Despite the difficulty of scheduling synchronous online meetings, they can play an important role in creating community, engaging students, and helping clarify difficult concepts. In a recent interview with Online Classroom, West Texas A&M instructional designers Susan Fulgham and Krista Favela offered their recommendations on when to use synchronous meetings and how to prepare and facilitate them.
Most conferencing software offers the ability to do desktop sharing, which can be an excellent way to take students on a virtual tour of the course. The advantage of doing this live rather than creating a recording for students to view on their own is that they can get immediate answers to their questions. Fulgham recommends recording such introductory sessions for students who cannot attend synchronously and also for possible use in future sections of the course, provided there are no major changes to the course.
Explaining difficult concepts
After teaching a course numerous times, the concepts that students find difficult to understand become clear. Perhaps students would benefit from being able to get a live demonstration/explanation along with the opportunity to ask questions. The idea is to provide synchronous content “directly targeted to areas where we know students are going to struggle,” Fulgham says.
This can be done in a lecture format using PowerPoint, desktop sharing, a whiteboard, polling, and questions via text or voice.
As with face-to-face office hours, virtual office hours provide opportunities for students to seek extra help. It's an alternative to trying to meet with all the students simultaneously. In addition to the instructor's ability to share his/her desktop, the student can as well, which can help the instructor see exactly what the student is struggling with. “It's almost like one-on-one tutoring,” Fulgham says.
These are some of the most common ways in which instructors use synchronous sessions in their online courses. There are other possibilities. Do what you think best serves your students. Favela recommends starting simply—don't use all the tools just because you can. She says the most commonly used feature is desktop sharing.
Prepare students. Students need to know up front that you plan to offer synchronous sessions so they can plan accordingly. Include scheduling and technical information in the syllabus. Let students know in an introductory email what's expected of them. Will they interact via text or voice? Are there prep questions you can send them that will result in a more productive session?
Keep sessions short. Favela and Fulgham recommend conducting 30-minute-to-one-hour synchronous sessions, logging in early to troubleshoot if necessary and answering questions at the end. “You should have everything up and running before you begin the conference, because nothing is more boring than watching someone who's trying to find a file,” Favela says.
Address technical issues. “We recommend that faculty have a technical support person working with them in the first session to check if students have technical issues,” Favela says.
Favela recommends using a headset so that the audio remains consistent throughout the presentation even when the instructor moves.
Before the session begins, be sure to close all applications you will not be using and have open all those you will need, including any websites you would like to share with students. Turn off anything that might be a distraction during the session—instant messaging, email notification, cell phone, etc. Close your door. If you're using a webcam, be sure to have adequate lighting.
Provide opportunities for interaction. Depending on the conferencing software and the goals of the session, there can be various modes of interaction. For smaller groups (no more than 10), participants can interact via audio. (This can be either via telephone or VoIP.) In larger groups, interaction works best via text, Fulgham says.
“Vary your activities. If you're going to do nothing but PowerPoint, that's not very engaging. After five to 10 minutes of PowerPoint, stop and switch activities. Do a poll, ask questions, or have students type something in the chat,” Favela says. “Every 10 minutes you should be breaking and doing something where students will be clicking or participating in some manner.”
Create an archive. Because it's unlikely that all your students will be willing and able to attend, be sure to record the session. Those who attended the live session may also want to watch the recording as well. And you may be able to use some of the content in future sections of your course.