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Practical Considerations in Online Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Concerns about time relate primarily to the amount of time required for participation on the part of both students and faculty. In this section, we discuss several of the concerns related to time: asynchronous and synchronous environments, time offline versus online, time constraints, and time management.





A lot has, and is, being written about on-line learning.  The posting below gives some useful and practical suggestions on how to manage on-line synchronous learning across time zones and cultures.   It is from Chapter 4, Practical Considerations in Online Learning, in the book, Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Strategies for the Virtual Classroom, second edition of Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace, by Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 [].  Copyright © 2007 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

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 Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Practical Considerations in Online Learning


In the previous two chapters, we discussed some human issues that arise as we form an online learning community. We also noted that online learning communities do not just happen but need to be created with good planning and forethought. Consequently, there are some practical considerations that must be taken into account if the class is to be successful. Included in these are time, size, cost, and security. Another consideration is the software used for the class, which we discuss in Chapter Five. The success or failure of an online endeavor depends on getting these practical considerations right.




Concerns about time relate primarily to the amount of time required for participation on the part of both students and faculty. In this section, we discuss several of the concerns related to time: asynchronous and synchronous environments, time offline versus online, time constraints, and time management.


Asynchronous and Synchronous Environments


Online classes can be conducted either synchronously (real-time virtual classrooms or chat) or asynchronously, meaning that postings are staggered. Our preference, based on our experiences with online teaching, is for the asynchronous environment. It is the creation of community in that environment to which all of our previous discussion relates. The asynchronous environment allows participants to log on to the class or discussion at any time, think about what is being discussed, and post their own responses when they wish. However, recent advances in synchronous technology, as well as increasing skill with its use, are helping us see the benefits of this form of technology in community building and the delivery of an online class.


The challenge of conducting a synchronous meeting or class session is to coordinate time with a dispersed group and to facilitate it such a way that all "voices" are heard. Although many groups ask for the ability to have synchronous discussion (chat capability), we find that skill is needed on the part of the facilitator for productive discussion or participation or it will disintegrate into simple one-line contributions of minimal depth and wander off topic. It can replicate the face-to-face classroom in that the participant who is the fastest typist will probably contribute the greatest amount to the discussion, thus becoming the "loudest voice" in the group. In addition, contributions may end up out of sync; a participant may respond to a comment made several lines earlier but be unable to post that response immediately due to the number of people posting or the speed of the connection to the discussion. Some newer forms of technology, such as virtual classroom technology, have helped mitigate some of these concerns. Finkelstein (2006) notes that to make synchronous interaction and the use of virtual classrooms effective, an agreement must be struck between the instructor and participating learners. The instructor, in arranging the synchronous session, has determined that this is the optimal means by which to engage with learners in exploring content, in essence making the commitment not to waste learner time. Learners agree to minimize the distractions around them as they work synchronously and to use the time meaningfully.


 If the group is internationally distributed, time differences become critical, as does the impact of culture on communication. Careful determination must be made of whose time zone will be used to conduct synchronous sessions. If students are located simultaneously in Europe, across the United States, and in Asia, as we have experienced in some of our classes, the challenge to hold synchronous sessions increases. Often the students themselves will resist using chat to communicate with one another in these circumstances and will remind their peers that time zone issues are a concern when the possibility of holding a chat session is raised.


Synchronous communication has become popular with those who need to conduct meetings with distributed work teams through technologies such as WebEx. Again, however, time zone concerns are crucial. We were asked to consult to a human resources staff person for a large multinational company that used a distributed team format. The manager of an internationally distributed team within the company was baffled when a Japanese member resigned. Upon investigation, she discovered that the team member was required to drive for two hours in the middle of the night in order to get to the office to participate in a synchronous team meeting. However, because it was not appropriate for him to complain to a superior, given his cultural background, he felt that his only option was to resign. Conversely, we worked with an agri-business firm located in the central part of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. In this case, the use of synchronous technology for training was useful because all participants were in the same time zone, thus creating ease of access and minimal inconvenience. As online distance learning programs attract an increasingly international market, educators will need to consider the impact of time and cultural differences on the conducting of courses.


