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Virtual Classroom Design vs. Self-Paced Learning. Which is Best?

Don’t you hate trick questions? (Wait, maybe that’s a trick question.) Of course, the answer to the question in the headline is: Neither is better. They’re just different tools in your educational toolbox.


But what exactly is virtual classroom design and self-paced learning design, and if you create online training classes, when would you use one or the other?


Virtual classroom design is replicating the classroom experience online. You design a virtual classroom by putting the instructor online instead of at the front of a brick and mortar class, and allow students to access the instructor’s lectures online, interact with the instructor online, and often have group discussions or participate in teams online, too.


Virtual classroom design is typically synchronous, meaning that students are grouped into classes or cohorts. Everyone in the class begins the “semester” at the same time, has set times during the week that they must be online to participate in the class, and they all finish at the same time. That’s the way it’s set up by the virtual classroom designer.


By contrast, in self-paced (often called self-directed) online learning, each student is his or her own class, the instruction is the instructor (though students often can ask questions of the course designer or subject matter expert via email or chat), and there are no set times a student has to be online. Students study whenever it’s convenient for them.


Self-paced online learning is asynchronous be definition. Students can enroll any time they want or need to, begin studying immediately, progress through the course at whatever pace works for them, including completing it at any time.


Google the phrase 'design virtual classroom' and you’ll learn that the benefits of virtual classroom design revolve around the benefits of traditional classroom learning. There’s an instructor to help relate the material to you and to be available to help if you have difficulty. You have classmates to share the learning process with. And you have a structure that requires you to show up (virtually) and track with the learning process.


But as with anything in life, the benefits are also the drawbacks. Not all instructors are created equal. In a virtual class, just like in a traditional class, you can get a great teacher or a sub-standard one. Classmates may be helpful or not. And all that structure means you have to fit the timing of the class rather than have the class fit your schedule. You can’t start learning until the class “semester” begins, and you can’t work ahead and finish quickly if you’re especially motivated.


Self-paced learning has pretty much the opposite benefits. Start when you want, study when you want, and finish when you get through all the material. The curriculum is presented exactly the same way to every student, so there’s no variation among teachers. But the drawback is there is very little structure. Nobody tells you when to study, how long to study or misses you if you don’t log in and study. As a result, self-paced learning is fantastic for motivated learners, but can be problematic for unmotivated learners.


But keep in mind, motivation can be internal or external. So, even if your training audience isn’t self-motivated to complete the learning, they can be externally motivated if they are employees. “Complete your self-paced course by next Friday or don’t come to work the following Monday” is pretty motivational for most people.


So there you have it. Is virtual classroom design best for your next learning program or self-paced? Do you need a virtual classroom designer or a self-paced elearning designer?

When you create online learning classes, you have choices. And your selections can make all the difference when it comes to measuring the impact of your training.

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