Thursday, August 22, 2013

Rethinking Synchronous E-Learning

Last weekend as I wrote yet another 5-7 page paper (and lamented my choice to take courses during the short Wisconsin summer), I read some interesting research about synchronous or real-time e-learning. I admit I am not a fan of synchronous e-learning activities. While evaluating PhD programs, I completely disregarded one that required weekly synchronous meetings and opted for one that offered maximum flexibility.

So imagine how surprised I was to find a lot of positive research about synchronous e-learning. Apparently it can increase the sense of community in a course (Hrastinski, 2009) and students  preferred and thought they learned better from synchronous e-learning sessions (Skylar, 2009; Strang, 2012). Instructors reported that synchronous communication allowed them to connect better with their students (Huang & Hsiao, 2012). Communication is more efficient and natural synchronously, resulting in increased physiological arousal and motivation while reducing cognitive effort and ambiguity (Kock, 2005).

I was still pretty skeptical while reading - did these instructors know how to effectively facilitate an asynchronous discussion? It is a skill that takes a lot of effort to master. Most of the articles weren't detailed enough for me to know. Still, they were in peer-reviewed journals, so I accept their merit.

I've been accustomed to focusing on the negatives of synchronous e-learning:

  • Flexibility - What happens a student can't attend a synchronous meeting? It's likely the students expected flexibility from an online course. They probably have other commitments they are working around. Is it fair to require synchronous meetings? I think it's less fair for adult learners who often have day jobs, kids, etc. than it is for full-time students. 
  • Technology - Blackboard Collaborate (our supported web conferencing tool) was very unreliable for quite a while. I had multiple problems getting into meetings myself. Even if Collaborate was working well, there are a lot of technology aspects to learn, not only for the instructor but for the students too: mics (avoiding echoing and feedback), speakers, webcams if used, downloading any required software, etc. If the technology doesn't work for a synchronous activity, you need help ASAP or you have to reschedule. 
  • Disability Accessibility - Students with hearing disabilities would need captioning, some physical limitations and learning disabilities may cause students to lag in a synchronous chat, and visual disabilities may cause difficulty navigating the interface of programs like Collaborate.
  • It's Not That Natural - I personally find web conferencing to be a pretty awkward and artificial alternative to face-to-face group communication (I'm on board with it for 1-1 communication though, since it has more functionality than just a phone call and is easier than writing). For instance, I have trouble getting in at the right time to talk and often start as the same time as someone else and then we awkwardly stammer, figuring out who is going to go. I often observe that people in web conferences I attend seem to have no intention of speaking and prefer chat. I'm also super visual, so having the entire internet in front of me rather than a person makes it difficult to remain engaged. 

What's the conclusion? 

Hrastinski (2009) wrote an excellent, easy to read article for Educause summarizing his dissertation research in which he asserted that asynchronous and synchronous activities should be used to do different things, not the same thing differently. Asynchronous e-learning allows students to reflect, process, and participate on a higher cognitive level, while synchronous e-learning is best for tasks that are less complex and involve more planning and social interaction.  

So why not do a bit of both? Maybe just a few synchronous meetings, with a few options of times to join. 

  • Use synchronous meetings as an opportunity to answer questions live and do some back and forth elaboration on difficult concepts.
  • Definitely use the interactive capacity to do some polls, ask questions, etc. - don't just lecture; you can record that and let them watch it whenever. 
  • Set up the expectation that you're expecting students to participate, not just login and mess around on Facebook for the duration. 
  • Record the sessions for the students who can't or don't want to attend. 
  • Carefully consider whether to make meetings required or not, and be ready to explain the value and have an alternative for students who can't attend or who had technical problems getting in, because it will happen.
  • Speaking of technical problems, have a low or no stakes first meeting to get used to the technology. Maybe do an ice breaker activity since the strength of synchronous is apparently community building. Yes, I'm still a bit skeptical!  I will keep reading though. 


Hrastinski, S. (2008). Asynchronus and synchronous e-learning. Educause Quarterly, 4, 51-55. Retrieved from
Huang, X., & Hsiao, E-L. (2012). Synchronous and asynchronous communication in an online environment: Faculty experiences and perceptions. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 13(1), 15-30.
Kock, N. (2005). Media richness or media naturalness? The evolution of our biological communication apparatus and its influence on our behavior toward e-communication tools. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 48(2), 117-130.
Skylar, A. L. (2009). A comparison of asynchronous online text-based lectures and synchronous interactive web conferencing lectures. Issues in Teacher Education, 18(2), 69-84.
Strang, D. K. (2012). Skype synchronous interaction effectiveness in a quantitative management science course. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 10(1), 3–23. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4609.2011.00333.x


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