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Buyer's Guide for Virtual Classrooms

Saba, a premier learning and talent management solution provider, was named as a finalist for the Best LMS and Virtual Classroom in The Best of eLearning! 2013. In this article, Saba examines the must-have features of virtual classroom tools to help you find the best solution for your organization. 

Learning leaders have to be concerned about keeping pace in a fast-changing business environment, rapid innovation in the learning industry, their department’s relevance, and a changing economic environment. The virtual classroom represents an ideal technology solution for modern high-impact learning organizations and distance education programs. 

Consider the following features when looking for a virtual classroom solution versus online meeting and web conferencing solutions. 

User Experience: Interactivity 

Just as with a classroom in the physical world, users want to interact with others within a virtual classroom. They want to share their ideas at a point in the discussion when those ideas are relevant. They want to express themselves non-verbally, and they want to see how other participants feel about the discussion taking place. 

Virtual classroom tools need to provide users an easy way to alert the instructor that they want to ask a question or make a point by raising their hands. Users need to be able to contribute to what goes up on the team whiteboard during a classroom and express opinions and emotions with emoticons. 

Easy-to-Administer Classes 

Be prepared for your virtual classroom before it starts. Look for a tool with an agenda builder that you can import content before your virtual classroom is scheduled to begin. You also need to be able to identify content properties and organize the sequence of the content being shared, as well as add placeholders for application, web, and whiteboard sharing. Creating evaluations, polls, tests, and surveys to measure learning, progress, and opinions also are critical for establishing an interactive and collaborative classroom.  Virtual Classes also need to provide simple yet powerful breakout rooms where learners can do group exercises. 

Advanced Security 

Given the potential for anonymity on the Internet, unauthorized access to a classroom session presents a real risk. Sensitive classes require robust user-level security that puts your chief security officer at ease. You need to be able to restrict classroom attendance to a specific set of invited participants and prevent unauthorized users or hackers from finding or accessing classes or recorded sessions. Classroom leaders also should be able to eject unwanted participants from a session at any time. After the event has ended, they should know exactly who was logged into the session, when and for how long.  

This article is excerpted from the Saba whitepaper, “The Buyer’s Guide for Virtual Classrooms.” You can download the complete whitepaper from the Saba website

Reliability and Performance 

If your users are conducting business-critical activities using a virtual learning solution, they need to be able to count on it to be there for them. Look for proven virtual conferencing solutions that are focused on keeping sessions up — both live sessions and recorded ones. Furthermore, the solution should be able to recognize network issues and address them before they affect the user experience. 

Virtual classroom buyers often overlook the performance of recorded sessions when evaluating a solution. However, keep in mind that if the performance quality of recordings is low, people will not use them.  Furthermore, users should be able to take the tests or quizzes as part of the recorded session if they missed the live class.   

High-Quality Voice and Video 

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If you want voice and video to work, they need to work on your network. While many organizations are embracing voice over IP (VoIP) because of its cost advantages, poor sound quality will send users looking for alternate solutions. VoIP should be crystal clear, even if your participants are working in remote, bandwidth-constrained locations. 

When you are evaluating solutions, you should test the sound quality from a variety of locations to be sure that what you are experiencing in demonstrations is representative of what your users will get in real life. You should also determine what happens when user counts grow. Will your session stay up if you have 1,000 webinar participants using VoIP?  

High Quality video conferencing to the endpoint is an evolving technology and it requires a delicate balance between bandwidth and resolution/fidelity.  Look for solutions that leverage the latest open-standards-based technologies, such as H.264 SVC (scalable video coding). 

A Scalable Solution 

Many virtual classroom solutions build assumptions into their technology that end-users will be on a broadband connection. You should look for the following capabilities in your virtual classroom solution: ƒ

  • Full functionality that works with low bandwidths ƒ
  • Robust VoIP that can serve large user populations ƒ
  • Full IP multicast support for core features in addition to IP audio and video ƒ
  • Other technologies that improve scalability in a network that is not fully multicast-enabled
  • Real-time Cloud with remote satellite sites across the globe supporting multiple languages
  • Proven deployments that reach national and international user populations.  

Effective Content Management 

A virtual classroom solution can be much more than a tool for sharing PowerPoint. It should be able to bring together slides, videos, whiteboarding, applications, web sites, recordings, polls, surveys, and assessments into a single, clearly defined agenda. And great classroom content should never be isolated to a single leader or presenter; this content should be available to everyone who could benefit from it. Everyone should be able to access it, repackage it, and reuse it to its fullest.  

Repository to Help Monetize Your Knowhow 

If you do not have a way to manage, share, and reuse the content of virtual classrooms sessions, you are losing the critical knowhow that makes your business run. Look for a product with a centralized repository where non-administrative users can access recorded sessions, editing tools that are only practical for any user, and ways for users to access and interact with recordings.   An integrated Ecommerce engine will also be valuable to being able to charge for virtual classes and recordings as appropriate. 

Support for Mobile Users 

Users want a virtual classroom solution that is as flexible and mobile as they are. Look specifically at

  • ease of access on a mobile device ƒ
  • ease of interactivity throughout the session ƒ
  • ease of participation, with VoIP in particular ƒ
  • ease of playback for recorded know-how. 

Capability to Socialize Virtual Learning 

Virtual classrooms do not just have to be about facilitating classes and online training sessions to eliminate travel. By bringing virtual classrooms into your social network and fully integrating them into your workplace environment, you can revolutionize how knowledge gets shared. Look for a solution that makes sessions or recordings accessible to everyone or select a specific group that would benefit from it. You also want a tool that lets your people rate the session/recording, tag it, comment on it, and share it with their colleagues. Also, leverage gamification techniques to encourage increased user engagement. 

Final Word 

By using these key criteria during your evaluation process of virtual classroom tools, you will find a solution that ƒ

  • drives higher user adoption ƒ
  • grows with you, no matter where you go ƒ
  • fosters the cultural shift that makes virtual classrooms a fundamental part of how you increase knowledge transfer ƒ
  • increases knowhow capture and reuse across learners ƒ.
  • increases retention
  • is fun and interactive.

 

About the Author

Babak Salimi is senior director of product marketing at Saba and is responsible for Saba’s Collaboration product offerings. Babak has more than 20 years of domain expertise in collaboration, IT, security, compliance, and telecom/network infrastructure. Prior to Saba, Babak drove marketing, business development, and product strategy for leading companies such as Agiliance, Workshare, GreenBorder (acquired by Google), Sygate (acquired by Symantec), Nortel, and IBM. Babak holds a master’s degree in telecommunications technology management and a bachelor’s degree in engineering with honors from McGill University.

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