Financial and environmental concerns are leading some companies to question the add-on costs of face-to-face training projects.  Travel, accommodation and sheer off-the-road time can make traditional training look expensive.  No surprise then that there is unprecedented interest – even hype – around the concept of the virtual classroom.

Now the very use of the term ‘classroom’ highlights a common misunderstanding as to the purpose of virtual training and a narrow vision of what it can achieve.  Many of us still think of it as simply creating a virtual equivalent of the learning activity that takes place when a teacher meets a class of students.  Indeed, this is how straightforward e-learning has gained a foothold in the past decade.

However, the virtual classroom is much more than that.  The astounding technology that creates the virtual training environment can have a fundamental impact on changing people’s behaviours, rather than simply the one-way giving of information or knowledge.  Break-out rooms, one-to-ones, live feedback and plenary sessions are all perfectly possible in the virtual world.

Even with such a young concept, there is already much more available to help deliver virtual training, such as the inclusion of face-to-face interactions as part of an integrated learning programme.

In addition to the list of older e-learning and online tools that we are already familiar with, such as webcasts and web-based library articles, it is now possible to add forums, networking sites and Twitter conversations.  Indeed, not so much a virtual classroom as a virtual campus.

And, looking ahead, who knows what will be possible when bandwidth allows?  Stored video can be available as part of a campus today: it may not be long before live video can be incorporated into the virtual class itself.

We have found that, as well as – in some cases – replacing entire face-to-face programmes, the virtual campus can play a vital role in supplementing any type of training, through the media of virtual refreshers, coaching sessions or individual short modules.

All the signs are that the take-up of virtual training will not only accelerate but also expand.  The key, as with any such initiative, is to make sure that that users’ early exposure to the virtual environment is positive, effective and enjoyable.

In 20 years’ time, people will still be gathering in seminar rooms to learn, discuss and practise new skills.  The difference will be that they will have thought through carefully the merits of being there, certain in the knowledge that there is a viable, no less effective and no less real, virtual alternative.

by David Freedman, sales director, Huthwaite International