This article examines the potential of synchronous communication in online education by analyzing the newest tools and platforms that facilitate real-time group communication, and the pedagogy associated with implementing synchronous communication tools into asynchronous learning environments.
Communicating in real-time from a distance has never been easier. There are numerous new platforms and applications (apps) available free-of-charge that are easy-to-use and facilitate seamless communication between geographically distant people with access to a smart phone or laptop. After reading a WSJ article reviewing several smart phone apps that facilitate real-time communication among small groups seamlessly, I realize that the time is coming where synchronous tools will bring online education to the next level. Over the last two years there’s been a flood of free apps and platforms on the market that break down distance barriers and allow people to communicate from their handheld mobile device, tablet or laptop. One example is group video conferencing. There are now several free web-conferencing tools for groups that also feature document and screen sharing, including Google Hangouts, newly launched appear.in (video conversations for up to 8 people), and meetings.io (also free). These platforms knock down the once insurmountable barriers for video conferencing use in education—barriers of student access, and technology that was cumbersome and expensive.
“A key aspect of this is the consideration of approaches to capitalizing on the capacity of video communications to reduce isolation and increase personalization of learning experiences for distance students. Indeed there is now scope for the empowerment of distance learners and an opportunity to offer a much wider choice of strategies intended to enhance and support learning (Smyth & Zanetic, 2007). Indications from the research literature are exciting.” (Andrews, Tynan, Smyth & Vale, 2010)
However, one significant barrier still exists when considering synchronous tools for education settings, and that is pedagogy. From the same paper as the above paragraph, is this statement that describes the barrier crisply, “from a practitioners point-of-view, the challenge will come from the need to be flexible, adaptive and innovative. In other words, the need is to rapidly develop new understandings of pedagogies to best utilize the person-to-person interactivity of emerging technologies” (Andrews et al, 2010).
A group of students in an online hangout using the platform meetings.io
The Great Potential: Synchronous Tools for Online Education
These apps and platforms hold great potential for online education—seamless real-time chats, video discussions that can facilitate peer-to-peer, and educator-to-student(s) exchanges that foster social connections, learning support, feedback or create a space for discussion of concepts and ideas in a way the asynchronous communication cannot. The new technology brings with it numerous possibilities. But though the potential is great, so are the challenges associated with implementation. As with any educational technology tool, the purpose for using the tool has to make sense, has to fit in with the curriculum in a pedagogically sound way that supports learning and achievement of the course objectives.
“Although video conferencing has been around for some years, in many cases the use has not been informed by rigorous research leading to sound pedagogical practices. videoconferencing has frequently copied typical lecture style format of didactic lecture style delivery rather than exploring approaches….” (Andrews & Klease, 2002)
How-to Implement Educational Technology, i.e. Synchronous Tools
Before getting to highlights of the research addressing synchronous tools in online education, I’ll emphasize what needs to happen prior to implementing educational technology into a learning environment, which essentially is a needs analysis. The first step is asking questions—questions such as, “what educational problem are we trying to solve?→ what method can we apply that supports the problem?→ what tool will best work for the application that works within the learning context?“.
To be more specific with regards to implementation of synchronous tools as discussed here, the question might be, “How can a synchronous tool be used to improve the learning outcomes, or solve a learning problem that is not being met within asynchronous online classes?“
It’s the answers to these questions that guide the learning design process. The next steps are when the real work of course design begins, developing the learning strategy to meet learning objectives ideally by following a model of learning or instructional design [I write extensively about instructional design. A good post for readers interested in learning more about instructional design is "Start Here": Instructional Design Models for Online Courses].
Learning Challenges Synchronous Tools Can Solve
Synchronous tools are not a given for each online course, it will depend upon a number of factors as determined during the course design process. Though to give readers an idea of the types of situations where synchronous tools may be used, I’ve included excerpts from Kansas State University’s webpage ‘synchronous course delivery‘ from its e-learning faculty modules site. Note, that it’s not always the instructor that will use synchronous tools, but learning counselors, tutors, small groups of students and others.
“Online real-time may be used for a number of learning purposes. There may be a small window of time when an online class may access a digital lab; a simulation; …an interactive streamed event.
….to introduce learners starting a cohort-based program. … there may be icebreakers to help people connect online….
…for academic and professional advising and counseling. It may be used for group or expert critiques of student designs and e-portfolios.
