In the online world, the synchronous classroom parallels the face-to-face approach of the traditional classroom. Interaction between faculty and the learner is a scheduled event that occurs online in real time. In contrast to the traditional classroom, however, separation by geography is less limiting. Although time zones can be a scheduling consideration, there is no travel time to join a online scheduled event. Individuals can access the classroom from any location, given that they have a computer with a stable Internet and audio connection. The synchronous classroom can be a powerful tool for ongoing staff development if attention is paid to three key elements: faculty competence with the online platform, sound instructional design, and responsiveness to the challenges that inevitably arise when combining people with technology.
Building Competence with the Synchronous Platform
Blackboard™ Collaborate, Cisco® Webex™, and Adobe® Connect™ are examples of online platforms that offer synchronous capability. Features common to these online classrooms include a white-board, computer screen sharing, application sharing (i.e., sharing use of an application such as Microsoft® Excel®), online synchronous chat, break-out rooms for small group discussions, and online polling or survey tools. In addition, educational sessions may be recorded and archived for later viewing (Farkas, 2013). Faculty orientation to the specific online platform is a critical prerequisite for success. The mainstay of the online classroom is the whiteboard. This is where faculty begins to engage the learners. The familiar Microsoft PowerPoint® presentation is the most common use of the whiteboard. A brief overview of classroom features using Power-Point is a good starting point. Orientation should focus on three areas: classroom access and privileges, classroom set up, and tool features.
Training on classroom access features includes login instructions for the virtual classroom, instructions on how to schedule educational sessions and invite attendees, and a review of access controls and privileges. Access controls include how to lock or unlock the virtual door and how to eject learners from the classroom in the event of a disruptive learner. Privileges are settings for the synchronous chat to allow private or public chat conversations with faculty, another learner, or the entire class, and for the whiteboard to assign learner annotation privileges.
Classroom set-up procedures may vary depending on the platform. For example, in Adobe Connect, faculty can set up permanent classrooms. This can be an advantage if educational sessions, such as orientation topics, are to be repeated. Files are uploaded into the classroom and customizable pods are arranged for viewing attendees, the PowerPoint presentation, and synchronous chat (Ellingson & Notbohm, 2012). Hand-out and evaluation pods are other possibilities. For the permanent classroom, at the end of the session, the chat is cleared, evaluations are saved, the PowerPoint presentation is reset to the first slide, and the virtual door is then locked until the next session. In contrast, in Cisco Webex and Blackboard Collaborate, the location of the chat and attendee pod are fixed and classroom set up with file uploads occurs after the classroom is opened.
Tool features or screen writing tools include a pen, a highlighter, an eraser, a pointer, text typing, and a color feature. These tools that add life to the static PowerPoint-important points can be emphasized and enable small drawings to be added (Clark & Kwinn, 2007). To become adept with tool use, practice is needed. Faculty should also practice uploading files and videos, screen sharing, and sharing applications. Competence and confidence will build as faculty use these tools.
Formulating a Sound Instructional Design
Before proceeding with the synchronous classroom, consider whether this modality is the right choice to meet the instructional goals and objectives. The synchronous classroom is ideal if the goal is to quickly deploy training to a large group of learners and real-time communication is warranted to allow immediate response to questions (Clark & Kwinn, 2007). For example, a single educator teaches an online curriculum to nursing staff situated in 90 hospitals across the United States. Topics range from policy review, annual mandatory training, and pharmacology (e.g., critical drip calculation, moderate sedation, insulin administration) to disease state pathophysiology, assessment, and nursing interventions (e.g., diabetes, renal failure, congestive heart failure, stroke care, infectious diseases, such as vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus and Clostridium difficile).
The primary limitation of the synchronous classroom is content, in which the refinement of motor skills is the desired learning outcome. A precautionary limitation is when content has multiple variations that require judgement to discriminate. For example, teaching the confusion assessment method for the intensive care unit delirium screen (Nelson, 2009) requires assessment of multiple patient variations. Train-the-trainer methodology may be needed to augment any online training.