The managers of an educational program being conducted completely online told us recently that they were resisting the addition of chat capability for their students because of concerns about time. Because the students in the program were globally distributed, theirs was a logistics concern. How would they b able to conduct a class meeting synchronously, given that their students were all over the world? On whose time schedule would these meetings be conducted? Would the schedule be determined by the instructor? The students? Whose time zone would win out? Although these may seem like small, petty issues to some, they become critical when an instructor or a participant is asked to get up in the middle of the night to participate in a class discussion. Certainly, this would reduce the quality of participation and thus erode a developing sense of community in the group. These are certainly not insurmountable concerns -rotation of times for meetings or multiple meetings might help overcome these challenges -but the point is that they need to be considered carefully.


Another concern in synchronous communication is the ease with which members can become confused and overloaded if guidelines for participation are not established at the start. As discussion occurs in real time, members may not be able to keep with the pace established. In an attempt to deal with this problem, many virtual classroom applications for synchronous communication include ways to signal for recognition -much like raising a hand in the face-to-face classroom. Although this helps create order out of possible chaos, it does not help stem a sense of overload as the discussion proceeds. Consequently, the facilitator should stop periodically and check to see whether there are questions from silent members or to break up the flow a bit. Finkelstein (2006) likens the role of the facilitator-instructor to a host at a successful dinner party. A good host prepares for his or her guests to arrive, welcomes them, assesses their mood and needs, helps them feel included in the conversation, and facilitates connection and conversation between them. Given that the synchronous virtual classroom most approaches what goes on face-to-face, he notes that it is easy to fall into an "autopilot" mode when working synchronously and forget that the learners are even present.


We do not mean to condemn synchronous communication, however. It clearly can be a dynamic and challenging setting in which to meet and can be especially useful in facilitating brainstorming and whiteboarding sessions. (Whiteboarding is writing or drawing on a shared screen.) A recent example of effective use of synchronous media has been Delgado Community College's Summer Institute. Devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Delgado, located in New Orleans, has had to turn to the use of online classes in order to continue to serve its student body. The number of online courses being delivered by the institution has grown dramatically since the storm, and faculty have been anxious to receive training to improve course development and delivery. Prior to the storm, Delgado held a two-week, on-campus institute focused on the use of technology in the classroom. However, with staff, faculty, and students dispersed and with the new focus on online delivery, a decision was made to hold a one-week institute online. The response by faculty to this idea was extremely positive, and a one-week course that contained asynchronous discussion assignments for participants along with live webcasts and synchronous chat sessions was delivered. A week of real-time, synchronous sessions would have been extremely exhausting for all participants, but the combination of asynchronous and synchronous delivery created variety, as well as time for participating faculty to catch their breath.


As the Delgado example conveys, the key is to choose the appropriate synchronous media in an online course and to pay particular attention to good facilitation skills to make it effective and worth the time and effort it takes to arrange it. Designing a one-week institute clearly takes a great deal of time and effort. However, there are simple ways to include synchronous media in an online course. One of us uses chat regularly to hold online office hours or to set up a question and answer session for students. Chat can be a useful adjunctive tool in a predominantly asynchronous online class, but for it to be successful, the number of students participating should be small, the concerns and time zones of all participants must be considered, and guidelines for equal participation must be established in advance.


In asynchronous classes, members have the luxury of time. Posting can occur at the convenience of the participants, allowing them time to read, process, and respond. However, because participants can take their time, asynchronous classes need to take place over a much longer period, which should be factored into the planning. What might have been a weekend workshop may have to be stretched over one or two weeks to allow for full participation. The amount to be discussed in one week during a semester course may need to be pared down to manageable size in order for all participants to have an opportunity to read and respond. This is not to say that due dates and guidelines should not be established; we routinely set due dates for discussion postings in order to help students manage their time. Having the luxury of time does not mean letting things slide.


I really enjoy being able to do my work whenever I want to. Along with the flexibility it also gives me a sense of responsibility. Jason