While schools in Singapore still remain open, there are restrictions on mass gatherings of students, and children at some schools may be on a mandatory 14-day Stay-Home Notice (SHN). Also, schools are right to be prepared as the Singapore government said this week that it is considering further social distancing measures such as school closures.
Read more: 'Singapore can't rule out school closures'
At GIIS SMART, students in Grades 10-12 have the flexibility to log-in and participate in a live, ongoing class in the school through their mobile phone, laptop or iPad. Students who are logged-in remotely can view the classroom and its digital smartboard, watch the teacher take the lesson, and participate in any class discussion.
GIIS SMART says: "The virtual classrooms are activated for our senior cohorts – Grades 10-12 at the SMART Campus and Grades 6-8 at the East Coast campus. Students can opt to remotely dial into their classrooms through their laptops or iPads and participate in the teaching sessions going on in the school.
"This idea was conceived by the SMART Campus to ensure that students do not lose out on lessons due to unforeseen circumstances like injury, family emergency or health issues. It is especially handy during this time when the challenge of COVID-19 virus is facing the world and Singapore."
The campus has had the technology in place for a while, with more than 130 classrooms powered by 'virtual classroom' e-learning technology such as digital smartboards, video conferencing facilities and microphones.
This week, GIIS SMART became one of the first campuses in the Global Schools Foundation (GSF) to run virtual classrooms; the initiative is now being implemented for Grades 6-8 at its East Coast campus in Singapore, and at other schools in Japan, India and the UAE. Eventually, more than 11,000 students globally are expected to use GIIS' virtual classrooms.
Arjun Temurnikar, assistant director of technology at the Global Schools Foundation, said: “The Virtual Classroom was activated in view of Coronavirus within just three days. However, it has long-term benefits like the dynamic exchange of ideas and bi-directional interactivity, which facilitates an uninterrupted learning experience.”
GIIS SMART student Arnav Varshney, said: “Today I could not go to school because I had a cold. So I joined the GIIS virtual classroom and the entire experience was just like a real classroom; it was as if I was physically present in the class. I could clearly see the whiteboard and also the teacher. I could ask questions in real-time and the teacher was able to provide responses there and then.”
GIIS SMART IB student Lavanya Swaminathan, who sat a virtual economics class, said: “I have been logging into the virtual classroom from home. The connectivity was instant, and the audio-visual quality was also good.
“Teachers were clearly audible, and I got a chance to participate in classroom activity as one of the two smartboards in the classroom displayed my profile, allowing the teacher to interact with me with ease. I could even see very clearly what the teacher was writing on the whiteboards through my video conferencing. It is as good as a real classroom experience.”
Dr Shivalik K Pathania, Head of the English department at GIIS SMART, said: “Virtual classrooms are very interactive with fully equipped digital smartboard displays, easy to use video conferencing, and mics for clearer sound, which enable us to give greater flexibility to students in case they are unable to attend the class due to any reason.
"This keeps the teaching uninterrupted and all the students abreast of how the class is progressing.”
As education moves away from the confines of four walls, there are many different e-learning tools being adopted by schools around the world. And, at a time when schools are temporarily closed in more than 20 countries due to COVID-19, the use of the virtual classroom has never been so prevalent.
In Hong Kong, where the schools are closed for at least 12 weeks, students at many international schools have been working alongside their classmates in real time. This is in addition to the use of online resources such as Google Classroom and Seesaw for sharing work, and videos and interactive e-books on educational sites.
Read more: How are Hong Kong schools delivering online learning?
How does the virtual classroom work?
What are the pros and cons?
The virtual classroom has typically been popular with language schools as it gives students the opportunity to practice spoken skills with fellow students. Today, we are seeing growing numbers of primary and secondary schools using advanced video conferencing technology to deliver classes online.
Why? Well, it has the obvious advantage of being able to teach students off-campus, in real time, anywhere in the world – and this is really being tested at a time when more than 290 million students are forced to learn from home. Also, students can replay a virtual lesson, which gives them an opportunity to recap anything discussed.
However, the drawbacks of the virtual classroom include lack of peer interaction and difficulties in engaging students when they are not in a classroom environment. Attention spans are likely to be shorter and it’s easier for virtual students to skip in and out of lessons, so you’re relying on a strong teacher to engage them. Also, it can be easier for shy or disinterested students to hide in the background unless a teacher makes the effort to reach out to them.