Sound instructional design requires consideration of the target audience and best teaching practices. In the online classroom, getting the students' attention, and keeping it can be challenge. Learner multitasking—answering e-mails, texting, or attending to other work activities—is a tempting distraction. Clark and Kwinn (2007) suggested that “the main antidote to student multitasking is frequent and relevant interactions that involve all participants” (p. 10). The synchronous classroom has many options for learner engagement that can be part of the instructional plan. When teaching an electrogardiogram analysis class, for example, use of the whiteboard tools show learners where interval measurements start and stop. For the visual learner, consider the use of online videos to demonstrate proper lead application. Use online polls intermittently to gauge understanding and provide time for learner questions. Be creative, and talk to other faculty who are using the synchronous classroom. Make learning fun and focused.
People and Technology Challenges
Teaching online comes with its own set of challenges. The synchronous class is a live class, so faculty must be adept at responding quickly when technology fails. Technology failures include loss of Internet service due to provider or weather issues and audio problems, such as poor audio quality, automatic disconnections, and inability to mute telephones. When teaching from home, faculty need a back-up plan for both audio and Internet connection, such as purchasing unlimited cell phone minutes and a mobile hot spot from an alternative Internet provider.
The online platform may malfunction. Faculty may experience difficulty loading files, screens between the faculty and the learner may not be synchronized, or the real-time chat may stop working. These are not frequent problems. In the author's 8 years of full-time online teaching, only two classes were cancelled due to Internet or technical issues. Similar to the support offered in a university setting, it is best to have a corporate information technology staff member with assigned accountability for the online classroom who will take ownership when problems arise. This support may not extend fully to evening classes, meaning that faculty need to have some basic troubleshooting guidelines, (i.e., if this happens, try this). Updating these guidelines is important as new problems arise and are resolved.
The next challenge is related to the people variable. Classroom controls need to be in place to ensure a positive learning environment. Learners should keep cell phones muted, unless speaking. Late arrival rules should be clear. Faculty may choose to lock the classroom to deny entry to late arrivals. Chat box rules should facilitate learning and, at same time, support the cultural norm of texting and expectations for immediate responsiveness. If faculty are teaching the class alone, learners may need to limit chatting to question periods. Continuous chatting is difficult to respond to while teaching and is distracting to both learners and faculty.
Faculty with technophobia may be reluctant to transition to an online format, but with proper orientation and support this fear can be controlled. Engagement may occur when faculty realize that synchronous technology does not require the additional hours of preparation of some other online modalities. What works in the face-to-face classroom generally works in the online classroom (Pullen, 2012). Technology will fail at some point, but it is infrequent. Remain calm and have a back-up plan—can the class continue using an audio conference and the use of handouts? Be sensitive to a lack of engagement as evidenced by less chatting or a slow response time to questions. The teaching plan needs to support active engagement; use synchronous chat interspersed with lecture content or use case studies. Take advantage of the recording capabilities for participant review and for faculty self-assessment of presentation effectiveness. Plan for success—orientate the participants to classroom rules in the first class. Do not assume that participants have the skills to connect to the classroom. Provide information on how to test the computer and audio connection before the class begins. In addition, consider that the scheduling challenges arising from varied time zones and participant shift rotations may require multiple sessions.
The synchronous classroom with its real-time capability is the online version of the traditional classroom. Advantages include the geographical benefit and the ability to rapidly deploy training. The synchronous classroom is culturally congruent with the current learner, whose texting habits and need for immediate responsiveness can be supported in the synchronous chat feature. Regardless of the reason for choosing the synchronous classroom, at the center of its successful use is faculty who are competent in using the online platform, creative in instructional design, and responsive to the unique challenges.
- Clark, R.C. & Kwinn, A. (2007). The new virtual classroom: Evidenced-based guidelines for synchronous e-learning. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Ellingson, D.A. & Notbohm, M. (2012). Synchronous distance education: Using web conferencing in an MBA accounting course. American Journal of Business Education, 5, 555–562. Retrieved from http://www.cluteinstitute.com/ojs/index.php/AJBE/article/view/7212/7282
- Farkas, M.G. (2013). Web conferencing software: Tips and trends. Retrieved from http://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1090&context=ulib_fac
- Nelson, L. (2009). Teaching staff nurses the CAM-ICU for delirium screening. Critical Care Nurse Quarterly, 32, 137–143. doi:10.1097/CNQ.0b013e3181a27ee0 [CrossRef]
- Pullen, M. (2012). Pros and cons for teaching courses in the classroom and online simultaneously. Retrieved from http://netlab.gmu.edu/pubs/itic078-pullen.pdf