Synchronous Online Learning: Should You Incorporate it Into Your Program Design?
In this two-part blog series, Keypath Instructional Services offers guidance for online faculty interested in ways to augment their fully online course using synchronous meetings.
The first blog, written by Keypath Director of Faculty Engagement, Christine Lewinski, provides ideas for online faculty to consider in deciding whether to blend in synchronous elements in a fully online course. The second blog, written by Keypath Global Vice President of Instructional Services, Chris Valadez, provides insights into the challenges and opportunities to consider in any decision to integrate synchronous into an online learning program design, along with types of programs that lends themselves more easily to synchronous learning than others.
Building in synchronous meetings times with your online students may sound counterintuitive. Aren't online students drawn to the flexibility of online learning because they don't want to be tied down to specific meeting times? The answer may come down to how students think about flexibility.
We know that virtual, or synchronous,  class sessions can be challenging for online students and faculty alike. They combine technology, interaction and instruction and introduce unknowns because they are "live."
This blog explores online students' and online professors' perspectives. It also offers a description of synchronous elements with the greatest potential to add value to the online learning experience. We close with some tips on how to prepare virtual class meetings.
Synchronous virtual class meetings and the flexibility equation
Recent research suggests that students are logistics-minded about the role of technology in their learning. Cost, convenience, mobile-readiness, and innovation appear as priorities. While interest in the synchronous activity is not the primary driver for why students select an online program, it also isn't a primary detractor. Thirty-three percent of students surveyed found synchronous sessions helpful. 
Why might this be the case? Student survey data consistently reflect an interest in connecting with peers and the professor. This sense of connection is often key to students' satisfaction and motivation to continue in their programs. Findings from one researcher revealed that "an online blended synchronous and asynchronous course gave [graduate students] the opportunity to experience a higher level of participation in a flexible learning environment where they had no time to be a passive non-present student." 
In a synchronous class meeting, activity around course content happens in real time. The chance to meet others in real time is a facet of flexible learning for some students.
At Keypath, we've helped universities in the US, UK, and Australia integrate the following types of synchronous opportunities into their online courses:
Formal required meetings
These meetings may be designed as a program requirement that is announced to students prior to enrolling in an online program. Part II of this blog will explore this approach.
These "optional but recommended" meetings help support progression and are typically scheduled at the start, midpoint, and end of a course.
These meetings may be designed around team collaboration, such as a term or client project, and include brainstorming in small or large groups.
Ad hoc meetings
These meetings, often held in response to students' questions about an assignment, are organized around small groups or for office hours.
Facilitating a synchronous meeting effectively with students entails structured guidance along with ample opportunity to collaborate and create as a community. This does require planning, so it's important to decide on the kind of interaction you'd like to have with your online students.
Most university IT departments have a supported web conferencing tool used for online courses. If not, there are a wide variety of fine high-quality, easy to use, free or fee-based web conferencing tools.
The chance to meet others in real time represents flexible learning for some students.
Give online presence a boost with video
Technically speaking, a "web-based virtual online classroom" has two components, the instructional communicating environment , and the collaborative learning environment.  Today's web conferencing tools share many features in common. Typically, this includes options to share files and links, chat features, options to group students, and annotate content with whiteboards and screen sharing. Used in tandem or separately, these features can enhance participation and communication.
Perhaps the feature that adds the most richness to the communication context is the video option. Social presence is conveyed in many ways in an online course. Personable announcements and personalized feedback are text-based techniques for conveying social presence and belonging. The video option of a web conferencing platform provides instructors and students a direct form of social presence. Through facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and pauses, much of the non-verbal communication that leaves text-based communication re-enters the dialogue in a virtual class session. The video option of a web conferencing platform provides instructors and students a direct form of social presence.
Should you enable video? Challenging as it can be initially, embracing your video presence can benefit you and your students. Including video can help students integrate learning (especially if they are struggling with a concept) while simultaneously enhancing the interpersonal presence of real people on the other side of the screen.
What do professors who use synchronous meetings find?
Following his first time teaching online, Dr. Mark Lehrer, who teaches in the online MBA program at Suffolk University, shared his biggest surprise about online teaching: "I made decisions about the course design months ago, and my online course was fully-developed with many features to support student learning. My biggest surprise? How important it was for me to lead students through my course." Prof. Lehrer's courses included mandatory synchronous sessions to introduce his students to the experiential, client-based part of this course. But he also found value in ad hoc synchronous meetings to help him support his students.
