Can edtech reinvent the classroom?

Catherine Whitaker, CEO at EtonX, believes it might

Physical classrooms arguably have the edge over e-learning because they allow students to develop social and emotional skills, alongside their academic learning. And in an increasingly globalised and fast-changing world, these soft skills are becoming more important than ever. But can technology augment this process?  Could edtech innovations replicate the best of physical classrooms while delivering crucial but intangible soft skills?

EtonX believes that the new generation of virtual classrooms based on WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communication) has changed the game decisively.  It is now possible for the latest virtual classrooms to not only replicate the traditional classroom experience – but to improve on it.  

The latest virtual classrooms allow real peer-to-peer interaction to happen through quality video streaming.  Students can take part in role plays, discussions and debates, and collaborative problem-solving activities.  They can co-create written work and presentations.  They can watch videos totally in sync with one another so that any media can be shared as a group experience. If students can interact properly, they can learn from each other.  

The teacher’s role in a WebRTC virtual classroom is no longer limited to being a lecturer which was all that earlier versions of the technology could allow. Teachers can now take the role of facilitators for the first time, stepping back to let students learn together. 

Could edtech innovations replicate the best of physical classrooms while delivering crucial but intangible soft skills?

But how will teaching professionals, who have been promised (but have not been delivered) ground-breaking innovations in the past, be convinced by edtech’s new classroom capabilities now?  

I believe the answer lies in the fact new virtual classrooms allow all the interaction of a physical class but with new benefits of their own.  There are no ‘back row’ students in a virtual class. All students face each other and the teacher.  In our experience, students plugging in to a class focus better than in a physical classroom.  Some classrooms allow pairs or smaller groups of students to move into break out rooms where they can discuss their ideas without being overheard by others – especially useful if you’re trying to avoid groups copying ideas or want quieter students to have their say. We’ve found the physical barrier of the screen has allowed students who would struggle taking on a role play persona in a physical face-to-face situation to step out of their comfort zone.

We believe that virtual classes can even be safer than physical classes. At EtonX, for example, we worked with legal advisers and educators to ensure end-to-end world-leading safeguarding for our online students, using identity verification, rigorous vetting of tutors, in-class ‘ban buttons’, encryption of all data and the recording of all sessions. 

New virtual classrooms allow all the interaction of a physical class but with new benefits of their own

Another crucial benefit of the new generation of virtual classrooms is their scope for dynamic and sympathetic cultural interactions.  Students can communicate easily across international borders and collaborate with students from other cultures. With so many university classes and workplace training sessions now being run as remote learning sessions, teenagers are gaining an understanding of how to understand and collaborate with peers from widely-different backgrounds. Teenagers are thus being empowered to broaden their education as well as gaining an important new life skill.

Intercultural communication and collaborative skills are increasingly recognised by teachers and policymakers as essential life skills.  Evidence is emerging that these life skills could have real academic benefits too: the World Economic Forum has cited data showing that students with 21st century skills achieve exam results around 11% higher than those without. 

We believe that today’s edtech classroom innovations will give students the best of physical classrooms with a unique opportunity to acquire new skills – delivering the rounded, digitally-aware education they will need in a fast-changing world.  And looking at the wider perspective, edtech innovators are ensuring that virtual classrooms will empower our teachers to drive up children’s academic performance and provide them with a fully-rounded education for our digital age – in ways that were not possible just a few short years ago.

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