Using Synchronous Sessions: Learning in Real-time

In discussing online learning broadly with faculty, instructors, students, staff, and the public, it becomes evident very quickly that there are as many different interpretations of what it means or can look like as there are people to talk about it with. In higher education in particular, it is quite common for online learning to seem like it is an asynchronous (anywhere anytime) setting. Live real-time classes have existed in a variety of formats over the decades, from classes broadcast over television and radio networks, to closed network screens, and now through the use of web conferencing tools such as Zoom and Webex. This post includes just a few ideas for using synchronous strategies in your online class as a first step.

Considering how and why to use synchronous sessions

When planning your courses, there are of course the options of creating something that is fully asynchronous or a course that is primarily synchronous (in terms of collective activity at least), but there are also opportunities to consider blended online learning (Power, 2008) course designs. Synchronous sessions may be a valuable addition to your online course for any of the following functions:

  • to develop teaching presence and support students (Crosslin, 2018; Finkelstein, 2006; Martin & Parker, 2014).
  • to develop cognitive presence within the course through direct instruction, collaboration, discussion and debate, and build strong group-wide relations (Crosslin, 2018; Finkelstein, 2006; Martin & Parker 2014; Hrastinski, et al., 2010).
  • To support specific tasks within the class (Hrastinski, et al., 2010) such as lab tutorials (Martin & Parker, 2014).
  • engage with a scholarly community beyond the “walls” of your class (Martin & Parker, 2014; Finkelstein, 2006).
  • to develop social presence and informal communities within the class (Crosslin, 2018; Finkelstein, 2006; Martin & Parker, 2014; Hrastinski, et al., 2010).

Developing Teaching Presence and Supporting Students

Virtual office hours can look quite different depending on the class. Sometimes office hours are by appointment (scheduled either through email, or Canvas), but Crosslin (2018) recommends scheduling a regular time for these sessions. Meeting with a conferecing tool such as Webex allows you to record the session (if participants give permission of course) so that student who couldn’t attend can still benefit from the questions and answers. Alternatively, this could be followed-up as part of a weekly announcement that includes pertinent Q&A. The concept of course centres, developed for in-person contexts but could be used online, is another alternative to traditional office hours.

Developing Cognitive Presence and Strong Group Relations

For timely discussions and collaboration, using breakout rooms in a session can be an effective strategy. Hrastinski, et al. (2010) note that there does seem to be a “critical mass”, a limit on the effectiveness, for synchronous sessions based on number of participants. They recommend limiting the group sizes to about ten. Group projects are one example of a task that works for this, where the class may meet, but time is allocated for each group to coordinate and/or work on the project. This allows for scheduling and planning to be done quickly when compared to trying to make plans asynchronously.

For discussion based classes, you might opt to host a jigsaw activity synchronously. To apply this to a session, the students would need to be provided the materials and assignments prior to the session. In the session (in this case we will say Webex is where you’re meeting), you’ll have two time-slots for breakout rooms. For the first breakout room, you will cluster students who read the same article, or watched the same video. In their first breakout session, students will discuss their article and form a consensus, or shared learning highlights. After the designated time runs out, call the students back into the main room. You may wish to have a brief discussion with the whole class to identify any issues before proceeding to the second breakout session. For the second session, place students into mixed groups, one student from each expert group. In the second session, students will share the learning highlights from their expert group. After the alotted time, call the students back for a whole class discussion. Jigsaw, can be done asynchronously as well using the discussion forums in Canvas, but as Amador & Mederer (2013) note in one of their case studies, this activity can benefit from being synchronous. Choose the modality that suits your class.

Beyond the walls of your classroom

Inviting a guest speaker into your online class is arguably easier than in a face-to-face setting. One graduate class developed through DEU invited the author of the course textbook to come in and speak. The session included additional background to the development of the book, and provided opportunity for student questions regarding the material. The instructor also engaged in the discussion, connecting responses and questions to associated materials from the course, building upon the assigned textbook. The session was recorded, and is still used in the course years later.