Prof. Lehrer commented: "Remember, talking even to 4-5 students in real time is still more efficient than using emails." This saves time for instructors and students alike. Prof Lehrer's explained the planning for ad hoc meetings: "Invite and answer students questions starting early in the week. Based on the amount of communication you have during the week. Thursday is when you determine if you'll have a synchronous session to hold office hours."
In the online School Counseling program at Saint Bonaventure University, Dr. Adam Holden described a similar balance of weekly and ad hoc uses of synchronous time. For students in his program, he found "When you do not see the students each week it is really important that the instructor keep connecting with the students. My weekly synchronous meetings helped me in this regard and having online office hours is equally important for students to be able to connect."
Worried if students will show up? Students are more likely to move their schedules around in order to attend a synchronous meeting if the objective for the meeting is clear. In cases where synchronous meetings do not fit a student's schedule, they still may benefit from the recorded sessions.
While not everyone will attend an optional session, those that desire a greater level of connection or want to clarify a concept in person are likely to make time to do so.
Students are more likely to move their schedules around in order to attend a synchronous meeting if the objective for the meeting is clear.
Next, we offer a few teaching and technology tips that can help you start planning virtual class sessions with your online students.
Synchronous online learning: Teaching and technology tips
- Before (such as through an email or announcement) or at the start of the webinar, share with students the objective and what learners should take away from the session. A small pre-work element such as a survey help students engage and provide motivation to find ways to accommodate a session. 
- Less can be more. If you're concerned about finding time in your own schedule for a virtual class, aim to hold one at the start of your online course, again at the mid-point, and in the last few weeks.
- Act as a consultant during the session by inviting learners to showcase what they know and where they have gaps in their understanding.  Ask students to share drafts-in-progress or problems they're working through. Involve the group in problem-solving: "What is the next best step?"
- Encourage webcams and let students know they're expected. Turn on your webcam and practice eye contact through the camera. This will encourage students to do the same, maximizing the immediacy and sense of connection. Marie Norman suggests "If bandwidth issues arise from too many video feeds, you can also elect to turn them off later."
- Accept that technology will fail. Screens will freeze. Users will drop unexpectedly. Some elements are outside your control. As with other forms of face-to-face communication, people are generally forgiving of technical glitches. A back-up dial-in number, alternate meeting platform, or even re-scheduling for another day/time are options for when technology is not cooperating.
- Have fun! Virtual sessions introduce the spontaneity of a face-to-face meeting. Strive to be personable through ice-breakers and other forms of pauses to check in with participants.
- After the virtual class meeting, be sure to ask students what they think. Students feedback helps you adjust the sessions to feel like they are "our" class meetings instead of professor presentations.
One final benefit
Participation in synchronous meetings, even if it means a student watches the recording, appears to have a halo effect on the rest of the week. When online learners return to asynchronous forms of interactions, they do so with a clearer sense of the presence of others in the course which supports sustained engagement.
Participation in synchronous meetings seems to have a halo effect on the rest of the week, giving the class a clearer sense of the presence of others which support sustained engagement.
Synchronous meetings with your online students can help you strengthen relationships and interactions which ultimately can improve learning. Offering the option for a real-time connection reinforces the best of online learning - personalization, choice, and regular, high-quality, faculty-student and student-student interaction. In Part II of this series, we'll look at synchronous learning from the program perspective and learn what questions to ask, along with the pros and cons of synchronous learning in an online program.
- Synchronous learning elements are those that take place "in real time." Participants to join an online meeting at a designated point in time. In contrast, asynchronous learning elements are those that take place with latency between different participants' contributions and variability in scheduling (e.g. participants will join according to their schedule preference at any point in the day or week).
- (Online Program Features, Magda & Aslanian)
- (Yamagata-Lynch, 2014)
- The instructional communicating environment is the means by which learning materials can be transferred during a virtual online class session. See Yang and Lie (2014).
- Yang and Liu (2007)
- Norman (2017)
- Norman (2017)
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Norman, M. (2017, June 26). Synchronous Online Classes: 10 Tips for Engaging Students. Retrieved from Faculty Focus [Magna Publications]: https//www.facultyfocus.com/
Yamagata-Lynch, L. (2014). Blended Online Synchronous and Synchronous Learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 15(2). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/
Yang, Z., & Liu, Q. (2007) Research and development of web-based virtual online classroom. Computers and Education, 48(2), 171-184