Synchronous Activities for an Online Class

Synchronous meetings can be a valuable addition to otherwise asynchronous online courses. They build community and combat a student's sense of isolation. There are a number of ways to use synchronous sessions to add value to a course.

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Synchronous meetings can be a valuable addition to otherwise asynchronous online courses. They build community and combat a student's sense of isolation. There are a number of ways to use synchronous sessions to add value to a course.

Guest speakers

Guest speakers can liven up a course by offering students the opportunity to interact with a different voice. You might ask a colleague at your institution or elsewhere to do a one-hour session via a meeting platform such as GoToMeeting. It is a good idea to incorporate questions every 10 minutes or so to keep students' attention and engagement. Polls are a good choice because they allow students to respond anonymously, thus overcoming the tendency to follow the crowd when answering in front of an audience. You might also ask open-ended questions that invite students to respond by voice or through the chat function—a chat box can help give shyer students a voice. 

Reactions to material

Sometimes you might want to analyze a particular piece of material, such as a Shakespearean sonnet, in real time. You can pull up the material on the screen, go through it to highlight different points, and stop every few minutes to ask questions. You can also ask students to prepare questions ahead of time to use. 

Another option is to put students in pairs or small groups using the online breakout rooms to discuss sections of the material. One student should be asked to read the section out loud to get the ball rolling, and then the students should discuss what they noticed in the material. If your meeting tool does not provide for breakout rooms, students can use outside chat systems such as Google Hangouts or Skype. 

Topic search

Another good activity is to have students research a topic and share their results. For example, one instructor had students visit the Ellis Island website and individually search for ancestors who may have entered the United States through that gateway. Another instructor had students visit a site that showed climate change. The searches only took a few minutes, but the discussions that followed filled an hour. 

Role play

Role plays, such as debates or mock trials, are tailor-made activities for live sessions. Break the students into teams and assign the topic, or provide material to research at least one week in advance. Students will need to organize themselves on their own, which provides good practice in virtual teamwork. When you meet for the virtual session, you can serve as the moderator, but the content is provided by the students. Also consider inviting a couple of guests as judges or observers to provide feedback to the students. 

Solve problems

Similar to going to the board at the front of a classroom, you can have students solve problems in real time with a shared whiteboard. For example, in a finance course, students plugged numbers into a shared Excel worksheet with formulas and discussed the differences in results. In a writing course, students shared a document on-screen to identify errors and rewrite awkward sentences. They also shared thesis statements and suggestions for improvements. In a business class, you might ask students to list all the organizations they know of that fit a certain classification. Here you can create a matrix by drawing lines on the board to break it into sections. Then give the students 30 seconds to list organizations they think fit within each section. This gives you a snapshot of where the class, as a whole, is with understanding the concept, and gives you many data points to launch a deeper conversation. If the meeting tool you are using does not have a whiteboard function, you can achieve the same result by sharing a Google Doc on your screen and having the students write on it. 


The Think-Pair-Share activity has students think about a topic or read individually, discuss the topic with other students in small groups, and share the results with the entire class. Some examples of this activity include giving students an image, commercial, or advertisement to analyze; providing a controversial topic such as global warming or GMOs on which students must stake out a position; and giving students a math or science problem and solution and asking them to determine whether it was done correctly. 

Live sessions can be a powerful addition to an online course. Consider ways to incorporate them into your teaching. 

Lorette Pellettiere Calix is an instructor with SUNY/Empire State College's International Programs, and Patrice Torcivia Prusko works in design, production, and support of MOOCs, SPOCs, and Digital Initiatives at Cornell University.