Synching up with Your Asynchronous Learners

Some students are reluctant to enroll in online courses, afraid they will miss some of the social aspects of the face-to-face classroom. For these students, it makes sense to incorporate online synchronous sessions to provide some of the benefits of the face-to-face class while maintaining most of the flexibility of an asynchronous online course.

Janice Wilson Butler, assistant professor of educational technology at the University of Texas at Brownsville, uses optional synchronous sessions in her online courses to meet the needs of these “hesitant” online learners. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these synchronous sessions help to engage students and improve online student retention.

Butler’s courses are mostly asynchronous, and she doesn’t require students to attend the synchronous sessions because not every student is available to meet synchronously. But the majority of students do attend the synchronous sessions, and these sessions are consistently among the highest rated elements of her courses.

In a typical live session, Butler will share information, ask discussion questions, have students work in private “rooms” within the system to discuss the issue and develop a solution, then come back into the main room and present their findings to their classmates. Sometimes she’ll have a guest presenter, such as a librarian who can demonstrate database searches and answer students’ questions.

Setting the agenda, explaining the benefits
Butler offers the following strategies for effectively utilizing synchronous sessions:

  • Provide technology orientation. Butler uses video and text tutorials to help students understand how to use the technology. This increases the students’ comfort level and reduces the number of technology-related questions they ask.
  • Schedule synchronous sessions to suit the course. Butler schedules synchronous sessions around the course’s asynchronous activities. On average, Butler conducts synchronous sessions every other week, scheduling them infrequently when students are working independently and more frequently when it’s time to share their work.
  • Set an agenda for each synchronous session. At the beginning of the course, students should know at a glance when each synchronous session is scheduled so they can make arrangements to participate. In addition, each session should have a specific agenda so that the discussion stays relevant.
  • Limit each synchronous session to one hour. Online learners, particularly working adults, have busy schedules. Keep the synchronous sessions brief and do things in little bursts. “It’s got to be something that you can get in there, do it fast, and then move on. If you are going to show a movie, the upper limit should be eight minutes,” Butler says.
  • Establish expectations. Although Butler does not require students to attend synchronous sessions, she expects those in attendance to participate. “I tend to ask lots of questions and call on different people. I tell them, ‘You never know when I’m going to call on you,’” Butler says.
  • Create an archive of each session. Most synchronous online learning platforms have the ability to record sessions for future use. This is a great benefit for students who are unable to attend the synchronous event. It also enables students to review materials as needed. Archives of individual group sessions are also helpful in assessing participation.

Butler has not formally studied the effects of using synchronous events in her online courses, but feedback from students and her observations indicate that they do have positive effects.

>Excerpted from Some Students Want Synchronous Learning, Online Classroom, September 2008.