When I was a college student, my favorite parts of class were small group activities where we solved a problem or discussed a critical issue. This was when I connected with my peers and rehearsed my burgeoning knowledge on teaching- done in the safe environment of my teacher education classes. I attended a small school and my classes were rarely over 20 students. In the 1980s it was simply not possible to re-create this intimacy in a distance education course.
Now, as an adjunct instructor, I believe strongly that this can be done. I have been addressing the issue of establishing social presence in the online environment by creating online classes that have an intimate, small group feel to them. My course evaluations usually include comments like, “I got to know people in this class better than my classes on campus”. I know instinctively that this delivery is moving in the right direction for small liberal arts colleges like the college where I teach. Yet there is so much we don’t know and can improve upon.
There are some practical issues that need to be addressed in the area of synchronous online learning. The definition of online learning often implies the asynchronous environment and on demand resources. Defining the types of course delivery needs to be clear and transparent for students. Tools that support synchronous learning are different and often go beyond on-demand content systems.
Consider the university where I teach as an adjunct, we have not fully defined (or embraced) the synchronous learning environment nor are we able to correctly schedule an online course that has weekly meeting times for students. Our current definitions are threefold:
- Web enhanced: this is a course in which up to 10% the course materials are located in an online environment
- Hybrid: a course in which up to 50% of the course materials are located in an online environment.
- Distance Education: a course in which 100% of the material is located in the online environment
I understand we are reviewing these definitions and am hopeful that consideration will be made for for the positive potential of synchronous online courses.
Here is how these definitions make it difficult to clarify for students what type of a course to be taking. For the last several semesters, I have required that my students meet weekly in an online meeting space. Our course registration system will only allow for courses to be coded using the above three options. If the course is labeled distance education, it will not book a room nor will schedule a specific meeting time. If the course is hybrid, it will schedule a meeting time however it also books a room on campus that will sit empty. In addition, it exceeds the definition of hybrid. Each semester, I have made efforts to communicate with the students that there is a meeting time and that this meeting time is a requirement. This is such a hassle for the students yet I have not way around it. Students often have to drop or reschedule other courses to stay enrolled in my section.
So scheduling is one of the issues that when resolved can really support quality synchronous experiences for students. The other issue however is that of a meeting space to support a quality synchronous experience.
For several years I had access to Adobe Connect, an online meeting tool with an excellent reputation. During that same time I also attended webinar sessions using Elluminate as well as WebEx. The interface of Adobe Connect have the most intuitive and agile design from the attendee standpoint and definitely from the teaching aspect. The chat pod allows for whole group conversations as well as the sidebar exchanges that naturally happen in the classroom. This product also easily create polling ahead of the session so that I was able to open polls throughout the course session without fumbling to create one on-the-fly. The most significant element however, was the ability to create breakout rooms and whatever was on the screen at the time say instructions for a small group activity, would follow each group into their breakout session. Pedagogically, polling and breakout rooms creates the place for conversation. I have switched to WebEx and haven’t found the same simple experience however, I am able to work around it using their tools. Significantly, the Training Module allows for breakout sessions so that is the main thing I feel is needed to get the conversations going.
Those are the two practical issues that I believe need to be addressed. What excites me much more are the teaching strategies and course materials that can create a powerful synchronous learning for students. Learning experiences in which they are challenged by course topics, have an opportunity to think critically, and most importantly, share a space that creates the sense of sitting at a new kind of table with classmates.
I will discuss those on a future post.