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Jan 31, 2017 Karin Rex

Generating Genuine Collaboration in the Virtual Classroom

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Virtual Classroom CollaborationVirtual classroom lessons should be more about learners working together collaboratively than lecture and PowerPoint. Intellectually, we all recognize that. But, what purpose does collaboration truly serve and what virtual classroom tools achieve the desired result?

Why do you suppose we bring people together to learn?

Is it merely to allow a Facilitator the opportunity to lecture to a multitude of people simultaneously? Or is it perhaps to provide opportunities for deeper learning through collaboration? (Two or more people practicing new skills and applying new knowledge.)

For me, the real purpose of bringing people together to learn is so they can collaborate with the Facilitator and each other. True learning rarely happens in a vacuum and collaboration leads organically to deeper understanding and a richer experience.

Put into L&D terms, the former (learning in a vacuum) may allow learners to achieve the lower levels of Bloom's Digital Taxonomy:  Remembering and Understanding. However, the latter (learning through collaboration) is what allows learners to achieve the higher levels: Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, or Creating.

For example, a salesperson can read an article about (or listen to a lecture on) how storytelling can help increase sales and get the gist of the idea being shared. But how much more meaningful would it be for that salesperson to collaborate with others on building a story that inspires sales action, practice delivering that story, receive feedback on that story, and provide feedback to others on their stories?

Build mental models

Collaboration helps learners build mental models through practice and application. Mental models are the scaffolding of our internal learning architecture. Mental models help us take what we learn in a classroom and apply it in the real-time world of our work.

What type of collaboration is possible in the virtual classroom?

Collaboration in the virtual classroom can be accomplished using a combination of Facilitator skill and virtual classroom tools.

To foster collaboration in the virtual classroom, a good Facilitator will know how to:

  • Manage the virtual classroom technology skillfully
  • Debrief activities in a meaningful way
  • Listen carefully so he or she can comment appropriately
  • Foster concurrent collaboration and avoid consecutive collaboration

What is the difference between concurrent collaboration and consecutive collaboration?

The virtual classroom demands that time spent in the classroom be shorter and consequently, content be more condensed. (This is akin to taking the water out of milk to make condensed milk.) Therefore, a skilled Facilitator will always aim for concurrent collaboration instead of consecutive collaboration to make interactions more potent and engaging.

  • Concurrent collaboration allows all participants the opportunity to interact at once (simultaneously)
  • Consecutive collaboration allows participants to interact one at a time (serially)

For classes with more than a handful of participants, communicating consecutively would be an almost certain snore-fest. Let’s say, for example that, at the beginning of a class you ask people to introduce themselves round-robin style. In a class of 12, at just 30 seconds per introduction, this will take six whole minutes! You cannot afford to take that kind of time away from content in the virtual classroom. (Not to mention that most people will tune out and begin multi-tasking the minute they have introduced themselves anyhow.)

Instead, interactions need to involve as many people as possible simultaneously. For example, for introductions, you might have learners all put their biggest challenge concerning the topic at hand into chat or onto a whiteboard and then debrief the commonalities among answers.

What tools foster collaboration in the virtual classroom?

The table below describes how the various tools might be used in relation to the sales example given above.

Virtual Classroom Tool


Public Chat

Tell a business story and have participants identify the main point and/or call to action in chat.

Private Chat

Have participants work in pairs on a call to action for their business story in chat and give each other feedback on it.


Have participants all write their best opening line for a story on the whiteboard. Afterwards, have all participants put a star next to their favorite opener.


Use the voices of your participants in class by calling on them and asking them for their ideas and opinions.

Breakout Rooms

Break learners into groups of two or more to practice delivering their story. Provide feedback tools to make the experience even more meaningful.

What kind of collaboration will you create in your courses?

Right now, while this topic is fresh in your mind, think about a course you are about to develop (or have recently developed) and jot down your own collaboration example for each of the tools above.

Related resources:

Whitepaper: Virtual Classroom Tool Design Basics: A Virtual Engagement Primer. In this white paper you'll find high-level summaries of virtual classroom tools, including chat, breakout rooms, whiteboards, application sharing, synchronized web browsing, and survey and feedback tools.  


Published by Karin Rex January 31, 2017
Karin Rex