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Could a virtual classroom soon be more beneficial to students than a physical one?

Eton X, a subsidiary of Eton College that provides soft skills courses for teenagers says giant leaps in VR tech are "humanising" technology

Teenagers are learning how to adjust to the world of work by studying in an advanced virtual classroom that can replicate — and even improve upon — the experience of being in a physical classroom.

Eton X, a subsidiary of Eton College that provides soft skills courses for teenagers, says improvements in video streaming and other technologies have enabled the latest generation of virtual classrooms to make giant leaps forward.

The company launched its own custom-built virtual classroom this autumn with the release of the first eight courses in its Future Skills Programme, which address gaps in the teaching of vital soft skills around the world. The courses develop skills such as assertiveness, active listening and public speaking.

Advances in live video streaming mean that participants on EtonX’s courses can interact more naturally during group discussions with each other and their tutor, while also benefiting from innovations such as virtual breakout rooms that facilitate debate in smaller groups.

The EtonX bespoke virtual classroom has been integrated into a customised learning management system. It uses the full functionality of the latest WebRTC protocols, which enables users to access the virtual classroom via a browser without requiring any software download.

Without recent technological gains, it would have been impossible to teach soft skills effectively over the internet, says Catherine Whitaker, EtonX CEO and Head of Learning: “The new virtual classrooms are humanising the technology.”

“Such progress would not have been possible with older versions of online learning technology: you can’t learn how to give a speech, assert yourself or handle a tricky conversation by listening to a lecture, but you can with today’s more human and flexible virtual classrooms.”

Catherine Whitaker identifies five key advantages to using a virtual rather than a physical classroom in the teaching of soft skills:

  • In a virtual classroom all students are equally visible to their tutor and to one another, which encourages everyone to contribute and promotes peer to peer learning — there is no back row to “hide” in
  • Virtual breakout rooms are more private and therefore more effective for learning than their real-world counterparts —they prevent eavesdropping on other groups;
  • Shy students are more willing to role-play in a virtual classroom because the screen acts as a distancing mechanism, making such exercises seem less threatening than they would in person
  • Virtual classrooms allow pupils to be exposed to much greater diversity, enabling them to study alongside a broader range of people or different cultures from around the world
  • Virtual classrooms offer young people a taste of forms of interaction that are prevalent in the world of work but not normally encountered as school, particularly conference calls.

Soft skills have traditionally been regarded as intangible or difficult subjects for strongly exam-focused secondary schools to teach formally.¹ Successive global studies, however, show they are increasingly in demand from employers that are reorganising and reskilling to cope with technological changes known as the “fourth industrial revolution” — which could wipe out up to 80 million jobs worldwide by 2022.²

The EtonX Future Skills Programme, developed by its own digital experts working alongside Eton College teachers, reflects key aspects of an Eton education — such as confidence, interpersonal skills and entrepreneurship. The first set of courses released in the programme are: Making An Impact; Public Speaking; Verbal Communication; Writing Skills; Interview Skills; CV Writing; Critical Thinking; and Entrepreneurship.