Build Community, Extend Learning with Online Synchronous Sessions

Consideration of convenience and flexibility typically leads instructors and instructional designers to favor asynchronous over synchronous learning. But given the potential benefits of synchronous communication, perhaps it's time to rethink the 100 percent asynchronous course.

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Consideration of convenience and flexibility typically leads instructors and instructional designers to favor asynchronous over synchronous learning. But given the potential benefits of synchronous communication, perhaps it's time to rethink the 100 percent asynchronous course.

At St. Leo University, education professors Carol Todd and Keya Mukherjee have been using Eluminate, a platform that enables synchronous audio, video, and text chat as well as various collaboration tools to enhance their asynchronous online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses. In a study of their use of this synchronous tool that included quantitative and qualitative data, they found that synchronous interaction can improve community. 

These two professors use Eluminate for specific pedagogical reasons, not just for building community; however, desire for community building and reducing isolation prompted them to use this tool. “When I first came to [online teaching] from teaching face-to-face courses, one of the areas I struggled with was the silo effect. Students missed the community of the face-to-face courses. That's why I started looking at using the [online learning space] to build a learning community, so students are not just silos working from behind their computers and turning in individual pieces of work. I wanted to get the students to work together to build a community that would tie not just into the pedagogical sense of community but also into our Benedictine core values where we talk about student-to-student interaction and between the students and the instructor,” Mukherjee says.

Mukherjee holds synchronous sessions once a week in her online courses. Each 30-to-45-minute session has an instructional agenda. She spends approximately 10 minutes answering questions related to assignments, and the rest of the time is spent on “extending the instruction of the online module,” which might include additional readings, jigsaws, viewing video, or discussion. 

Similarly, Todd uses Eluminate sessions to

Synchronous sessions are optional in both instructors' courses, and while attendance varies, they typically get 80 percent attendance rates, presumably because students find these synchronous sessions valuable. (Recordings of each session are available for those who don't attend.) Students can participate via text chat, audio, or video—depending on their access to the various technologies.

Evidence of community

Based on observation and feedback from students, evidence of the effects of synchronous sessions on community emerges. For example, in a recent synchronous session at the end of one of Todd's courses, students had a few questions regarding the last assignment, but most of the conversation focused on the community aspects of the synchronous sessions. Students reflected on the use of Eluminate, postgraduation plans, and personal issues. “You could see in the chat and listen to their conversation and understand that they had built these relationships with each other that they would not have had the opportunity to build strictly [asynchronously] online. By using the online conferencing they were able to see each other and talk with each other. At the end of their program they were not singular people in my class. They had built a community. One student had one more class to take, and classmates offered their advice and support. You could see where they came together as a cadre and a community of students,” Todd says.

In addition to observations, Todd and Mukherjee asked students Likert scale and open-ended questions about their experience with these synchronous sessions. “Over and over again in different ways, [students] talked about how there was no more social isolation.”

Todd also gathered data on classes before and after using Eluminate. She teaches the first and last classes in the program and looked at the data and end-of-course evaluations in the first class pre- and post-Eluminate and the last class pre- and post-Eluminate. She found in these two courses, especially in the first class, that post-Eluminate scores were higher than pre-Eluminate scores in terms of student interest and learning.

In end-of-course evaluations, ratings of communication in particular improved. “Communication had always been my weakest area in my end-of-course evaluations prior to using Eluminate. I can no longer say that,” Todd says.

An added benefit

When online instructors teach courses that they had no part in developing, their role can be rather limited, providing guidance and feedback in discussions and on assignments. However, online instructors have a wealth of experience and expertise in the subjects they teach that often does not come across to students.

Synchronous sessions can give adjuncts a voice and provide an opportunity for them to share their specialized knowledge, experience, and opinions in a way that might not necessarily come across as effectively via email or discussion boards, Mukherjee says.

Advice

Be flexible. You won't find a time that works for everyone. Pick a time and offer recordings to those who cannot attend. Given the nature of online learning, it would be difficult to require attendance, but if you make the experience valuable, students will make an effort to be present at the live session.

Have an agenda. “To become interactive, you need each session, however small, to have an agenda that links to the overall course, to the particular module. And you need to tell the students, ‘I'm going to enhance the instructional module.' There needs to be a draw. There needs to be a reason. My suggestion would be that all instructors need to design something that is beyond what was in the module as a way for students to see there is value in this session. Using it for office hours is not in my experience a very successful venture,” Mukherjee says.

The agenda should be based partly on students' needs, Todd says. “When I invite my students to come, I have an agenda, but I also meet them where they are in the course. You have to have an agenda, whether it's answering questions, instructing, or clarifying. I do all of these, and I have an agenda I share with my students.”

Make it compelling. One of the distinguishing features of online learning is convenience, which was and continues to be a major attraction for students. However, Mukherjee believes that students will rearrange their schedules to accommodate worthwhile synchronous sessions. “People are willing to do it if they see it as meaningful. The synchronous sessions have to carry meaning and weight, and students must see the connection between the learning going on in the module and the synchronous session,” she says.

Vary the format. Mukherjee has hosted Eluminate sessions up to four hours long. To keep students engaged in these sessions, she varies the pace and divides it up into segments that are no longer than 15 minutes.