….for student group work, collaborations, and study sessions. Learners may interact with each other for problem-solving, planning, co-design, or strategy sessions.
… If there is not a need for synchronous learning, then it may well be better left alone.” e-learning faculty modules, 2012
No Talking Heads
One of the papers I review here from the International Journal of Education Technology, provides sound advice based upon the research, and one worthy of highlighting is that synchronous tools should not be used as a one-way medium, a format where the instructor can deliver information in real-time, but instead be viewed as a vehicle that allows for the exchange of information, for accommodating three or four-way [or more] conversations that build learning, ideas and learners’ motivation. The synchronous communication medium should be reserved only for exchanges that support a course objective or other learning-related function that can’t be accomplished through asynchronous methods.
“In other words students find the talking head presentation to be undesirable. This finding is not a new one (Commeaux, 1995; Schiller & Mitchell, 1993)…” (Andrews & Klease, 2002)
Below are a selection of highlights from the papers referenced in this post that outline the impact of, and considerations for synchronous methods used in online education.
1) Building Social and Teacher Presence: More than one study suggests that synchronous communication activities support the social needs of online students not typically met in the asynchronous format, “Social support is desirable as a way to foster knowledge work and collaborative learning; it provides an environment where communication is encouraged; e.g., anecdotes and personal experiences encourage trust, which foster receptive and creative learning environment” (Hranstinski, 2008).
Synchronous activities contribute to building of social presence, one of the three dimensions of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, a frequently referenced model that describes the conditions for optimal online learning experience (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). When the three dimensions are present, teacher presence, social presence and cognitive presence, the student can experience deep and meaningful learning. Purposefully developed synchronous [and asynchronous] activities can contribute to building social and teaching presence as supported by the research cited here.
2) Group Size: The purpose of a group activity as determined by the course design process, will determine the appropriate group size as well as the best tool or platform to support it.
“It is worth noting here that multi-point videoconferencing is most effective with small groups of students (20 to 25 across 3 or 4 sites) as stated by Mason, (1994) cited in Burke, London and Daunt (1997)…” (Andrews & Klease, 2002)
Video and hangout platforms each have a limit to the number of individuals participating at once, as do chat platforms, which again reinforces why the instructional strategy created in the course design process is critical. The meetings.io platform for instance allows up to five people per hangout, ideal for a small group discussion, while Google Hangout accommodates up to ten, which may be applicable for a meet-and-greet type session held at the beginning of a course.
Chat platforms, for example whatsapp, might be used effectively for group discussions, i.e. one question related to a course topic, where students contribute initial thoughts and exchange ideas, followed by an asynchronous forum discussion continuing the conversation.
3) Differences in Time Zones: One of the drawbacks of synchronous tools often cited is students living in different time zones, however in closed online courses for credit, this is not as much of an issue as massive courses that cater to a world-wide audience (though even in these instances, there are ways to accommodate learners in different time zones). In my personal experience with synchronous activities in closed, online classes, most students are willing to adjust their schedule to participate in synchronous activities, more so when activities have a clear purpose and appear worthy of students time.
“Students were willing to deal with the problems of time difference in order to take advantage of this opportunity, which, on this occasion, resulted in very early classes. Additionally, they liked the experience of interacting with a wider peer group and of learning from each other’s different knowledge-base and backgrounds.” (Andrews & Klease, 2002)
4 ) Instructor and Student Familiarity with Tool: As with any technology used in online education, familiarity with the technology is essential to establish the foundation for a successful learning outcome. The institution is responsible for providing professional development for faculty and instructors, and working with course designers/instructors to build-in course time for student practice with the tool, and make available resources that support students (and faculty) with the technological issues.
- Andrews, T., & Klease, G. (2002) Extending learning opportunities through a virtual faculty: The videoconference option. International Journal of Educational Technology, 3(1)
- Caladine, R., Andrews, T., Tynan, B., Smyth, R., & Vale, D. (2010). New communica)ons options: A renaissance in videoconference use. In G. Veletsianos (Ed.), Emerging technologies in distance education (249-‐266). Edmonton, AB: AU Press
- Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model.The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.
- Hrastinski, S. (2008). The potential of synchronous communication to enhance participation in online discussions: A case study of two e-learning courses, Information & Management, 45 (2008) p 499–506
- Stern, J. (2014), Find a Messaging App That’s Right For You and Your Crew, Wall Street Journal, Personal Technology