Synchronous communication technology tools provide opportunities for you and your students to connect in real time – to facilitate student-teacher interaction, enable collaboration, and develop social support systems.

Even across time zones, there are ways of including a real-time component to your classroom. For example, by:

Foundations

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  • Delivering content via live or guest lecture
  • Having students collaborate on projects
  • Providing tutorial assistance to at-risk students
  • Establishing virtual office hours
  • Enabling students to give presentations
  • Journeying together on virtual field trips.

Chances are that your students already use text, chat, and virtual meeting tools to communicate with each other, and will welcome real-time opportunities to connect in a classroom context. Before you start exploring tools, think about the ways in which you want to engage with your students in real time, and the support systems that you need to have in place to make this happen.

In the following activity, click on each section to find out more about planning and managing the use of real-time components in your online teaching.

The advantages of being able to engage with your students in real time come with some considerations. Many things that we take for granted when facilitating face-to-face conversations need to be reviewed before we can successfully implement synchronous approaches to online teaching and learning. Each of these areas should be considered for student-teacher interaction as well as student-student interaction.

The following questions will prompt you to think about planning and managing the use of real-time components in your online teaching.

What time will we meet?

Students are accessing online learning across the globe, and meeting times may not work for everyone. Avoid making real-time activities a course requirement, and poll your students beforehand on the best time for virtual office hours and meetings. Plan to record all virtual lectures and guest speakers, and provide students with a link to all recorded sessions. You should also plan to archive and (where useful) share virtual meeting content.


Who will be there?

Your synchronous learning events can be held one-to-one or in groups. If you are providing virtual office hours or tutoring, determine in advance if you will be hosting individual meetings, or group sessions. If your students have access to an open chat area within your LMS/VLE, they may be able to meet in groups without you present, at their own convenience. Would you like a record of these meetings, or prefer that they stay informal?


What will we accomplish?

Develop a desired learning outcome (goal) to accompany the implementation of all synchronous course components, and plan ways to communicate these outcomes to your students in advance. For all synchronous events, remind students of the start and end times so that they know how much time they will have to work in real time to meet the desired learning outcome, and what they may need to accomplish to follow-up.


What guidelines will we follow?

Just as you would want to set parameters on a conversation or meeting within a face-to-face teaching environment, plan to establish guidelines for real-time learning events. If you are hosting an event with a chat feature, or using text or instant messaging tools, determine in advance if you will have a moderator, who that moderator will be, and what responsibilities they will have.


What will we be sharing?

If you plan to share documents and other resources during a live lecture, guest presentation, or student presentation, upload all handouts and related resources in advance. Be mindful that if you or your students are sharing your computer screens, they see everything on your screen! Arrange your computer desktop in advance and close any programmes (including email) that have pop-up windows; remind your students to do the same.


What's our back-up plan?

In online real-time learning, there is a greater chance that activities can go wrong – from connectivity issues to natural disasters! Devise a back-up plan for every learning activity, including a way for students to communicate that they are unable to access the event. If you have a live guest speaker scheduled, be sure to have a replacement speaker or discussion topic ready so that students aren't frustrated if things go awry.

The tools of synchronous learning

Incorporating synchronous learning activities also requires careful consideration of the technology tools available both within your institution, and via the open web.

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Your institution's LMS/VLE may have built-in instant messaging (IM), chat, and virtual meeting tools which support two-way video and voice communication, interactive whiteboards, screen sharing, file transfer, and group breakout areas. Many of these real-time communication tools can be disabled while students are taking exams, tests, and quizzes online.

Online, you will also find a plethora of available synchronous communication tools (such as Google Hangouts and Skype), each with capabilities in alignment with the tools found within your LMS/VLE. Before you decide to use a tool outside of your LMS/VLE, check institutional policies and consider polling your students to assess their experience with using LMS/VLE and web-based synchronous tools in their other online classes. Many of your students may want to use mobile devices to communicate on the move.

