Synchronous Tools in Support of Teaching and Learning

Synchronous Tools in Support of Teaching and Learning

Clark Shah-Nelson (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-3930-0.ch009
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Instant messaging and text chat, online collaborative whiteboards, web conferencing and other synchronous Web 2.0 tools are increasingly finding their way into higher education and are available in both commercially-branded and open source varieties. This chapter describes excellent practices and challenges in using these tools for synchronous and blended course delivery, collaboration, learning activities, and technical support, based on the author’s experience in online education and online-teaching support. Synchronous tools can provide immediate and efficient communication for instructors, learners and support staff, foster community and establish a heightened sense of social presence. An increasing number of practitioners in the field of distance learning are using synchronous tools to reach their learning and support objectives (Murphy and Rodríguez Manzanares, 2008). Today, institutions have a whole menu of synchronous tools to choose from, ranging from free and open-source software to more costly commercial enterprise systems. These tools enable education and support for teaching and learning to happen across great distances and on all types of mobile and not-so-mobile computer devices. This chapter will describe some of these tools, the types of needs that drive their use, and strategies for effective use and implementation.
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In the past, distance learning was by definition asynchronous, relying primarily on correspondence via mail (Prewitt, 1998). By the early 1990s, teaching methods in distance learning became more synchronous, with the use of videoconferencing via cable, microwave, satellite and audio conferencing, predominantly via telephone (Perez-Giese, 1996). By the mid-to-late 1990s, however, asynchronous tools grew in popularity once again, with the rise of Learning Management Systems (LMS) and Course Management Systems (CMS). In recent years, thanks in large part to the increasing availability of high-speed broadband internet access, new and highly effective synchronous tools with great promise for distance teaching, learning and support have begun to emerge.

The trend in distance and online education is toward an increased use of synchronous tools for effective communication between teachers and learners. Many of these tools have been experiencing convergence over the past decade. First, instant messaging (IM), which unlike electronic mail is predominantly used synchronously for relatively brief messages, was coupled with audio and then video chatting capability, and is now integrated with most major email systems like Yahoo and Gmail. Second, there are many possible software solutions for webconferencing, including free, open source and enterprise, which incorporate videoconferencing, webmeetings, webinar functionality, and collaborative whiteboards as well as text chat and audio/video into a single package. Many of these solutions can be either embedded into any online course space, web site, or are integrated with LMS’s, allowing the learning community single sign-on access from within courses. Finally, hundreds of colleges and universities in the U.S. alone have implemented lecture capture systems to record and provide both live and archived access to classroom activities, thus bridging the gap between synchronous and asynchronous access.

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