Developing Social Presence

Social presence and feeling part of a community has always been an important part of distance and online learning. I think it’s fair to say that it’s even more important than ever in 2021. If your course is primarily asynchronous, you might consider adding one synchronous session near the beginning of the course and one near the end as, “videoconferencing could be a good means for learners and teachers to get to know each other. This makes synchronous communication especially useful in the beginning of a course” (Hrastinski, et al., 2010). Crosslin (2018) suggests the inclusion of unhangouts as learner centered sessions which are “…less structured sessions that allow learners to connect with each other as they like…[allowing] for more self-determined learning designs.”

Cautionary notes about synchronicity in online classes

A recent survey conducted by Educause about students’ experiences with online learning sheds some light on possible stumbling blocks, particularly when it comes to synchronicity. A few things to consider, or avoid altogether, when adopting synchronous activities according to the report include:

Instruction, guidance and/or support for activities such as breakout rooms is an often overlooked practice in synchronous sessions, both from a technical perspective as well as an instructional one. On the technical side, this may be the first time students have been in break out rooms. Prior to the activity, consider highlighting some of the features they may need to know about, and a general overview of the flow of the operation. Are they self-selecting into groups? If so, how do they do that? Is there a way to call the instructor for help? What tools are available in the breakout rooms? These are all things you may want to bring up in your session prior to using the breakout rooms, or even include some resources in your course site itself. From the instructional perspective, what are the tasks students are meant to prepare before the session, what should they seek to accomplish during the session, and how will that be used to continue or wrap-up the session? Knowing this ahead of time both saves time, and prevents the awkward “what are we supposed to be doing” feeling that can sometimes creep up in breakout rooms.

Use of long lectures with massive slide decks generally, should be avoided. Consider the time as an opportunity to accomplish what can’t be done as easily in an asynchronous fashion. If there is information that is absolutely necessary for students to understand a concept, but the communication of that is in one directions, a recorded video could be used instead. The synchronous session is a great opportunity to follow-up from video and reading materials for the week, ask and answer questions, and apply the material to case examples.

Class plans and agendas are one way to communicate focus and expectations for synchronous sessions. Similar to how the class schedule in your syllabus helps students plan their term, a class agenda can help students prepare for your session, as well as structure their notes and help in reviewing the materials. That is not to say that flexibility is not an option,  Crosslin (2018) discusses Planning for Flexibility in some detail, but that it should be both planned and communicated clearly. Overall, regardless of whether a class is asynchronous or synchronous, communication is key. Flynn & Kerr (2020) provide a great online book chapter on planning and facilitating synchronous sessions.

Attempts to replicate face-to-face experiences in online learning environments can leave both instructors and students unsatisfied. This is not to say get rid of all of your activities and start over, but instead to consider what affordances and limitations there are in the online medium. If you normally have a once per week three hour lecture, consider what parts of what you normally do would benefit from live, real-time discussion compared to discussion through writing. A debate can be done on a discussion board, or through a synchronous session. Which is better suited for your situation?

Instituting camera-on policies has implications for accessibility and comfort of students, as noted by Maha Bali, but also recent research suggests that when working together online, leaving the camera off better synchronizes vocal cues, speaking in turn, and problem solving (Tomprou., et al., 2021).

Amador, J. A., & Mederer, H. (2013). Migrating successful student engagement strategies online: Opportunities and challenges using jigsaw groups and problem-based learning. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching9(1), 89.

Bali, M. (2021). Students talk to me about webcams. Reflecting Allowed.

Brooks, D.C. (2021). Student Experiences Learning with Technology in the Pandemic. Educause.

Crosslin, M. (2018). Creating Online Learning Experiences. USask OpenPress.

Finkelstein, J. E. (2006). Learning in real time: Synchronous teaching and learning online (Vol. 5). John Wiley & Sons.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher educationmodel. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Hrastinski, S., Keller, C., & Carlsson, S. A. (2010). Design exemplars for synchronous e-learning: A design theory approach. Computers & Education, 55(2), 652-662.

Martin, F., & Parker, M. A. (2014). Use of synchronous virtual classrooms: Why, who, and how. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(2), 192-210.

Power, M. (2008). The emergence of a blended online learning environment. MERLOT Journal of online Learning and Teaching4(4), 503-514.

Tomprou M, Kim YJ, Chikersal P, Woolley AW, Dabbish LA (2021) Speaking out of turn: How video conferencing reduces vocal synchrony and collective intelligence. PLoS ONE 16(3): e0247655.

Feature image, Same time same place, at any time, or a little of both, mashup by JR Dingwall