a study into the use of
online voice tools
(conducted as part of the Flexible Learning Leaders program, 2003)

(image courtesy of Steve Fisher)
Go HERE for results of a survey into attitudes towards the use of synchronous tools; accompanying discussion paper HERE (April, 2004)





Voice Chat Live Sessions


April 27th. Synchronous v Asynch Environments

On 2 occasions when I have told people the focus of my FLL I have been challenged:

"no one wants synchronous stuff. Online learning is all about flexibility"
"don't look for solutions where there is no problem."

I believe some students do want synchronous stuff. There are some online students who definitely want it - as per stage 2 of the Salmon model. It can constitute one mode of expression of the socialisation stage. And I am certainly not suggesting that there is a problem needing a solution. Adding opportunities for synchronous contact is more about adding value and flexibility.

But these 2 challengers were also missing a more important point - the potential of synchronous voice tools to enhance campus based instruction) as in the Alado model mentioned HERE. This will be the greater challenge - to get people to see the use of tools designed for distance ed effectively used for campus based courses. (In much the same way that we tool WebCT shells and 'converted' them to communication hubs.)

* posted with permission from James M. Nugent (via DEOS):

The entire idea of synchronous discussion in an online environment is so
very puzzling to me. It seems to undercut the very strength of what DL is
intended to allow, which is more convenience to students with a concomitant
increase in accessibility to learning. Synchronous discussions, and I'm
assuming we're talking about using instant messaging, tie DL students to a
scheduled time to participate and there's rarely a time that's convenient
for everyone in an online course.

>From there I'm curious about the whole notion of "discussion". Instant
messaging is not quite talking at all, though it's a form of communication.
IM communication depends on being able to communicate in a way that's not at
all like talking, and prone to misinterpretation. It can be a very
frustrating medium, especially when those you're communicating with aren't
very good typists, or their writing skills are not up to par. Writing skills
of the participants can be very problematic.

Has anyone done research on this area? Are there any advantages to this form
of communication, such that a course should be predicated on it? Or is it
just something one adds to increase the overall experience, without making
it mandatory that everyone, or in fact anyone, participate?

* posted with permission from Wayne Boardman (via DEOS)

Professor K implies that the only thing that has stood in the way of online synchronous instruction is the issue of bandwidth.

Also from Jon Baggaley:

Most online learning is currently supported via asynchronous text-based email and conferencing for reasons of cost and bandwidth limitation rather than pedagogical advantage.

(from abstract of presentation at Association for Learning Technologies (ALT) Conference, Sheffield, UK, 9/9/03; Online Conferencing - the next generation?)

I would add that asynchronous modes predominate because:

  • many institutions have made large investments in Learning Management Systems like WebCT and Blackboard
  • these platforms are typically under centralised control
  • it easier to keep on top of security issues
  • few lecturers have the skills to teach online synchronously

If you allow use of existing tools for synchronous interactions

  • there is an extra financial cost
  • there are greater security risks
  • more bandwidth is needed
  • more control of the technology is decentralised to faculty

Wayne Boardman continues:

It has been my impression that most students seek out online education and training not because of distance issues but because of time issues. That is, flexibility in scheduling learning time is what draws students to the online environment. Synchronous instruction requires that the learners are willing and able to adjust their schedules to that of the presenter, and that cannot assumed. The beauty of asynchronous instruction is that it can fit into a variety of work and family schedules and is independent of time zone complications.

Also, from the pedagogical point of view, synchronous mode can have some distinct drawbacks in providing truly interactive learning.

Synchronous instruction no doubt has its place, but we should be careful about jumping to conclusions about its relative worth.

Neutral Ground

posted with permission via DEOS (22/5):

As far as interaction preferences, that is certainly related to the student's
learning style. Field Independent learners are not going to like, or
want to engage in, a great deal of interaction. On the other side, Field
Dependent students not only want the interaction, they are not going to
be successful with a minimal amount. The key here is for the
facilitator to have a clear picture of each student's style of learning
and incorporate techniques to accommodate the differences.

Dr. Joann Kroll Wheeler
University of Phoenix Online Faculty (via DEOS)

One issue that I find frequently crops up is that most students seem to prefer the ability to do their work at a time that suits them rather than joining in on a class (whether it be VC, online or face-2-face). The scope
of the online environment though, gives us the ability to view any classroom based broadcasts at a later time thus making real time attendance not strictly necessary. I can see that the online classroom environment is still
a great tool because it can be scheduled to suit the customer. EG most of my students work during the day so a night class is probably more practical.

Con Theologou
Lecturer, Small Business
Spencer TAFE

Arguments in Favour of Synchronous Interaction:

John Hibbs asked (21/5):

Perhaps it's time to list the benefits of synchronous instruction in higher education. Since I can think of so few - or none? - perhaps others will help me out?

What exactly are they?

