Synchronous communication has a great potential to increase individual participation and group collaboration that could not be easily achieved by an asynchronous mode of communication. Despite its benefit and increasing use, scant research has been conducted on variables impacting successful synchronous teach and learning. This study has been conducted as a part of a larger research project on synchronous technology integration into a graduate distance program in educational technology at a large state university.
This research projects examined how the synchronous communication mode was incorporated in a blended graduate course in which the students learned the principles of message and media design and expanded their learning by developing their own instructional media products. During the spring of 2006, this course merged students in the distance and the residential sections. This merger was most apparent when using a synchronous conferencing tool called Breeze (now called Adobe Connect Professional) for the synchronous peer critique sessions in which the distance and residential jointly perform multi-media presentation and verbal critique to improve individual students artifacts in media design. (Breeze is a recently emerging Web-based collaboration system that can connect instructors and a group of students virtually as well as support environments for multimedia presentations and collaborations.)
Throughout the semester, a total of 49 synchronous critique sessions were conducted in this course. Each critique session consisted of three to four students and one instructor as a facilitator. The session was mediated by combined synchronous communication technologies, such as the Breeze web-based collaboration tool, including a text-based chat or voice conference feature, or a standard telephone conferencing tool depending on the instructional conditions and instructor preferences. This study focused on the pedagogical strategies, tools, and issues associated with synchronous teaching. The researchers looked at how learning was promoted, and how interaction was mediated using a combination of communication tools. Online instructors perceptions of the benefits as well as disadvantages of the synchronous mode were identified and discussed. In addition, learner experiences were also investigated.
The findings showed that learners valued spontaneous feedback, meaningful interactions, multiple perspectives, and instructors supports. On the other hand, time constraints, lack of reflection, language barriers, tool-related problems, and peer network connection problems were viewed as challenges. Due to pervasive time pressures, the synchronous interactions mainly focused on task-related issues. Nevertheless, students felt a need for connecting to others in the course and a sense of social presence. Interestingly, no differences were found between the distance and residential students in terms of learning strategies for synchronous discussions.
Based on the findings, suggestions are offered to instructors and institutions interested in the integration of synchronous technology into their courses and programs.
Based on the key findings of the studies, several suggestions are offered below related to instructional guidelines for synchronous teaching. These guidelines include strategies on how to prepare students for synchronous audio conference meetings and how to promote active and meaningful interactions. Readers can find more information from the journal articles below.
A. Prepare Students for Synchronous Learning
Naturally, the learners are central to the effectiveness of synchronous online instruction. Learners may not have experience with technology mediated synchronous instruction at least not with the particular tools employed within a particular organization. As a result, it vital to train them with basic technology skills as well as to explain the purposes and benefits (as well as the problems) associated with synchronous communication. Some recommendations are listed below.
1. Clarify Technology Requirements. Before commencing with any synchronous activities or instruction, require student to be equipped with the necessary software and equipment (e.g., headset for verbal communication) as well as a stable Internet connection. Extensive preparation fosters a more rich and engaging learning process, including quality group interactions and performances.
2. Explain Task Purpose. Express explicitly what learning outcomes and behaviors are expected from the synchronous activity. Course resources and materials, synchronous interaction guidelines and ground rules, and team meeting planning aids and worksheets should be provided to help students understanding and preparation of the synchronous task.
3. Schedule Practice Sessions. Hold practice sessions under the same conditions (e.g., tools activities, events, and procedures) as those implemented during the actual synchronous meetings. Such practice sessions help students become aware of the procedures and tasks required in synchronous activity and to become familiar with the functions and features of the communication tools.
4. Be Flexible. The instructional plan should be flexible enough to adjust according to students emerging needs and instructional conditions. Decisions made for communication tools to be used, the duration and number of synchronous sessions, the number of participants per session, and the meeting times need to fit various situations.
B. Promote Active and Meaningful Interactions
Not only must students be prepared for synchronous instruction, but instructors need to reconsider their pedagogical techniques when utilizing synchronous learning tools. More emphasis should be placed on active and engaging learning approaches where students are placed in charge of their own learning. More than fifteen or twenty minutes of direct instruction without engaging the learners can prove to be quite deadly. Utilizing synchronous tools such as online polling, web browsing, drawing, and chat can involve students more in the learning process and focus their attention. Some of the points offered below also should increase learner motivation and engagement.
1. Scaffold Students Discussion. Instructors should not dominate or lecture but facilitate more interactive and coherent contributions during the meeting. Instructors, as subject matter experts, information givers, and technology advisors, should use various support strategies such as clarifying meanings, authenticating students’ points, providing rationale, and posing questions to keep discussion active and constructive.
