Synchronous Online Classes–With a Little Help From My Friends (CHE)

May 26, 2016

[This is a guest post by Rebecca J. Hogue (@rjhogue), a multi-affiliated (aka adjunct/contingent) online lecturer (University of Massachusetts-Boston, Brock University) and avid blogger. She teaches Digital Citizenship and Instructional Design online. In addition, she works as a consultant helping to develop and produce self-published eBooks. Her research and innovation interests are in the areas of online collaboration, social media, and ePatient blogging.–JBJ]

It was with trepidation that I accepted the challenge to include more synchronous (sync) activities into my online classes. I learned to teach online at a time when sync was not an option. Sync required special hardware and a high quality connection to the internet, something that many of my students didn’t have.

In my experience, sync sessions have also been fraught with technical challenges. In many ways, it still is as Anastasia Salter highlights in her post about “Adventures in Synchronous Online Teaching.” How many times have you shown up for an online synchronous session where the first 15 minutes is spent trying to troubleshoot everyone’s audio and video connections?

I’m a big fan of asynchronous (async) online learning. One of the biggest benefits of async is that learners can be online anytime they want. They can study around their other scheduled commitments. It also gives learners a time to think before they talk. There is no need to think on your feet. I could go on and on about the benefits of async, but that isn’t my point here.

When I was asked to do more sync, I reached out to my network of online colleagues and asked them what they did with sync. Alan Levine (@cogdog) talked about how he sets a time and just goes online. He lets his students drop in and ask questions about anything. Brian Croxall has taken a similar approach to digital office hours. He lets the conversation go where it wants to go organically. If no one shows up he does a little radio show broadcast in the style of DS106 (a phenomena that started as a course about digital storytelling and became a phenomena all of its own). Personally, I struggled with this model. What the heck was I going to say if no students showed up?

With that, I got to thinking, how can I make my sync sessions both meaningful for my students and fun for me? I also wanted to ensure they added value. Me giving a PowerPoint-based lecture could just as easily be me recording my slides on VoiceThread, which both takes me less time to prepare and provides my students with more convenient access to lecture material. There is no benefit to using sync in that way.

Then after a Virtually Connecting session (a way to bring conference conversations to remote colleagues), it occurred to me. With a little help from my friends, I could create a sync session that is both informative to my students and something that I’d enjoy doing. I started inviting my friends to be guests in my online sessions. I figured that if none of my students showed up (sync is optional in my classes) I would still enjoy the conversation. I chose a topic related to something I think my students need using it as a way to reduce the reading load. Why have students read about the role of instructional designers in the workplace when I could have a couple of instructional designers visit my sync session and talk about it?

I gave it a try. We had a great conversation. My guests brought up aspects of the questions that I had not considered. I’ve learned that my friends and colleagues do not need to be ‘experts’ to provide value in this model. Keeping it to a conversation rather than presentation also means that the guests don’t need to prepare. They are more likely to join when you explain that it is a conversation, constrained to strict timelines.

I thought it was a smashing success, but you don’t just have to listen to me. One student commented that “Typically I am never too excited for synchronous sessions due to technology issues or folks not muting their line, however I am a changed learner! I thought this session was very informative and I enjoyed asking the speakers questions to learn more” (Michele Kresco, M.Ed. Student). My students are asking to know when the next one will be scheduled!

I encourage all the online instructors out there, give it a try with a little help from your friends!  Do you have strategies for successful synchronous sessions with online students? Please share in comments!

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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