White-Boardom, a Litmus Test for Virtual Classrooms

There are only three questions I want to ask when I’m thinking about a virtual classroom system:

  1. Is it easy to use?
  2. How does it perform?
  3. What can I do with it?

In the past few months I’ve been using a range of different tools which include Adobe Connect, DimDim, Elluminate, Saba-Centra and WebEx. As I’ve used them in earnest, I have developed a good number of interactive exercises and activities. I think of these now as my litmus test for virtual classrooms. In this post I’ll show you some of those exercises, explain how they work, which VC software gets the best out of them, and how they relate to instructional strategies – which is my own principal interest. The questions about ease of use and performance are of high importance. I need to be able to prepare and test a sesson in advance. My audience must be effortlessy enrolled and able to hear, speak and contribute through markup and chat. Naturally I need to feel confident that the quality of experience will be a good one and that there will be no sound glitches, time lags or inconvenient interruptions. I want to be sure that if I’ve set the system to record, I’ll be able to access a complete and competent recording after the event. Important though they may be, I’m not going to deal with those issues in this blog. They can wait for another time. What I am going to ask today about the virtual classroom is “What can I do with it?”

When I first set foot on the primrose path towards teaching and learning live online, I built a basic list of things I regularly do in classrooms. Then I asked myself not “whether” but “how” might I achieve the same online. I’m going to tell you about that list of instructional strategies in some detail, with images of how they have been accomplished through virtual classroom systems.

At the highest level there are just 5 things I want to do, and they are engage, share, evaluate, organise, synthesise and query.


To engage is a straightforward matter. It needs no debate. The cliché that is used in sales training and in train-the-trainer is “you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression”.

One thing that is obvious is that people need to know how to take part and that may involve a little time for induction, orientation and practice. Onlignment’s eBooks do not generally recommend doing this within an actual session. It is best to set it up as a “prequel” by opening a session 20-30 minutes early for inexperienced participants. Otherwise run a separate “sandbox” session or send out a newcomer’s guide. Many of the mainstream system providers have produced this kind of material so you don’t have to. WebEx for example has its “University” and almost all of the others provide some form of hands-on rehearsal free of charge.

Elluminate navigation slide
Elluminate navigation slide

Here as an example is a single image taken from a helpful user guide about Elluminate.

If you do a Google search for Keller’s ARCs, you’ll find lots of creative suggestions for how to capture the attention of an audience of learners, and then hold it. In the virtual classroom, some of the most obvious methods have now become rather hackneyed. For example if you have attended one or two online sessons, it is quite likely that you will have met some kind of “map exercise” such as this one in which the participant is asked to use a pointer or a markup device to show where they are right now.

Where are you right now?

Another variation of the same is to show a wider map and ask users to mark the place where they would most like to be on holiday.

Map of Europe labelled
Where would you like to go on holiday?

In their defence, these are easy to mount in any of the systems I listed at the start, and even those who’ve done it before can take some interest from the responses of others. The important thing is to engineer some reason for an audience of learners to respond early in a session, rather than sit back and wait for “things to be done to them”.

Because it knows no physical boundaries, the virtual classroom may well bring together people who come from backgrounds far beyond the UK. When I’m working with international audiences an icebreaker exercise offers the chance to connect with them, who they are and what they bring. I put together a simple activity that offers a greeting in a number of different world languages. I did a little plundering by asking Google “How do you say hello in…” Try it and you too will soon be able to greet others in 775 different languages. Once I had the words, I developed a series of 30 or so screens in PowerPoint. Here is an example.

Flag of Luxembourg showing how to say "hello".
Welcome in Luxemburgish

Working in Adobe Connect gave me an advantage because I could cover the answer with a filled in box, and then lift off the box during the sesson to reveal the answer. This was even easier in Elluminate, as shown in the screen grab, where I could prepare in advance all of my whiteboards and save them to a file together with the masks (such as the box filled-in with background colour) and other trickery I needed. I’ll come back to this technique of conceal – reveal later, as it serves a number of different strategies for learning and teaching.

If I scripted it in a story-board the activity might read like this:

Show the first slide.
The national flag and name of the country is concealed by an ‘invisible’ box.
Say, “Suppose I say to you ‘Wellkomm’, where might we be?
“Type your answer into ‘chat’.
Await correct answer. If no correct answer give prompt such as “it is a very small country close to Switzerland, Austria and Germany”.
Acknowledge correct answer or if none is offered, say something encouraging such as “well that was quite a tough one. Let’s try another.”
Remove invisible box to reveal correct answer.

