Virtual vs in-person classes: What’s the solution?


It started with one 12-year-old girl sitting at her desk outside her school in Turin, Italy. Her friend soon joined her, and before long thousands of children across Italy were doing the same.

Anita Iacovelli’s one-person stand against school closures due to the Covid pandemic is now a national movement, and similar protests are happening in countries all over the world, with students demanding a return to in-person classes. But are virtual classes that bad? If so, what could be done to make them better, or will they never replace being there in person?

Technical difficulties

Perhaps the biggest bugbear when it comes to virtual learning are the technical problems that crop up. We’ve all experienced a frozen screen and distorted sound from time to time, but such issues can severely disrupt learning. On top of this, not all students are tech-savvy: one thing the sudden shift to e-learning has exposed is low digital literacy in some students. If a student finds using platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams hard to use to begin with, imagine the frustration they may feel if this technology starts to let them down once they do log on.

That said, it’s easy to see just how fast technology is developing. Call quality is generally much higher than it was five years ago, and major video platforms are continuously updating their software as they compete for users. The advent of 5G technology also means that connection problems will soon be a thing of the past, and video calls will be so easy to conduct that even the most computer illiterate among us will find it extremely simple.

Fight boredom with games

A common complaint about online classes is that they’re boring. The teacher may struggle to keep every student engaged, especially in larger classes, which means that some more traditional teaching methods simply don’t work. Virtual learning needs to be interactive and fun, but that can be difficult for the teacher to achieve.

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However, like with so many things in life nowadays, technology comes up with an answer. Game-based learning is often overlooked by teachers, but it’s been an effective way of teaching elaborate concepts for several years now. While many people tend to think of online casinos and video games when they hear virtual gaming, gamified teaching solutions simply take the age-old concept of learning while playing and bring it into the 21st century.

It doesn’t have to stop with the games, either. Offering awards and certificates to students is extra motivation for them to participate, and even serves as an incentive to attend the next class with enthusiasm.

An online student material bank

One thing that virtual classes undeniably have in their favour is the amount of class material that students have at their disposal. Whereas before teachers consumed paper and ink printing realms of handouts, they can now store everything in a shared file just a click or two away from each student.

What’s more, screen-sharing means they can beam any content from the web directly onto each person’s screen. There has never been such a wealth of information available, and video classes offer the most convenient way of sharing that.

This will only improve as time goes on, too, with some schools already using personal student clouds so that their alumni can get everything they need in just a few seconds.

 Lack of personal touch

Despite the many solutions to some of technology’s problems, Anita Iacovelli and her friends do raise one concern that will be difficult to rectify: the lack of a personal touch. When conducted well, in-person classes generate a vibrant, interactive atmosphere, where students bounce ideas off each other and discuss the concepts raised by the teacher. A video call lacks this crisp type of exchange, and it may even have a negative psychological effect on students who can’t see their classmates in person for long periods of time.

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While 5G may improve the speed of such interactions, and some learning measures do help, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able digitally replicate the buzz of the human experience any time soon.

The hybrid solution

With educators eager to solve the conflicts between virtual and online classes, the answer may come in the form of a compromise. Hybrid classes combine the finest features of online learning and their traditional counterparts to give students the best of both worlds.

Consulting firm McKinsey recently proposed a hybrid class framework that schools could follow. While its primary focus is preparing for the reopening of schools during the Covid pandemic, it suggests methods that could be used long-term, even after the outbreak subsides. These include prioritizing in-person instruction for students who experience the most difficulty and utilizing video technology for more technical tasks. The ratio of in-person and virtual classes would also vary according to age group, so that younger pupils get more human interaction.

While such a system has its own drawbacks, including a potentially confusing schedule at first, it might be the start of a more sophisticated learning system in the future.