August 10th, 2011

Using Synchronous Tools to Build Community in the Asynchronous Online Classroom


Sometimes students in the online environment just need that extra nudge to feel connected in order to truly excel. As instructors, we can facilitate community-building in an asynchronous environment by utilizing synchronous tools, such as Wimba, Skype, Elluminate, and others available to us via our learning management system or outside of the LMS.

Using synchronous tools may at first seem impractical for online instructors. If students are taking online classes, doesn’t that mean they want to be able to work whenever, wherever, with no time or date restrictions? In many cases, yes—but there are times when online students need one-on-one help, and synchronous tools are able to facilitate that support much more effectively than the usual email back-and-forth or phone conversation. I’ve found that when I’ve used synchronous tools with students, they were more willing to ask questions and interact with their fellow students in the classroom afterwards. Let’s explore some reasons why.

  • Synchronous tools can help humanize the classroom. Instead of words posted on an electronic screen, we become real to our students, not just words or avatars or photos on a screen — we become human.
  • Setting up open office hours via a synchronous tool allows students to reach out in a specific time window with questions and get a real-time answer. The power of that communication is twofold. First, students immediately get a sense of community. Someone is there, willing to work with them on their concerns and to answer their questions. Secondly, students can still reach out for help using their computer, and do not have to reach for their phones to connect to instructors to hear their voice.
  • Many synchronous tools allow us to use video or face-to-face chat, allowing the student to see our faces as we speak to them about their direct concern. Visual learners can watch us talk through a problem using video and screen capture or web navigation tools. Screen sharing tools, such as those embedded in Elluminate, allow students to share their screens with us, so we can take a look at a paper draft in process or a math problem that’s only halfway completed.
  • Both students and instructors are learning while interacting. Communicating in the online classroom is very different than in a traditional face-to-face classroom. Students utilizing synchronous tools to discuss issues with instructors are required to develop a new communication skill set, learning to navigate a different and unique way of communicating to reach the desired result. Similarly, instructors must not only model effective communication with students during the session, but also test and stretch their skill set in working with new technologies to reach out to students effectively. Both instructors and students learn what works and what doesn’t, but instead of doing this individually, they are learning as a team, simultaneously. That distinction is important.
  • Synchronous tools require real-time teamwork. Both instructors and students must be open and willing to reach out in order to find a solution for an issue, and this requires working together in tandem—brainstorming, discussing, even negotiating. Modeling this for students in the synchronous environment helps students bring it to the asynchronous environment, such as the discussion board or group project areas of the course.

Michelle Kosalka is the program chair for English and Communications at Herzing University Online, and is currently a PhD candidate in English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She was recently named the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU) 2011 National Teacher of the Year.