March 15th, 2010

Incorporating Synchronous Elements into Online Courses to Enhance Student Engagement

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A funny thing happened to some graduate students at Drexel University. They enrolled in an online program, drawn by the anytime/anywhere convenience the medium affords, but found that one of their favorite aspects was the live synchronous learning elements.

During the past decade, Michael Scheuermann, PhD., an adjunct faculty member at Drexel, has required of his students a set number of synchronous sessions each quarter. What he’s discovered is that not only do the live online chat sessions heighten the learning experience by engaging students in a highly meaningful manner, but they’ve provided an additional facet of student performance.

In the online seminar Engaging Students with Synchronous Methods in Online Courses, Scheuermann gave an overview of how he uses synchronous chat and offered guidelines for building synchronous elements into online courses. He also cautioned that, like anything else, you must first consider how it fits within your pedagogical construct and not simply do it because you have the technology to do so.

One of the best ways to get started with synchronous elements is to hold online office hours and gauge student participation. Many instructors also provide live online course orientations. But there’s no reason it has to stop there. When you’re ready to test whether chat will work with your students and course goals, Scheuermann suggests the following tips:

  1. Set up a few optional online chats. These could be for extra credit or as a make-up assignment.
  2. Establish one mandatory session and grade students on their participation. Start with a 60-90 minute time slot, no longer. Be sensitive to time zones and dispersion of students.
  3. Establish additional mandatory session(s). For quarter-based courses, two-three mandatory sessions usually work well. If your school is on a semester-based schedule, you can increase that number to three-four sessions, or whatever works best for your specific situation.

Scheuermann stressed the importance of soliciting and then reflecting upon student feedback at each step of the way, and making the appropriate adjustments. It’s also a good idea to inform students who’ve registered for your course that there are required synchronous sessions at scheduled dates/times. This helps prevent unwanted surprises for students unaccustomed to synchronous elements, and who may be unable to participate. And while some may end up dropping the course once they learn about the requirements, most seem to find the synchronous discussions beneficial.

“To date, the evidence indicates that online students and course facilitators overwhelmingly find considerable value in synchronous course elements,” says Scheuermann. “Between 70 and 100 percent of enrolled students, on a course-by-course basis, have stated that I should retain the online chat sessions in future offerings of my courses.”