The Office of Distance Education at Boston University effectively engages students and instructors in its online Social Work degree program through the use of synchronous web conferencing. In virtual classrooms, or live classrooms, all instructors and students communicate via webcams and headsets. Academics discuss theory and demonstrate clinical skills and students forge relationships and practice therapeutic techniques. Effective web conferences lead to an interactive learning environment in which students and faculty both profit.
Boston University’s Office of Distance Education (ODE) expanded their degree offerings in 2011 with a Masters in Social Work. At ODE, we were confident that we could translate a traditional social work program into an online learning format. However, faculty were skeptical that they could effectively demonstrate therapeutic skills online and that students could feel supported, virtually. An investigation of online educational tools revealed that synchronous web conferencing software could resolve this dilemma. Through frequent web conferences, our faculty have been able to deliver social work theories and demonstrate clinical skills, and our students have a developed a strong sense of community.
Every 7-week semester, ODE develops and supports around 7 courses in the social work program. Each of these courses is led by a faculty member and has a variety of sections led by facilitators. A virtual classroom, or live classroom, is created in a web conferencing platform for each of these sections so that students and facilitators can interact.
At least once a week, facilitators host live classrooms and deliver course content in a synchronous manner. All students and academics are required to be on webcam and utilize a headset during sessions. These technologies allow all users to communicate as if in person, and respond to one another’s social cues. Facilitators will often employ different media in the live classrooms to further promote engagement. Some instructors will include question and answers or poll pods in the room, while others will demonstrate applications like SPSS. According to Dixson (2010), creating active learning environments like these, allows students to better apply the material they are learning. These active environments also allow our facilitators to feel like they are connecting to their students and modeling appropriate clinical skills.
Further teachable moments are found when faculty join live classrooms. Course instructors will often accompany facilitators in the live classrooms and provide additional resources and knowledge to users. Faculty connect to students at these times, which likely improves the teacher/learner experience (Kilburn, 2013) and enhances student outcomes.
As the teacher/learner connection is strengthened through the use of synchronous web conferencing, so too is the peer relationship. In addition to creating live classrooms for each course section, ODE also creates live classrooms for student dyads, peer support groups, and role-plays. Students are able to open and host these live classrooms at their discretion, and they use these rooms to practice their clinical skills and receive support and guidance from their peers. This is a vital component of our program, as our learners feel connected to one another. According to Dennen and colleagues (2007) learners are more likely to be satisfied if they feel their interpersonal needs are met.
It is important to note, that ODE offers training and support with live classrooms. We provide visual guides and video tutorials to all users to acclimate them to the synchronous web conferencing technology. We further offer technical support in many live classrooms so that the focus of the sessions is on the course content and not on the technology.
Through synchronous web conferencing, the Office of Distance Education has been able to produce an effective degree program in social work. Weekly web-conferences with faculty and facilitators allow students to develop relationships with their instructors, and they provide a medium for academics to teach and explain theory. Additional web conferences hosted by students, offer degree-seekers a safe space to connect with one another and practice their therapeutic skills.
We have received praise from faculty, facilitators, and students about our online social work degree program, and its use of live classrooms. Faculty and facilitators, who were originally hesitant that we could develop a clinical program online, have expressed extreme satisfaction with our synchronous web conferencing tool and the opportunities they have to communicate with and teach their students. Our students have also expressed how valuable their live classroom experiences have been and how much they appreciate the instructor presence. We are currently undergoing a thorough student satisfaction evaluation. Using data from social work course evaluations, we have found that students believe their experiences have been “vastly improved by live classrooms.”
Virtual classrooms, or live classrooms, offer faculty the opportunity to incorporate different media into a class discussion. Implementing PowerPoints, classroom polls, and question and answers, allow faculty to engage their students and cater to diverse learning styles. Synchronous interactions give faculty the ability to assess students’ learning and provide further clarification when needed. Furthermore, live classrooms offer a home for assignments that are not easily transferable to the online environment, such as student role-plays and class presentations.
Instructors are pleased with live classrooms because they allow them the opportunity to interface with their students and form personal bonds. Additionally, live classrooms cater to different learning styles. This is a benefit to instructors dedicated to offering accessible education. Live classrooms also allow faculty to review their teaching methods in the form of recordings. Faculty enjoy that they can watch their previous sessions and identify students who struggle, and those who succeed.
Students are satisfied that through course work and web conferencing, they are able to gain a respectable social work degree online. Live classrooms mirror traditional classrooms, and students receive the community feel and peer support that they would in an on-campus program through the use of this technology. Students engage in group projects, collaborate on presentations, and practice role-plays with their classmates. Frequent live classrooms allow them to build strong relationships with their peers and the social work faculty members.
To implement this practice, faculty, facilitators, and students must have access to synchronous web conferencing software. They must also have a computer with high-speed Internet, as well as a webcam and a headset.
To incorporate synchronous web conferencing into any online program, there are costs associated with licensing and supporting the software. The cost of the license in the Office of Distance Education (ODE), is shared by the colleges that ODE supports. To support web conferencing, ODE has hired 2 student workers. These employees sit in live classrooms during our support window (6-10 PM ET Sunday through Thursday), and provide technical support and assistance to any concerned users. Each student worker can monitor 4 sessions every half hour. This means that during our support window, we can support 64 sessions a night. Student workers are currently paid $16 an hour.
Dennen, V., Darabi, A., & Smith, L. (2007). Instructor–learner interaction in online courses: The relative perceived importance of particular instructor actions on performance and satisfaction. Distance Education, 28(1), 65-79.
Dixson, M. (2010). Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging? Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 1-13.
Kilburn, M. (2013). Student perceptions of instructor interaction in the online environment. International Journal of Research In Social Sciences, 1(1), 54-58.