I replied:

Many of the advantages of synchronous interactions in online courses have
to do with the affective side of learning. Some learners need the more human contact that synch events provide. Some advantages are:

  • providing humanity to the disembodied Net learning experience
  • real time interaction that approximates f2f relationships
  • intimacy
  • warmth
  • collegiality
  • immediate support
  • bringing experts to classrooms (f2f and virtual)
  • social relations
  • it suits those who prefer their time structured
  • humour
  • suits field dependent learners (see Kroll above)

    Most of these things can also happen in asynch events but they happen more
    easily and quickly in live events. I'd wager that most students doing online courses use synch tools like Instant Messengers (or the telephone?) at some point during the course. Whether or not a course schedules live events, students are using synch tools to communicate.

    Note: many tools these days can archive live events so the distinction between synch and asynch starts to become less clear. People who miss the live event can visit the archive and get it all after the event. And some tools like HorizonLive and Elluminate even allow those viewing the archive of a session to communicate in real time.

I've observed (and probably mentioned here) that synchronous seems to
work for very busy people more than asynchronous work. I've
conjectured it's because very busy people use their calendars as
prioritization tools: if it's on the calendar, it gets done; if it's
not, it doesn't.

Has anyone ever tried getting busy people to schedule their time for
doing asynchronous work? That is, enter into their calendars "8:00
a.m. until 8:45 a.m.: deal with issues on topic X"? I wonder if that
could help bring busy people into the asynchronous world. I also
wonder if they'd discover that to be a more efficient use of their
time, once they tried it.

published with pernission by
Bill Harris

May 29th

We've been running successful web-based
graduate-level public health programs since 1997. We do use some limited
synchronous instruction in almost every course and find that students find
it both beneficial and enjoyable. In fact, when we don't include it, there
are normally complaints.

What we do during a typical 8-week course is offer 3-8 live chat broadcasts.
Every instructor uses these sessions in slightly different ways but
typically they are used for 1) lab/homework discussions; 2) discussion
sessions on hot topics or with a guest speaker; 3) discussion sessions
concerning lectures or readings. We also sometimes have students call in and
do live presentations to the rest of the class or interview/panel
discussions. Attendance is not mandatory because of time zone or Internet
access problems (i.e, firewalls) but the chat logs and audio are archived
for later use.

In the quantitative classes, the students find these sessions invaluable and
it saves the instructors/TAs time working with the entire class rather than
small groups or individuals. Many students also enjoy the more-discussion
oriented sessions. They seem to feel that the sessions bridge that
student/faculty distance gap and make the faculty contact more personal than
the email or bbs sessions.

Some faculty who enjoy and miss their heated classroom debates with the
distance students still find this system lacking though because of the
one-way communication and the 10 second lag time between broadcast and
reception. Right now, the only tool we have that allows two-way audio is
limited to groups of 5 students. Because of our students' locations and
travel requirements, we can't ask them to go to centers for telecasts.

Kathy Gresh (Instructional designer from Johns Hopkins School of Public
Health Distance Education Division)

Conversation with Elizabeth (June 1st)

While some comment that synchronous events may subtract from the freedom of online education to be truly anytime/anyplace, others feel that there is a freedom in being liberated from the keyboard and the total dependence on written text. Wasnt it inevitable that when the technology became available that we would want to talk to each other? Revert to our natural state as it were?

Webheads Post (May 31st)

At 10:36 AM 5/30/2003 -0400, Dr Cat wrote:
<......lets face it, tone of voice carries much more input
>than do smilies. It's not just one-to-one voice anymore--it's the
>possibility to recreate in an online environment what is often done in
>face-to-face meetings and parties.

And I replied:

I like this point John. It's as if online behaviour is now able to move a
little closer to how we really are in life. We can be social beings and
have a serious side in our communications. And as many have written, it is
far more likely that we will be misunderstood if we are relying on written
text alone. Text plus voice adds clarity to our communications.

We began online life engaged solely in text and static images, and as
bandwidth increases and appropriate software proliferates we start to get a
fuller picture of each other by hearing and seeing (via video) each other.
This is stating the obvious really, but I think it's almost as if now that
the means are there we're grabbing the chance to move back to that mode of
communication that we turn to instinctively - talking to each other.

Another interesting point to dwell on - it is generally agreed that people
are more open with strangers online, and relations between teacher and
student tend to be more personal. How will the increasing use of voice
online affect this I wonder?

June 5th

There are a variety of ways to use synchronous instruction in distance education that do not limit the student to a particular time. However, it does require that schools and professors rethink how they traditionally construct a course.

Take, for example, call centers and customer support services in the business world. These are virtual, synchronous interactions that do not restrict the customer to scheduling with a representative at a specific time. Everytime we call an 800 number we are engaging in a virtual, synchronous, unscheduled interaction that has signficant benefit to the customer.

The same model can be, and is being, applied in education. My company staffs live tutors/TA's/professors up to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in Math, Writing, Statistics, Accounting, Economics and Chemistry. We contract with
hundreds of colleges (many of whom are well known distance ed programs) who then offer flexible, synchronous assistance that fits the students' schedules.