The very same whiteboard could be used in many different ways, and often it is the software of the virtual classroom that dictates which approach you use. Here is an alternative:

Show the first slide. The word “Wellkomm” is concealed by an ‘invisible’ box.
Say, “Here you can see the national flag of Luxembourg. Who knows how to say ‘hello’ in Luxemburgish?”
Raise your hand if you know the answer.
Await raised hand. If no correct answer give prompt such as “it does sound rather like the English word but with a different accent, rather Germanic”.
Invite first raised hand to open microphone and speak. Acknowledge correct answer or if noneis offered, say something encouraging such as “well that was qite a tough one. Maybe we’ll get something a little easier next time like France, Germany, Spain or Italy. Let’s try another.”
Remove invisible box to reveal correct answer.

One or two features of virtual classrooms that help this process are the numbering of hands in the order in which they were raised, and the facility to mute and unmute microphones selectively.

Returning to the goal of “engaging” participants, you might know many other ways of doing this in face-to-face situations. For example you might use quotations, tell a story, show impressive statistics, ask a question, offer an activity, show or say something intriguing or mysterious, set a challenge or some kind of surprise. I have found ways of doing all of these in a virtual classroom. Often the added value that mark-up tools, polls, chat and a shared workspace bring makes it an even richer and more satisfying experience than doing it face-to-face. Still I’ll let you decide. I’ve got many examples that I am going to show you. We’ve not yet scratched the surface beyond saying “hello” to participants and getting them ready to start work.

I’d like to return to my 5 strategies of engage, share, evaluate, organise, synthesis and query.  I’ll open each one up and, over a succession of short blogs, I’ll show you examples of how each has been done through popular virtual classrooms.


By my classification, sharing includes a number of different of different activities. It often requires some form of collaboration and may involve experiential learning, exchange of information and ideas, passing and receiving items to and from others, demonstrations, and presentations. In a virtual classroom the channels for these are words and pictures, media, weblinks, documents, slides and diagrams. You will see from the examples I show you how it is possible to combine and configure these to provide an engaging and constructivist learning opportunity that goes fay beyond mere tell-or-show-and-test. Conversation, direction, instruction, debriefing, comparing and giving pause for reflection are other examples of the “sharing” that I see well-supportable in live virtual classrooms.


In this part I’ll show you images and scripts for whiteboards for visualisation expressed through imagination and described through drawing, speech or text. Evaluation will also cover examples of query using Q&A, and decision-making by prioritising, ranking and resolving individually and in groups. Considering and selecting are important elements of these mental processes and I’ll show you examples of how they were supported using the virtual classroom’s strengths in highlighting and marking.


Organisation has three sub-sets: classify, locate and isolate. This means labelling and linking, associating and numbering items that are presented as images, symbols or text. You’ll see how activities call upon users to find and reveal objects from a ground, and then to sort, highlight, group, remove or conceal them.


This is about constructing sense out of unorganised ideas and images. It needs the learner to have the facility to position and reposition, sequence, group and regroup. Typically in the virtual classroom that means drag and drop, cut and copy and paste, undo and redo. This is where you begin to notice the fundamental differences amongst the different VC systems; not all of them offer this level of functionality and so it becomes necessary to flex the creative muscle and invent a workaround. There is, in my experience, always a workaround; it’s just a matter of keeping focus on the stategy and then inventing a way of delivering it within the constraints.


This is my fifth strategy. It may entail assessment in its many forms and for a variety of purposes. That may need the use of polls and surveys, guesses and estimates, self-checks, question-design tools and response analysis.

Currently that are 70 whiteboards in the collection I’ve reserved to illustrate all 5 of the techniques in this blog series. I’m hoping they will inspire some people to tip in ideas of their own, or provoke the real experts out there to say, “Ah but if you only knew how, you’d be doing it like this…”

About Phil Green

Phil Green has written 84 post in this blog.

Phil identifies himself as a perfomance consultant and teacher who helps people and organisations to do the best they can at work. He has strong skills in designing learning materials and workflow support, and draws from a wide spectrum of methods and technology. Co-designer of a certificated qualification in blended learning, he has trained hundreds of others from many industry sectors in how to create effective learning solutions, both online and offline.

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  1. says

    Great article Phil.

    As you know I am investigating the possibilities of implementing a Virtual Classroom within my organisation so these forthcoming blog articles have come at just the right time! I look forward to seeing it in action on the 16th!


  2. Lewis Barton says

    This word boardom is not in my dictionary. I know now it is not a real word. Is whiteboard a real word? I know blackboard is certainly a word. You should be careful when you are writing for an international audience. You should use only plain English please.

  3. says

    You were right to put me in my place, Lewis. I should practise as I preach. The word boardom was a mashup of board and boredom. I meant it as a pun. Of course you’ve made me remember that puns do not work very well for people who read English as a foreign language. As for whiteboard – I prefer to write it as all one word even though it does not appear in all dictionaries. It is a kind of derivative of blackboard as you hinted. English did not change very much when I was a boy, but nowadays it is absorbing new words rapidly. I’m sorry to see the Oxford English Dictionary will soon go out of print. Still I suppose “mashup” will be a legitimate word in the online version.

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