If discussion boards are the heart of the online course, we may think of the synchronous sessions as its heartbeat. People connect and form friendships by sharing experiences. Sometimes these experiences are in the past, as when two people have visited the same city in a foreign country; but more commonly, the shared experience is in the presence of the other person, like when two people meet at a party. In the virtual classroom, most of the students’ interactions are independent of the other learners. Even while actively posting and responding on discussion boards, a student may feel like his/her posts and comments resemble a castaway’s messages dispersed inside bottles: carefully crafted, but tossed into a current of posts and replies. Others may read the post but not care enough to comment, especially if they already have met their quota. The facilitator can use policies to encourage active participation and frequent responses from students, but sometimes a virtual teacher needs another tool to increase student engagement.
Consistent use of synchronous sessions, either to deliver instruction or to facilitate a Socratic discussion, gives students a chance to interact with the instructor and others in real time. Students can see their instructor’s face and reaction to their comments, which provides immediate feedback, even if it is only a nod or a shrug. Audio and visuals help convey the tone of these comments as well. A teacher may hold online office hours where students can check in weekly with questions and comments, and these meetings are more intimate than an email correspondence, where the time between messages creates more distance. Students might speak more freely in a synchronous session because each utterance carries less weight, and there is less of a lag time between responses.
The interaction among students during a synchronous session befits the classroom culture as well. At first these sessions might seem like a chore for students, but once they have the opportunity to interact with their peers, they will look forward to these sessions. Rob Kelly, in his post “Build Community, Extend Learning with Online Synchronous Sessions,” discusses how two education professors at St. Leo University used Elluminate in their online courses to help build community. Their sessions were optional, but most had 80% attendance rates.
Todd and Mukherjee asked students Likert scale and open-ended questions about their experience with these synchronous sessions. “Over and over again in different ways, [students] talked about how there was no more social isolation.”
Overall, these interactions help humanize the class, and when students can connect a face and a voice with a name on a post, they will be more likely to pay attention. As Ben Nelson of the Minerva Project notes,
The close conversations between students and professor is small groups that explore subject matter. Well, turns out you can do that online as well, and you can do it in a better way than you can in an offline classroom….The results were universally accepted that the online class was far superior to the offline class simply for the fact of the matter that even though there were the same number of students in the class, when you look straight into that [web] camera and the professor sees your face and all of the other students see your face, you are playing attention.
Even if some students do not have webcams or smart phones that would allow them to video-conference, most Learning Management Systems include a chat feature that lets the professor moderate discussions and alert students who seem disengaged.
Synchronous sessions help create a shared experience that brings students together intellectually and socially. Routine sessions facilitates social learning as students ask and answer each others’ questions and helps dispel misconceptions about course material. When the students are learning from each other and receive immediate feedback, they are more invested in the class. They care more about what the teacher thinks of their work, and they want to use discussion forums to follow up on conversations and ideas started during the synchronous session. Since technology makes these sessions easy to set up and facilitate, there is no reason for a virtual teacher to ignore this powerful tool.