The Virtues of the Virtual Classroom

The Virtues of the Virtual Classroom

June 2020

Necessity is often the mother of invention. In PBI Education’s case, it was more like a midwife. The company had already spent months developing its virtual education format, the PBI Virtual Live Classroom™, when the first COVID-19 cases started showing up in the U.S. “We were all ready to go, but we were taking it slow,” said Mark Schenthal, PBI Education’s Chief Operating Officer. “It was COVID that pushed us to deliver a full ‘virtual live’ curriculum so quickly.” 

As part of the process, the company consulted with an expert in the field, Jenae Cohn, an Academic Technology Specialist at Stanford University. “Because PBI was already committed to virtual education, they came to the project with a really positive attitude,” she said. “Instead of worrying about what they might lose, they focused on what they could gain and what their participants could gain.”

The PBI team’s enthusiasm helped turn what would have been a months-long marathon into a two-week sprint. “Because of the pandemic, we worked double-time to develop policies and procedures, train faculty and staff, and contact boards around the country to seek their approval,” said Schenthal. “Without that push, it would have taken us a lot longer to realize just how powerful virtual education would be.”

People connect quickly and confidently online

There were areas of concerns as the PBI Virtual Live Classroom™ program got underway. Some faculty worried there would be a loss of intimacy. “I was concerned that participants wouldn’t develop the same level of trust online as they do in an actual classroom setting,” said faculty member Catherine Caldicott, MD. “I was surprised and delighted to see the exact opposite was true.”

In the past, participants at in-person classes would sit in a conference room, facing the faculty. Inevitably when another classmate would speak, others would have to turn awkwardly in their seats to see them. If they were seated across the room, it could be quite difficult for classmates to hear each other and see each others facial expressions. For those with auditory or visual impairments, this could make learning in a classroom doubly as challenging.

In the new virtual format, everyone learns face-to-face with their faculty and everyone else. And because PBI keeps the virtual class size small, each person’s image is large enough to encourage personal connections among the students. No one has to move when the discussion shifts back and forth from the faculty to individual participants. Far from distancing people from each other, the virtual format fosters a sense of connection. Trust grows more quickly when everyone feels equally seen.

“There was more intimacy and connection than I thought possible in a virtual format.”

Recent graduate

PBI was also dedicated to maintaining, if not enhancing, the highly interactive nature of its classes. In person, participants often worked in small groups, would chat with people sitting nearby, get to know each other over meals, and consult one-on-one with the class facilitator. If a thought or question occurred to them during a presentation, they could catch the presenter’s eye with a gesture for a chance to speak up.

PBI’s virtual classroom offers all the same kinds of interactivity. There are virtual ‘breakout rooms’ that allow members of the class to meet in small discussion groups. There’s a chat feature that gives participants the ability to message others in the class, both fellow participants and faculty. Participants can virtually ‘raise their hand’, or actually raise their hand on screen to catch the facilitator’s attention. And faculty can invite individuals to join them in a ‘personal meeting room’ where they can discuss sensitive issues or concerns in complete privacy. During break times, participants often choose stay in the meeting to chat and connect with other classmates.

“I actually thought that the virtual element allowed me to engage more because of the focus being on each other and the instructor simultaneously. It kept me present with the others in the space and their reactions to one another’s narratives, as well as the information presented.”

Recent graduate

As always, confidentiality is crucial. PBI has gone to great lengths to ensure the online security of its virtual classes. The system’s state-of-the-art encryption, and PBI’s reinforcement of their policies and procedures, keep all discussions and conversations inside the virtual classroom private and secure.

Classes from home encourage openness and honesty

Many participants say they feel more comfortable in the virtual classroom than they do meeting in person. People can become emotional when discussing painful experiences, as often is the case in the unique classes that PBI offers. “What we have found with our virtual classes, not surprisingly, is that people feel more safe and secure and are more apt to share openly when they’re in their own homes.” said Leia Leiser, PBI’s Education and Development Manager.

“I felt being in my home environment that I was more comfortable discussing my personal history. Even though we were not all in the same room physically, there was a sense of everyone being present, I did feel close to everyone.”

Recent graduate

People not only feel safer opening up to their classmates, they also find it much easier to regain their composure when they become overwhelmed. In a traditional class setting, people generally try to keep their feelings in check. On those rare occasions when someone needs to step out of the room to collect themselves, they find little comfort standing alone in a hotel hallway. In the virtual classroom, participants who need a moment can avoid drawing attention to themselves by simply switching off their video connection for a minute. Secure in the safest space of all, they are able to quickly recover their emotional balance and rejoin the class sooner, calmer, and more open than they would be if they tried to re-engage while still struggling with strong emotions. 

The enhanced sense of connection extends to students’ relationships with faculty. Some participants who are reluctant to participate in the traditional classroom are emboldened by the virtual experience to speak up and engage more fully during presentations and in response to questions.

“This format does what others often times do not… it makes you be present 99% of the time and participate. Thus, any regulation board looking to see if credit hours were actually earned, can be assured.”

Recent graduate

Virtual classes are more efficient and accessible

Traveling to and from an in-person course can be costly, especially if the most convenient location involves air travel and hotel fees. For those with physical disabilities, the challenges and expenses of traveling are even greater. For those professionals who are still working, there is the added cost of time away from work, which can be considerable when it involves long stretches in airports and on the road. Virtual classes do away with these costs, and with the accompanying hassles.

Virtual classes also mean less time away from support systems. It’s true that participants are still separated from those around them physically while they are engaged during their course. But during breaks and after classes end each day, rejoining kids, spouses, and the structure of their daily lives is as simple as opening a door.

For participants taking courses to fulfill requirements or orders, it has never been easier to meet their deadlines for completion of a course. Instead of waiting for months to take a course offered in a city nearby, participants can now take the courses they need when they need them, addressing issues right away instead of months later.

PBI Virtual Live Classroom™ courses have been so successful that even after the threat of COVID-19 has truly dissipated, PBI intends to continue offering them. Until then, all of PBI’s courses will continue to be available in the virtual live classroom format. To watch a virtual class demonstration, view the video below.

For a look at what’s available next on PBI’s calendar, click here. And for more information, contact PBI at (904) 800-1237.