2. Create a Social Climate. A positive and friendly environment helps students to be open and reduces problems that might hinder participation. Engaging students in task-based collaboration is also important to increase satisfaction and connectivity among participants. A flexible structure, role assignment, supportive interaction, immediate feedback, encouragement, and personal messages seem to foster a sense of community as well as accountability among students.
3. Provide Materials to be Discussed. Topics or materials to be reviewed during synchronous meetings should be provided before the meeting. Unlike asynchronous discussion, a synchronous meeting requires immediate responses from students often without sufficient time to reflect upon the topics. Materials given to students assist them not only to think deeply about the given topics, but also to bring constructive feedback to the meeting.
4. Facilitate a Small-Group-Based Discussion. An synchronous conference is not suitable for a large number of participants. Three to four students in a small group is perhaps the ideal number for quality synchronous discussions and interactions.
C. Provide Faculty with Planned Supports. Many instructors in higher education remain reluctant, resistant, and reticent to use any form of technology in their classrooms. Such hesitancy is not surprising given that new educational technologies seem to emerge each week with a host of unique expectations for instructors to consider and potentially find a way to embed in their classes. Synchronous instructional tools may pose an even greater challenge and risk for many instructors. The reason for the sense of risk is that synchronous instruction unlike various supplemental forms of asynchronous instruction such as online discussion forums, student online blogs and reflection tasks, and online testing may directly replace face to face lectures in which they have invested extensive time and effort and, thus, are highly passionate about. Professional development and support in the area of synchronous teaching and learning, therefore, is crucial. Without a doubt, adapting synchronous approaches to existing courses requires new knowledge and skills. Administrators should understand the different roles and responsibilities of online instructors and develop new support systems better suited for their contexts. To meet these needs, institutional infrastructure and supports must address issues related to instructional supports (e.g., pedagogy), technology supports (e.g., software, hardware, resources, and skills), and institutional support (e.g., an incentive program). Several general ideas are noted below.
1. Provide Technology Options. Introduce all the technology tools available to instructors. They should be given several options for software to experiment with rather than be assigned a single software option and forced to fit it to their instructional approaches and course tasks. And if the goal is one tool or system, instructors evaluations of various tools should be considered before selection. Higher education institutions should not simply mandate a tool or system since it is free or open source. Should such instructor input be discounted, unnecessary problems and faculty resistance to the use of the system or tool will likely arise.
2. Offer Faculty Professional Development. Provide faculty members a development program in which they (1) obtain information about the available technology tools, (2) share experiences on their use, and (3) acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to use a tool or system. The program should focus on technological skills as well as pedagogical ones, thereby equipping them with appropriate approaches for online teaching. The supports for design, technology, and pedagogy must be sustained continuously until instructors gradually become accustomed to effective ways of teaching with synchronous tools and systems.
3. Provide New Incentive Programs. Changing current teaching approaches and philosophies or adopting wholly new ones always requires extensive time and effort. To make matters more difficult, concerns about increasing workload, preexisting time constraints, and a lack of institutional support negatively influence the ability to recruit qualified instructors to online teaching (Betts, 1998; Dillon, Walsh, 1992; Olcott, Wright, 1995). Funding, a new reward system combined with a solid technical and instructional infrastructure must be reconsidered and established before planning any online program especially a synchronous
In terms of learning effectiveness and satisfaction measured by the students feedback, the synchronous mode of instruction in this course was successfully implemented. A course evaluation was conducted online at the end of the semester. Seven out of eleven residential students and nineteen out of twenty-two distance students participated in the survey. The results revealed that 85 percent of the residential respondents and 84 percent of the distance respondents agreed that the online critiques were helpful for their project completion.
Follow-up interviews with four distance students and four residential students were then conducted (Park & Bonk, 2007). The findings of the interviews with the students indicated that they were satisfied with the synchronous activities in terms of the prompt feedback, meaningful interactions, and instructor appropriate supports. On the other hand, time constraints, a lack of reflection time, tool-related problems, and peers insufficient preparation in the necessary equipment and technology were identified as the main challenges.
Institutional infrastructure supporting a broad-band internet connection, synchronous collaboration tools, and telephone conference tools.
Moderate to High
Park, Y. J.; Bonk, C. J. (2007). Is online life a Breeze?: Promoting a synchronous peer critique in a blended graduate course. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(3). http://jolt.merlot.org/vol3no3/park.pdf