HOW IMPORTANT ARE SYNCHRONOUS TOOLS IN WEB-BASED TEACHING AND LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS?
This brief discussion paper stems from a survey of 82 random respondents on The Use of Synchronous Tools in Online Teaching and Learning. It is not an in-depth analysis. It is intended more as a commentary on the results of the survey, and a discussion starter for a presentation on May 4th, 2004 on Synchronous Groupware for BCCOOC hosted by Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. (see http://www.tltgroup.org/BCCOOC.htm)
The survey can be found at http://users.chariot.net.au/~michaelc/synch/surv_results.htm
Synchronous interactions in online courses started life as the poor cousin of asynchronous interactions. Early generations of online courses were almost exclusively asynchronous. Typically first generation online courses had access to clunky text chat tools but they were very unsexy and few staff or students had the skills to manipulate these tools for effective educational exchange. They were seen as lightweight distractions for those who wanted to use them as social meeting spaces. Other more exciting and dynamic synchronous tools didn’t exist. They do now - with a vengeance.
There is now a variety of synchronous tools ranging from the old reliable text chat, to Rolls Royce equivalents of the synchronous conferencing world – tools like Elluminate, HorizonLive, and Centra – with superb two way audio, the ability to push slides and URLs, share applications, poll participants in instant quizzes and more, all over 56k connections. If you have a broadband connection you can throw video into the mix.
These top of the range products typically have a price tag approximating the Learning Management Systems (LMS) that most institutions routinely have in place. LMSs are primarily designed to support asynchronous delivery, although there are some innovative partnerships such as that between WebCT and HorizonLive, and some LMSs now have an inbuilt Instant Messenger tool that allows synchronous communications.
In a recent live presentation at the Illinois Online Conference (February, 04) Rena Paloff predicted that the growth of synchronous interactions would be one of the significant elearning trends in 2004, but cautioned that “this may or may not be a good thing.” Aficionados of synchronous tools swear by their use; others bemoan the fact that they detract from the very attractive flexibility that anytime anyplace education offers online students, and worry that they have the potential to return us all to ‘the lecturer out the front doing all the talking’ style of delivery. My experience of synchronous tools is that this tends not to happen with more experienced live online presenters. Good practice suggests talking no more than five minutes at a stretch, and interspersing your presentation with frequent interaction. Synchronous interactions tend to have an inherent dynamic based on interaction. Not many are going to sit on the other end of a computer for an hour just listening to some one else talk. Synchronous tools are designed for dialogue, and participants in synchronous events typically want to do more than serve as a passive audience. Given the opportunity, they will engage with the presenter and other participants.
SURVEY RESPONSES – COMMENTARY
A vast majority of respondents (91%) deemed synchronous interaction in online courses to be important. An emphatic 99% of respondents recommend that synchronous interaction be part of online courses, so if these results have any credence and generalized conclusions can be drawn it would seem that those who exclusively espouse the anytime anyplace model of elearning are quite the minority. Is it the case then that there is general acceptance in the academic community that synchronous interactions have a significant place in online courses?
Prior use and experience of survey respondents
Around 85% of all respondents had experienced use of synchronous tools in online courses they had previously either taught or studied, with about a third of respondents (37%) saying they had used them regularly. Most of this synchronous interaction had been for small group work (58%). Only 16% had experienced synchronous tools as a tool for whole class instruction. Other uses included one-on-one communications (37%), and whole class meetings (35%).
It is clear from the results of this survey that, even though an overwhelming and perhaps surprising majority support the inclusion of synchronous interactions in online teaching and learning environments, there is significant divergence of opinion on what types of synchronous interactions tools should be included, and how they might be used.
Perhaps recognising the limitations of the average level of technological competence and associated technical problems (bandwidth, firewalls), the top vote for ‘which tool would you include in an online class’ was still the unsexy text chat (73%). Not far behind though were voice chat (64%, or 51 respondents), and virtual classrooms (65%, 52 respondents). Instant Messaging (IM) came in a surprising fourth place (59%, 47 respondents) – perhaps people prefer tools that allow communications with multiple participants. IM tools are typically limited to one-to-one communications.
221 responses to this question were grouped under the following main headings: pedagogical, social, community, and personal engagement. Approximately 50% of the reasons given could be classified as pedagogical reasons, with the other 50% of reasons given fitting broadly under the categories of social, community, and personal engagement. Respondents see synchronous interactions equally benefiting both the social/affective, and educational development of participants.
Of the pedagogical reasons given by far the most frequently mentioned was the immediacy of feedback (25 respondents; 30%). 10% (8 respondents) referred to the ability to better and more effectively clarify problems and misunderstandings using synchronous tools. Seven respondents (9%) saw synchronous interactions as improving collaboration, and better serving a range of learning styles. Five respondents (6%) thought that synchronous tools resulted in better discussions.
Interestingly, 6 respondents (7%) thought synchronous tools important as they were the closest thing to f2f teaching. No reason was offered as to why this was desirable.
Affective Advantages (social, community, and personal engagement)
Taken as a whole, these 82 respondents see substantial affective and pedagogical advantages in using synchronous tools.
Of the 82 respondents only 1 would not recommend the use of synchronous tools in online courses.
The four options presented all scored highly. Text chat was the highest (73%), virtual classrooms (65%), voice chat (64%), and Instant Messaging was the least popular (59%). 89% (71 respondents) thought text chat was the most useful synchronous tool, and Instant Messaging, again taking fourth position, being seen as useful by 73% (56 respondents).
If these results are an accurate reflection of the greater educational community, the use of synchronous tools is widespread. The majority of online courses include synchronous tools, and an overwhelming majority of respondents (99%) would recommend their inclusion in online courses. There is an awareness that these tools can have various purposes (one-to-one, small group work, class meetings), and that they are necessary for those teachers and learners who desire more personal and immediate connections. There is no apparent push to have synchronous tools used for whole class instruction. That would eliminate what is often touted as the greatest advantage of studying online – the flexibility of studying anyplace anytime. But this data certainly indicates that a significant number of teachers and students want to have realtime interactions in online courses.