There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the possibilities of online education. If you’re a student, the idea of attending class remotely while using dynamic, cutting-edge technological tools is deeply attractive. Educators, on the other hand, reap the benefits of better student performance, while administrators (who always have one eye on the budget) can significantly reduce costs.

These benefits are readily available to virtually anyone involved with online education — with one important caveat: You absolutely must choose the right tool to implement your vision. Without it, you simply can’t leverage the full potential of online teaching.

Cost-consciousness is always an ongoing concern in education, of course. Because of this, many people might assume that the least expensive option is the preferred choice. That’s not the case when it comes to online learning. Cheap, web-based tools can’t match the power of today’s most advanced learning platforms for live online teaching.
To help explain why this difference is so critical, let’s take a closer look at two popular options for online teaching: Powerful virtual classroom and basic video conferencing software.


Virtual classrooms vs. video conferencing software: Which is right for me?

Whether you’re a single teacher or a major learning institution with thousands of students, evaluating technology is a key part of the job. Pick the wrong platform, and you’ll be stuck with something that can’t handle your needs, or might even be completely outmoded in a few years. All of those school districts that invested in Betamax before the emergence of VHS, or bought encyclopedias and CD-Roms just before the dawn of the Internet, are shining examples.

When it comes to online teaching, perhaps the most important decision of this kind is virtual classroom vs. video conferencing. Virtual classrooms are sophisticated online representations of physical classrooms. The best online classrooms aim to merge the benefits of in-person instruction with the advantages of online learning.

Virtual classrooms use features such as high-quality video and audio, file sharing, social functions and the use of a shared whiteboard, which is the central element of a live learning experience. Virtual classrooms have been specifically designed for pedagogical purposes, and they offer a suite of high-level features that teachers can use to track progress, design interactive content and engage with students.

Video conferencing software, on the other hand, offers some of these functions, but is also far less rich in educational features and applications, as it is a multi-purpose technology that wasn’t developed to meet the needs of teachers. Teachers can use video conferencing software to meet with students remotely, allowing them to increase accessibility and lower costs.

To better illustrate the difference, let’s review how these products’ features stack up in comparison.

Virtual classrooms

  • Whiteboard:Have advanced whiteboards and are designed for pedagogy
  • Polling:Feature in-class polling and other features that allow teachers to monitor progress in real time
  • Load management:Are optimized to handle large numbers of learners logging on simultaneously
  • Courses: Offer the facility to deliver scheduled (time-bound) courses
  • Classroom tools:Have tools such as hand raising and emoticon response that help teachers gauge how learners are feeling or progressing
  • Replication of traditional classroom:Mirror real-world classrooms, but allow hundreds of students to meet remotely from across the globe
  • Face-to-face:Have built-in video conferencing functionality, though this is but one feature of many
  • Cloud storage:Give teachers the option to upload course content to the cloud — material that’s available before and after class
  • Teach how to code: Come with built-in code editor and syntax highlighter to make teaching of programming language easy
  • Class recording: Record live sessions which can be later on distributed to students for their reference.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the features you’ll commonly see with a Web-based conferencing approach:

Video conferencing software

  • Free: Available for free – skype, for example
  • Just video conferencing: Video calling is its main functionality and is not optimized for large numbers of simultaneous logins, which may create stability issues
  • No whiteboard: Doesn’t have a whiteboard. Classroom staple is missing; thus, it Is not designed for pedagogy
  • No classroom tools:Lacks the built-in communication tools and social functions of a virtual classroom
  • No analytics: Does not have advanced tracking and reporting functionality
  • May not be “future-proof” — in other words, it may lack the ability to grow with you
  • Not comprehensive:Often requires the use of third-party plugins to expand features
  • No cloud storage: Files need to be attached during video conferencing. No cloud storage offered to users.

When reviewing these features, it becomes quite apparent that while there is some overlap between both products, video conferencing does not offer the same robust learning and teaching experience. One is a product that’s optimized for pedagogy, while another is a business tool that can be used (in a limited fashion) for face-to-face interactions.

Given these differences,teachers and institutions should tread very carefully when deciding on online learning technology. While saving on costs upfront might be appealing, the advantages offered by virtual classrooms typically pay for themselves in short order — especially given the fact that modern virtual classrooms are already highly cost competitive.

After all, who can put a price on knowing that you have the most advanced, comprehensive and future-proofed educational product on the market?

The takeaway

Virtual classrooms and video conferencing software offer some of the same advantages, but the former is simply a much more powerful, feature-rich product. Teachers and institutions should weigh these differences very carefully before committing to an online learning solution.