The Virtual Classroom: Broadband and Big Ideas Connect Canadian Students


In 1996, the Industry Canada-funded Communications Research Centre (CRC) and the National Research Council Canada (NRC) developed the Virtual Classroom program1 to explore the impact of broadband tools in video-mediated learning, cognition and skill development (Emond, et. al., 2008). As part of the program, a series of sessions in 2007-08 connected up to six Canadian high schools, using videoconferencing and a text-based chat tool to create virtual learning communities for cross-regional discussion of important social issues. Topics included Diet and Body Image, Stem Cell Research, The Next Pandemic, Technology, Water and Climate Change. Prior to, during, and after the videoconferences, students also had access to the BVCam, a web-based user-generated video technology (Emond, et. al, 2008). The peer-learning2 pedagogical model was enhanced by the generous assistance of local mentors.

Social and computer science researchers from NRC studied what the students thought about the technologies and subjects of three sessions, two on diet and body image and one on stem cell research. The research revealed some of the challenges of long-distance communication between large groups of people, but the overall positive response of students suggests that multisite videoconferencing and videos can enhance peer-learning opportunities.

A Teacher’s Perspective

Bringing Canadian student leaders together to discuss and work collaboratively on solutions to real problems, despite geographical distance, time-zone differences and technical pitfalls, is a powerful idea. The main intention of the Virtual Classroom program was to provide a forum for a large number of students in numerous locations to discuss various important issues. The ancillary benefit was that as students gained greater understanding of the issues, they were empowered to make informed personal choices.

Videoconferencing acts as a unique medium for students across the country, from different classes and grade levels to gather together for a common purpose. The students worked on solving complex issues and scenarios in problem-based learning3 paradigms, with a focus on cross-curricular education. Students from the Atlantic, Central and Prairie regions of Canada formed teams around either different parts of required information, different viewpoints or unique perspectives. As a teacher, I found it interesting to see how students interacted and how the medium affected the way they shared information. Often, smaller discussions occurred within the classroom, which a designated leader would then report back to the other schools. This behaviour seemed to happen naturally, as a function of human interaction, rather than as a result of any technological limitations of the hardware or software.

The videoconferencing medium allows students to take ownership of their learning. Collectively, the groups involved bring different bodies of knowledge and perspectives to the conference; ultimately this allows students to learn from and educate their peers. This form of empowerment allows new unforgettable experiences for all involved, and student engagement in the process was a key factor in the success of the sessions. Some students who participated in the Virtual Classroom last year have expressed an interest in repeating the experience, and identified various topics in the curriculum where they see opportunities for interesting discussions with other Canadians students. Some of the students also made new friendships and connections with other Canadian student leaders. I expect these experiences will be remembered by the students long after high school is finished, as well as help prepare students for post-secondary and work situations where they have to work with others to create solutions to big issues.

From the Research

Research findings revealed that the students enjoyed the opportunity that the Virtual Classroom presented to meet, explore authentic topics, and interact with students at other schools in a peer-learning environment. The event format worked well, with students at one school per session performing the duties of a host site and chairing. Students noted that the quality of discussion was better when the session involved smaller groups at fewer locations. The user-generated videos provided an additional venue for expressing opinions before, during and after the videoconference. Students identified the need for a quiet space and adequate time in the agenda to produce and view videos from other locations. The varying degrees of bandwidth between schools led to different levels of quality in the audio and video at different locations; equal bandwidth and access to the same communication tools is essential for students at each location to feel included in the event.

Videoconferencing and user-generated video tools have the potential to enhance curricular and extra-curricular activities and empower teachers and students in the educational process. Once the initial investment in broadband, hardware and software has been made, videoconferences provide an affordable way for students in different parts of the country to meet and share their perspectives. Teachers and students can share resources and experience, and the real-time exchange in videoconferencing exposes students to differences and similarities between regions.

1 Communications Research Centre Canada. “Virtual Classroom Program.” Retrieved October 15, 2008, from

2 Gwee, M. C. E. for Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning. “Peer Learning: Enhancing Student Learning Outcomes”. Retrieved November 28, 2008 from

3 Queen’s University. “PBL! PBL! PBL! Problem-Based Learning Home Page-Queen’s University”. Retrieved November 28, 2008 from References Emond, B., Scobie, D., Allen, M., Postma, M., and McIver, W.J. (2008). An H.323 Broadband Virtual Camera for supporting asynchronous visual communication in large groups, Proceedings of the IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society (IEEE ISTAS 08), Fredericton, Canada, June 26-28.

Emond, B., Molyneaux, H., Spence, J., Brooks, M. (submitted). Student Perceptions of Broadband Visual Communication Technology in the Virtual Classroom: A Case Study, International Communications Association Annual Conference 2009, Chicago.


Mark Milliken and Andrew Culberson
Mary Milliken ( is a research analyst at the National Research Council Institute for Information Technology in Fredericton NB.

Andrew Culberson (Andrew.Culberson@NBED.NB.CA) is a high school biology teacher at Leo Hayes High School. He has been teaching for five years and received his BSc., BEd. and M.Ed. from the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s January 2009 issue.

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