Going Synchronous

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from November 2017 that outlines some of the basics about synchronous learning. Enjoy!

On our campus recently, there has been a lot of discussion about synchronous interactions online. Some of our general education classes require that students engage in oral interactions where they are placed in active speaking and listening roles with an audience of their peers.  In face-to-face classes, this is usually accomplished through presentations, debates or oral exams. But what do these oral interactions look like in an online class, especially when curricular policies require that interactions be reciprocal? The conversation has led to promoting more synchronous modes of interactions in our online classes. Since some online teachers have more experience with asynchronous interactions then synchronous ones, I thought I’d offer some advice for people venturing into the synchronous world.

  1. Recognize the strengths. Asynchronous and synchronous online interactions are different but it’s important to remember than neither is better than the other. Hrastinski (2008) writes that synchronous online interactions afford more personal participation through “increased arousal, motivation and convergence on meaning” while asynchronous interactions support more cognitive participation through “increased reflection and ability to process information” (p. 54). Used together, they can provide a more comprehensive online experience for students where cognitive and personal aspects are supported.
  2. Don’t get hung up on tools. There are a lot of synchronous tools to use. Adobe Connect. Blackboard Collaborate. Zoom. Google Hangouts. Skype. Each of the tools has their limitations but are becoming increasingly easier to use. Rather than focus on the tool, think about how you plan to engage the students and what features can support your teaching style. For instance, I’m a big fan of using breakout rooms in my synchronous lessons mainly because it’s a teaching strategy I would use in my face-to-face classes, too. As I support teachers who move online, I work with them to consider how they can design their online classes to reflect their teaching style. Most synchronous tools have enough features to support a wide variety of teaching styles.
  3. Examine your learning objectives. Before you jump into a synchronous environment, think about what you want students to learn from the interaction. Whether you want students to debate an issue or give a formal presentation on a topic, you’ll need to figure out the pedagogical and technological supports to scaffold students to your goals. For example, I’ve recorded short online tutorials for students when I’ve wanted them to lead their own synchronous discussion with their peers.
  4. Provide clear expectations. Since many students may have different experiences in online environments, it’s important that you outline your expectations for students. You should detail what types of interaction you’re expecting and what aspects will be graded and how. You should also spell out the norms of interaction and your classroom “netiquette.”
  5. Consider the artifacts of learning! I have a colleague who says, “learning leaves a trail.” Regardless of whether it’s the written notes from a lecture or the poster paper stuck to classroom walls, the process of learning usually leaves behind some product. In online spaces, the “trail” includes asynchronous discussion forums or the recordings from a synchronous lesson. These artifacts are great for assessing the interactions and can also provide exemplars for future classes.
  6. Put the students in charge. I think some instructors’ resistance with synchronous learning involves scheduling sessions with online students. While there are certainly greater time constraints involved with synchronous interactions than asynchronous ones, they’re not insurmountable. In some activities, I’ve asked students to schedule their own sessions with classmates. Setting up a discussion board where people can share times they’re available or using a site like SignUpGenius or Doodle can help make the process run more smoothly. You can even let them choose the synchronous tools with which they’re most comfortable and just require that they submit some recording of their interaction.

References:
Hrastinski, S. (2008). Asynchronous and synchronous e-learning. Educause quarterly, 31(4), 51-55

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