Towards Virtual Classroom Technologies: Challenges and Opportunities

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Towards Virtual Classroom Technologies: Challenges and Opportunities

Nitin Jonathan Myers

COVID-19 has disrupted the day-to-day activities of governments, corporates, and people across the globe. It is unfortunate that this virus has taken humanity to a stage where most of us spend time in isolation worrying about the future. This article discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the education system, especially how traditional classrooms have transformed into virtual classrooms. Finally, it identifies new challenges and opportunities associated with virtual classrooms. 

The road to completing the spring 2020 semester is not an easy one thanks to COVID-19. Measures such as social distancing and lockdowns have made traditional classroom education infeasible at the moment. Fortunately, schools have taken appropriate steps to keep graduate students in the pipeline. Many schools have moved to online learning through virtual classrooms and have adjusted their systems to provide reasonable student accommodations. Although online learning is a great educational technology (EdTech) to continue the game, it still has several challenges. 
First, virtual classrooms can be less engaging than the traditional ones. This is usually the case as the instructor can only view some of the students while delivering a lecture. Second, it requires every instructor to be well equipped with electronic writing boards or tablets, high speed connectivity, and suitable teaching environments at home. Providing these resources to all instructors can be difficult in developing/under-developed nations. Third, virtual classrooms are vulnerable to unwanted intrusion into online lectures and other security attacks. Last, instructors face a big challenge in proctoring exams given from home. Proctoring is an important problem at the moment with finals approaching soon. 
Despite several of these disadvantages with online learning, schools have done their best to keep the semester going. Here is what Sidharth Kumar, a Ph.D. student at The University of Texas at Austin, says about online classrooms - "I personally like online classrooms as I can revisit the recorded lectures to understand the key components again. However, I miss the pre-class and post-class discussion part where I get to discuss with other students to troubleshoot and check my understanding of different concepts."

Fig. 1. An illustration of a virtual classroom scenario that emulates a conventional lecture hall scenario. The challenge with existing EdTech solutions motivates the need to work on innovative technologies that can break the line between the virtual and traditional classrooms. 
Some of them include large interactive displays, augmented reality, and holographic projections as shown in Fig. 1. Wait, am I giving away a great startup idea? Maybe. Let’s say someone builds a virtual classroom experience like the one in the illustration. Now, will such a technology survive in the market when schools get back to their normal state of operation? Yes, this technology can enable universities to improvise their distance education programs or MOOCs, and support initiatives such as "Education for All". 
Furthermore, it can result in new features in the video conferencing space which can be useful for governments and the industry. The COVID-19 situation has introduced new challenges to individuals and the society at large. We hope that science and technology enables us to solve some of these challenges to transition into good times. 

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