Can Virtual Classes be Better than in Person?


Converting to Online Teaching
A series of short guidance articles for educators and institutions


By John Cable, Director

Project Management Center for Excellence
A. James Clark School of Engineering
University of Maryland

College Park, Maryland, USA



Seismic shifts occur in education when unexpected events force widespread experimentation. Right now, college students have been facing perhaps the most uncertain year of their lives due to closures and restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 virus, with thousands choosing to defer or postpone their studies to avoid taking their classes online.

But students are finding out that deferring or postponing isn’t necessary– virtual classes can be as good, if not even better, than in-person classes. The virtual platforms are fertile ground to explore more active learning methods; enabling students to make choices and reflect on their learning individually plus through interaction with their peers and the instructor.

Active learning is an instructional approach that engages students in the material they are learning through problem-solving activities, writing assignments, group discussion, reflection activities, and any other task that promotes critical thinking about the subject. Active learning requires that students do something that develops their skills.  This is a substantial shift from traditional classroom teaching models, passive learning, where the teacher provides information that the students dutifully record. Active learning shifts the focus of learning activity to the learner: what the learner does, what the learner thinks, and how the learner behaves. It uses all three learning-style preferences: visual, auditory, and particularly kinesthetic.

Research suggests that people think and process information differently, and using the principals of Universal Design for Learning, educators must redesign courses to meet their students’ individual needs. Using a Blended Classroom course design paradigm, students watch short lecture videos, complete readings and other assignments plus take quizzes before the virtual class meeting. That allows actual class time to become an active learning environment with students who are fully focused and engaged. Whether classes are on-campus or virtual, active learning is simply better!

Remote learning is evolving toward more innovative online community-learning approaches that enhance active learning.  Advanced video conference systems, such as Zoom, offer the use of breakout rooms. The breakout rooms allow the virtual class to subdivide into separate teams to work on assignments. The teams can be assigned automatically, manually, or the participants may select and enter breakout sessions as they please plus the instructor can drop into the breakout sessions at any time.  The teams complete their collaboration efforts by reporting out to the whole class, providing a platform for class discussion. The breakout rooms mimic discussion groups in on-campus classrooms.

Professor Jocelyn Davis, lecturer at the University of Maryland Project Management Center for Excellence, has restructured her ENCE 665 Managing Project Teams class using Zoom breakouts combined with a new online learning platform called Yellowdig, with much success.

Professor Davis’ class work is divided into two overarching categories—week-by-week work to be completed outside class, and work done together in their Thursday night Zoom class. Outside class, students get started with pre-work assignments such as watching a series of short videos, supplemental readings, review slides with and without audio, and complete quizzes. There are also some optional pre-Zoom-meeting tasks to complete, like Power Labs and self-assessments, as well as topics to research and discuss on Yellowdig.


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Editor’s note: This series of articles by the Director of the University of Maryland’s Project Management Center for Excellence provides information and advice for converting from traditional in-person classes to online teaching, based on their experience before and during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020.

How to cite this paper: Cable, J. H. (2020). Converting to Online Teaching: A series of short guidance articles for educators and institutions – Can Virtual Classes be Better than in Person? PM World Journal, Vol. IX, Issue XI, November.  Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/pmwj99-Nov2020-Cable-can-virtual-classes-be-better-than-in-person.pdf



About the Author

John Cable

Director, Project Management Center for Excellence
University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA


 John Cable is Director of the Project Management Center for Excellence in the A.James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, where he is also a professor and teacher of several graduate courses in project management. His program at the University of Maryland offers masters and PhD level programs focused on project management. With more than 1,300 seats filled annually with students from many countries, including more than 40 PhD students, the program is the largest graduate program in project management at a major university in the United States.

John Cable served in the newly formed U.S. Department of Energy in 1980, where he was involved with developing energy standards for buildings, methods for measuring energy consumption, and managing primary research in energy conservation.  As an architect and builder, Mr. Cable founded and led John Cable Associates in 1984, a design build firm. In 1999 he was recruited by the University of Maryland’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering to create and manage a graduate program in project management. In his role as founder and director of the Project Management Center for Excellence at Maryland, the program has grown to offer an undergraduate minor, master’s degrees, and a doctoral program. Information about the Project Management Center for Project Management at the University of Maryland can be found at www.pm.umd.edu.

In 2002, PMI formed the Global Accreditation Center for Project Management Educational Programs (GAC).  Mr. Cable was appointed to that inaugural board where he served as vice chair.  In 2006, he was elected as chairman, a role he held through 2012.  As Chair of the PMI GAC, John led the accreditation of 86 project management educational programs at 40 institutions in 15 countries in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and the Asia Pacific Region. John was awarded PMI’s 2012 Distinguished Contribution Award for his leadership at the GAC.  He can be contacted at jcable@umd.edu.

To view other works by John Cable, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at https://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/john-cable/




  1. […] This article appeared in PM World Journal, Vol. IX, Issue XI, November 2020. […]