In the following activity, consider the question, make a note of your thoughts and click the 'View feedback' button to see our suggestions. Then, click 'Next' to review some real-life examples of lessons for online and blended courses making use of different synchronous technology tools. How might these examples inspire your own online or blended teaching? Make a note of your thoughts in the spaces provided.
Consider the following question, making notes if you wish, then consider our feedback. Then, continue on to review some real-life examples of lessons for online and blended courses making use of different synchronous technology tools. How might these examples inspire your own online or blended teaching? You may wish to make a note of your thoughts.
Blended learning icon

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'Blended synchronous learning: Patterns and principles for...

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The 'flipped classroom', in which students watch or listen to pre-recorded...

PROGRAMME | Teaching Online
COURSE | Using technology tools for teaching online
UNIT | 3 : Facilitating communication and interaction
PAGE TITLE | Communicating in real time

What technology tools do you think would be useful for synchronous online or blended learning? How could you apply them?


Our thoughts:

Technology tools useful for synchronous online learning include:

Instant messaging (IM), which can be used for:

  • Text chat/private messaging
  • Application/screen sharing
  • Group breakout rooms.

SMS and email, which can be used for:

  • Text chat
  • Private messaging.

Virtual meeting spaces, which can be used for:

  • Colour presentations
  • Live lectures
  • Whiteboards
  • Audio/video
  • Live polling
  • Guided web browsing
  • Simple feedback
  • Application/screen sharing
  • Group breakout rooms
  • Group presentations.

Collaborative writing tools, which can be used for:

  • Peer review and editing
  • Content creation.

Real-life examples

You will now be presented with some examples of synchronous lessons (designed for a blended learning environment) practiced by Bower et al (2013). In the case of each example, think about the way in which technology tools have been used and consider how you could apply the example to your own teaching context.


Example 1 of 4: Web conferencing to develop investment understanding (collaborative evaluation)

Remote and face-to-face students were randomly grouped into two breakout rooms where they were asked to evaluate the written responses of two past students to an examination question. The students negotiated marks for the responses using text chat and summarised findings about examination technique using breakout rooms with interactive whiteboards.

How might you adapt this learning design for use in your own online or blended course?


Example 2 of 4: Web conferencing for participation in statistics tutorials (collaborative problem solving)

The teacher presented slides to face-to-face and remote students simultaneously. She then presented a series of slides that led students through the logic of hypothesis testing. The teacher and students annotated the slides to model problem-solving processes using text chat and an interactive whiteboard.

How might you adapt this learning design for use in your own online or blended course?


Example 3 of 4: Virtual worlds to facilitate Chinese language learning (paired role play)

Students logged into Second Life (a free virtual 3D world). Remote students were paired with face-to-face students, with whom they could interact via voice and text. Students had to make dumplings in the kitchen of the virtual world restaurant, by asking and answering questions of the automated (scripted) hostess of the restaurant and character at a market.

How might you adapt this learning design for use in your own online or blended course?


Example 4 of 4: Web conferencing to enable presence in a sexology lecture (lecture discussions)

Web conferencing was used to provide more embodied presence and participation of remote students in the face-to-face lectures. The teacher presented material but frequently opened up discussion to the students so that they could describe experiences and share their views.

How might you adapt this learning design for use in your own online or blended course?

Source: Adapted from Bower, M., Kenney, J., Dalgarno, B., Lee, M. J. W. & Kennedy, G. E., in Carter, H., Gosper, M. & Hedberg, J. (Eds.) (2013). Used with permission.

When you do start using synchronous communication tools in your online or blended teaching, be sure to locate and distribute related documentation in advance so that you and your students do not waste time getting lost exploring features. Consider hosting a virtual open house for each of the tools that you intend to use so that you and your students can get comfortable working within each of your chosen real-time environments.


Foundations

Download

Download the attached document to get some tips and tricks for using synchronous communication technology tools, and hosting real-time virtual learning events.

Useful links

Did you know?

The 'flipped classroom', in which students watch or listen to pre-recorded lectures at home and take part in activities and problem solving in class, has been recognised as a particularly effective form of blended learning. Visit the links below for some more information on flipping the classroom and some useful technology tools for communication and interaction during teaching sessions: