is ideal. It lets students create professional-looking documents and web pages rendered in a finished format right then and there. Learning is simply the most effective when your students see that their work is vital and needed.

For longer-term goals such as term projects, having real-time comments and track changes features can help collaborating students trace the progress of their work. Real-time collaborative writing allows students to communicate at their own pace while still getting everyone on the same page.

With our CKEditor 5, we have strived for years to bring a collaborative, rich-text solution to a wide range of software. Not only are our solutions scalable so they grow with any educational institution, but they are modular as well. You choose the most essential features for students, so math students won’t have to reckon with math formula functions in a language class. You can also choose the features only your faculty needs, so you can simplify the learning curve for the apprehensive ones in your staff. Whatever is wanted or needed, it can be put into your already-existing learning management or video conferencing application.

Our rich-text editing capabilities are an indispensable addition to video conferencing, virtual whiteboarding, online breakout groups and, yes, even learning management systems. CKEditor is a strong companion for the pursuit of long-term classroom goals.

In these uncertain times, schools, universities, and other educational institutions need to preserve as many functions as possible. The transition to distance learning for the foreseeable future is hard enough, but real-time collaborative writing with rich-text editing capabilities helps preserve and enhance the collaborative nature of classroom learning. Moreover, CKEditor’s solutions cut down on the learning curve that comes with new software and gives you only the features you need. But don’t just take my word for it: engage with our online demo and get in touch with our team to see how we can cook up a tailor-made real-time collaboration solution for your virtual classroom software.

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