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Live Online Learning: What Are The Differences Between A Webinar And A Virtual Classroom?

Live Online Learning: Webinar Vs. Virtual Classroom
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Summary: Webinars and virtual classrooms are different—but how? And does that affect the number of people, what you can cover, and how to run a session?

Learn The Differences Between A Webinar And A Virtual Classroom

Live online learning is an umbrella term that can cover webinars, virtual classrooms and it can even be expanded to web meetings, and more.

Labels And Names

The names that we use for L&D activities are important as they highlight the differences in approach and outcomes. I am going to look at what a webinar is and contrast it with a virtual classroom—why there are important distinctions and how you might use them.

The key focus of this article is on “learning,” or the facilitation of training, rather than meeting to collaborate, disseminating information or marketing. Another important word here is “live.” Whilst you can, and often should, record live online sessions, they should be designed and delivered live for maximum impact. Live also differentiates from the self-paced, click-next eLearning experience and any social learning through platforms or offerings on Twitter, MOOCs or enterprise social networks.

What Is A Webinar?

The word webinar comes from “web seminar.” So this means that a conference, meeting or training delivered using internet technology can be a webinar. The idea is that people that are geographically remote from each other can all click a link and join an online venue to be together. Typically live online software allows for sharing slides and webcam as well as interactive options, such as polls, a Q&A section and maybe a chat area for text.

What Is A Virtual Classroom?

A virtual classroom is where people meet live in order to learn. The software platform allows people in different locations to interact with each other and the facilitator as well as engage in learning activities. The “virtual classroom” terminology is suggesting a simulation of a classroom environment—in other words being able to communicate with others and seeing learning material.

Just like a webinar, this can include the use of presentation slides, text chat, webcam, whiteboards used like flipcharts, small breakout groups and more.

When Is A Virtual Classroom Not A Virtual Classroom?

A virtual classroom is not Virtual Reality. VR is much more about an immersive experience in a 3D computer-generated world, often whilst wearing a headset. The virtual classroom is an online website, platform or app where you can see documents, use audio for discussions, use breakout rooms to collaborate, use whiteboards for contributing, and so on.

The virtual classroom is a synchronous experience, meaning that it’s done live, in real-time. And yes, you can also record the sessions for people to playback.

A virtual classroom is also different from a Virtual Learning Environment. A VLE usually includes the website, platform or app for reference materials, tests or assessments, homework to do and submit to the facilitator, discussion forums and more. It’s a technical and remote replica of the functions of a broader academic learning experience. Contrast this to the virtual classroom, which is much more focused on the session you are running at the moment.

What Can You Use Webinars For?

Webinars are usually used for bringing people together in order to inform, lecture, update or discuss with them. On24 found that 95% of organizations say that webinars represent a key part of their marketing efforts and use them to generate leads. On24 also reported positive links to webinars extending brands and scaling marketing efforts.

Webinars aren’t just for marketing though. On24 shares that 80% of their research respondents provide training webinars.

Webinars are often offered publicly and we’ve all seen these in various industries for the above reasons. They can also be used internally very effectively, especially in larger organizations.

How Many People Can Attend Live Online Sessions?

This is a key element in the differentiation between a webinar and a virtual classroom—the size of the audience. A webinar audience is big, a virtual classroom audience is small. But how big is big and how small is small?

With webinars the only top limit on the number of attendees is what your license and the software platform limits you to—so it can be thousands and thousands. It could be hundreds or it could be as few as 20 or 30 people. It all depends on what you are doing.

With virtual classrooms, it’s significantly fewer people. My social media research asking about how many attendees people usually have in their courses had up to 12 people and 12-25 people as the most popular options. Research from Cindy Huggett has found that most virtual classes have under 20 attendees.

In my virtual classroom "train the trainer" courses, I limit it to just ten people. A virtual classroom should be all about focusing on getting to know the attendees in order to tailor the discussions and experiences to their needs. From my experience, if you have more than 12 people in a live online session, then the discussions and activities start becoming broader and less applicable for the individuals.

How Does The Design Change With The Methodology?

The reason these differences and the number of attendees is so important is that it changes what you can do with people, which impacts how you can facilitate, what you can deliver and how much you can adapt to the needs of the people you are with.

The difference between addressing 50 or 100 people in a presentation versus eight people with a collaborative learning experience is profound. And, so it’s the same between a webinar and a virtual classroom.

In a virtual classroom, my approach in design is to think about what my attendees could say and do, rather than what I say and do. This means I’m facilitating their experience, rather than just delivering content.

I can take this approach in a webinar too, but I can’t easily have an individual discussion with one person and not the other 99 or 999 people. The types of activities that I can run are different. If I ask for something in the chat window with eight people, I can read all the contributions. With a hundred or a thousand people I might not even see them as they flash past. In a virtual classroom, whiteboards are one of my favorite ways to have creative interaction. But with 100 people or more they can get messy, full, slow and it’s easy to miss things. With webinars, we can use what I call broad brushstroke interaction. We might use polling more because it’s quick and easy to facilitate, as well as giving us an understanding of where most of that large group of people are.

How Long Should The Sessions Run?

It depends! I’ve seen two-hour webinars and 30-minute virtual classrooms work well. I’ve also seen 15-minute webinars and two-hour virtual classrooms run hideously. My social media question to people about how long their virtual classroom sessions are had an hour as the most popular format. But it’s different for everyone, less than and more than an hour were also popular. Cindy Huggett’s research found that most virtual classes were an hour, with 33% being two hours or more.

Regardless of what I say here, the length of the session needs to be right for the organization, audience and performance needs. If that’s half an hour, awesome. If it’s four hours, that’s fine too, you just have to do it really well!


When deciding that live online sessions are right for your needs, then the next decision is whether it’s a webinar for lots of people or a virtual classroom for a handful of people. Then there is the middle ground of 12 or more people, which are webinar-style learning sessions. They are less focused on individuals but still designed with interactive learning at its heart.

Whichever you select, learning the platform tool options you have, then matching the activities to what you want people to do afterward is key.