Virtual education refers to instruction in a learning environment where teacher and student are separated by time or space, or both, and the teacher provides course content through course management applications, multimedia resources, the Internet, videoconferencing, etc. Students receive the content and communicate with the teacher via the same technologies.
Characteristics of virtual education
Virtual education is a term describing online education using the Internet. This term is primarily used in higher education where so-called Virtual Universities have been established.
Virtual courses – a synonym is online courses – are courses delivered on the Internet. "Virtual" is used here to characterize the fact that the course is not taught in a classroom face-to-face but through some substitute mode that can be associated with classroom teaching.
A virtual program (or a virtual course of studies) is a study program in which all courses or at least a significant portion of the courses are virtual courses.
Instruction modes for virtual education
Many virtual study programs are mainly text based, using HTML, PowerPoint, or PDF documents. Multimedia technologies have been investigated for many years and eventually found their way into practice. Today a wide spectrum of instruction modes is available, including the following:
- Virtual Classroom: A virtual classroom is a learning environment created in the virtual space. The objectives of a virtual classroom are to improve access to advanced educational experiences by allowing students and instructors to participate in remote learning communities using personal computers; and to improve the quality and effectiveness of education by using the computer to support a collaborative learning process. The explosion of the knowledge age has changed the context of what is learnt and how it is learnt – the concept of virtual classrooms is a manifestation of this knowledge revolution.
- Hypertext courses: Structured course material is used as in a conventional distance education program. However, all material is provided electronically and can be viewed with a browser. Hyperlinks connect text, multimedia parts and exercises in a meaningful way.
- Video-based courses are like face-to-face classroom courses, with a lecturer speaking and Powerpoint slides or online examples used for illustration. Video-streaming technologies is used. Students watch the video by means of freeware or plug-ins (e.g. Windows Media Player, RealPlayer).
- Audio-based courses are similar but instead of moving pictures only the sound track of the lecturer is provided. Often the course pages are enhanced with a text transcription of the lecture.
- Animated courses: Enriching text-oriented or audio-based course material by animations is generally a good way of making the content and its appearance more interesting. Animations are created using Macromedia Flash or similar technologies.
- Web-supported textbook courses are based on specific textbooks. Students read and reflect the chapters by themselves. Review questions, topics for discussion, exercises, case studies, etc. are given chapterwise on a website and discussed with the lecturer. Class meetings may be held to discuss matters in a chatroom, for example.
- Peer-to-peer courses are courses taught "on-demand" and without a prepared curriculum. A new field of online education has emerged in 2007 through new online education platforms.
Communication and Interaction
Students in virtual education typically acquire knowledge in a uni-directional manner first (e.g. by studying a video, reading a textbook chapter). Subsequent discussions of problems, solving exercises, case studies, review questions, etc. help the students to understand better what they learned before. Electronic media like a discussion forum, chat room, voice mail, e-mail, etc. are often employed for communication.
Homework assignments are normally submitted electronically, e.g. as an attachment to an e-mail. When help is needed, lecturers, tutors, or fellow students, or a help desk are available, just like in a real university. The difference is that all communication goes via electronic media.
Most virtual study programs use an e-learning platform (learning management system – LMS) to administer students and courses and to provide learning content. Examples of such systems are WebCT, Moodle, eFront and ATutor; there are also propriotary e-learning platforms like Tooling University.
- Second Life has recently become a virtual classroom for major colleges and universities, including Princeton, Rice University, University of Derby (UK), Vassar, the Open University (UK),. In 2007 Second Life started to be used for foreign language tuition . Both Second Life and real life language educators have begun to use the virtual world for language tuition. English (as a foreign language) has gained a presence through several schools, including the British Council], which has focused on the Teen Grid. Spain’s language and cultural institute, the Instituto Cervantes has an island on Second Life. A list of educational projects (including some language schools) in Second Life can be found on the SimTeach site.
- WebEx is also increasingly used as an online learning platform and classroom for a diverse set of education providers such as Fox School of Business for Templer University, Grades Grow, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, and Sachem. Webex is a Cisco Web Meetings and Collaboration Solution. The platform has worked for educational institutions because of real time collaboration using an interactive whiteboard, chat, and VOIP technology that allows audio and video sharing. In distance learning situations, while replacing the classroom with features, institutions have also looked for security features which are inherently strong in a Cisco powered collaboration environment. The downside is that Webex is not a free platform.