The way that flexible, synchronous interaction can be integrated into distance education with tremendous benefits to the student is by remembering that it doesn't have to be the professor that is available synchronously all the time.
Further, a course need not be taught in a traditional X students to 1 professor ratio.

published with permision by
Burck Smith

June 13th: Conversation with Alan Carrington (The Connecting Power of Voice)

Reference: good old Pratt and Paloff; Buliding Communities in Cyberspace

Six key components of community (from p.160, Chapter 11 Alan says)

  • honesty
  • openness
  • empowerment
  • responsiveness
  • respect
  • relevance

When people talk say why they like voice I hear words like emotion, closeness, connection, humanity...there's a pattern here. More later.....

July 15th:

Comment from Brad Jensen

I'll bet a dollar that the students will prefer synchronous to asynchronous course delivery - because the student does a lot less work and thinking, and doesn't have to pay as much attention. Also, people are fundamentally
social and are addicted to live interaction.

(from DEOS Post)

From Cliff Layton (Rogers State University):

I have had very good success with PalTalk, particularly in my Emerging Technologies classes in which multiuser audio/text chat is central to class functioning.

The tool is used for office hours communication, online (remote) presentations by students to students (and me), and used by students with each other.

(from DEOS post)

July 31st

An excellent article on why synchronous tools have a place in Distance Ed at http://www.tltgroup.org/CommunityConnectedness/SynchTools.htm

October 2nd, 2003

Tips from Maria Jordano (http://www.mariajordano.com/cmc_research/cmc.htm):

http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1042 and http://www.insynctraining.com/Insync_Home.html#Home (Maria says this is a very good site but it is very slow to load over a dial-up connection. The entire site is constructed in Flash. Individual Flash applications nornally present no problem over dial-up but something more resource demanding is going on with this site. Beats me why people design such things.)

April 19th, 2004: Nancy White Observes:

Much of the history of this list probably sets on the asychronous side of things. In the past year I have seen a strong swing not just to the synch side of things, but to how we blend and move between the modalities.

June 16th, 2004 - Some Recent Observations from the Online Facilitation List

Ian Dickson:

.....one of the key advantages of asynch is that it allows those with power to pretend to less power and thus allow those without the freedom to be more forward with their ideas.

This can have a big impact on any organisation seeking to develop internal creativity and genuinely flatten management.

Personally - I like both, but I do like my synch meetings to be highly focussed and gaol oriented, whereas asynch can be much looser.

Ideas arise in asynch, and are fine tuned in synch.

Andy Roberts:

In synch meetings there is much more of a power issue with higher status people talking more and lower status people less willing to interrupt. Many-to-many Asynch is more democratic because ideas are subjected to greater scrutiny and anybody can voice a fully constructed opinion without being shouted down before they've even
started. (for more see Andy's blog at http://blog.ultralab.net/~blogger/andy/)

Combining Synch and Asynch (or the need for new terms?)

Bill Harris asked: I have a bias that asynch work can often be more productive (even much more productive) than synch work. Why?

Chris Lang responded:

The progress of theory can be modeled as the process of finding better categories. Here's a reason why I think "collaborative synthesis" vs. "independent synthesis" are better categories than asynch and synch for your theory:

Independent synthesis is less productive because each person must listen to everything (and there is a limit to how much can be heard by one person in an hour). Most synchronous meetings are this way, but conventions and "Listening to the City" are examples of synchronous meetings with collaborative synthesis http://www.americaspeaks.org/library/21st_century_town_meetings.pdf

Collaborative synthesis is where most people ignore most of what's going on. That prevents anyone from achieving independent mastery of the material, but also busts the limits on how much can happen in an hour. It allows larger populations to participate, such that the more participation you've got, the more gets done (see wikipedia and livejournal). This is often made asynchronous on the hope that more people will participate if they can do so on their own schedule. However, a listserv for which people did not cluster around threads would be an example of asynchronous meetings with independent synthesis.

Christie Mason: Are Synchronous Communications More Task Oriented?

I don't think either method is purely one or the other. Most of my synch group communications are about completing projects, exchanging info or getting technical help - task. While that's going on, there are also many social aspects. Most of my synch group communications may superficially appear to be about a task (let's get together online and talk about...) but are really are about "bonding" and other socially oriented agendas.

September 5th, 2004 - Synchronous Collaboration Tools for the Academic World

a useful if somewhat rambling 50 minute presentation in Macromedia Breeze by the guru in this field, Robin Good. Skip to slide 7 for the names of products and go from there.

June 3rd, 2005 - The Synchronous Juggernaut Rolls On - Designing for the Virtual Interactive Classroom (Judith Boettcher)

Yet another article espousing the virtues of synchronous meetings in education. A useful article and save for this bit: "The well-known collaborative tools supporting this type of interaction (e.g., HorizonWimba, www.horizonwimba.com; Centra, www.centra.com; and WebEx, www.webex.com) focus on a high-bandwidth video downstream, and audio channels from the participants. The expectation is that the faculty or presenter is in the “lecture” knowledge-transmission mode, with limited expectation of students asking questions or dialoging with the presenter. ", I agree with most points made in the article. I think whether or not these tools come across as 'transmission tools' only is very much up to the presenter. And HorizonWimba's Live Classroom definitely does not focus on 'high-bandwidth video.' Far from it.



(page last updated June 3rd, 2005)