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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Synchronous Classroom Models

An online synchronous classroom can be a wonderful environment to create engaging and interesting online learning. Deployment of synchronous classroom software at a higher education establishment needs careful consideration of the intended uses and the ability of the synchronous classroom software to provide the necessary tools and features that will facilitate these intended uses.
One problem for universities considering employing this technology is that they may not have a complete picture of how the technology can be used and therefore at this early stage of adoption not sure whether the features of a particular brand will be the most suitable for their needs.
The tools available to participants are primarily whiteboard text and drawing tools, text chat, feedback icons (yes/no, raised hand, emoticons) pointer/identifier tool, audio (teleconference or integrated Voip), Webcam Video link (although I do not see a need to use webcam video for my purposes).
Tools for the facilitator will include the use of whiteboards, imported PowerPoint slides, application sharing, file sharing and granting rights for participants to use the tools available. Various other administrative tools are also available and important for the facilitator.
At Penn State University they identify various models for the use of synchronous classroom software (
I intend to build on and refine this list to establish how exactly this type of software can and is being used.
My primary interest is using the synchronous classroom as a genuine classroom where interactive and collaborative activities are taking place online. Needless to say I think that this is the most important and valuable use of the synchronous classroom and should therefore have a high priority when deciding on what particular synchronous classroom solution to adopt. The functionality available to facilitator and participant and it’s exact implementation will vary from software to software. Assuming all the standard features are in place, then ideally to deliver the interactive and collaborative learning which I think best enhances community building and student engagement the following is required:
For Participants:
  1. A uniquely identifiable pointer tool (by colour/ name or both) for use on whiteboards.
  2. Freedom to speak at any time (although we would not want them to all speak at the same time)
  3. Good quality Voip (voice over IP). With a headset and microphone students can be hands free to use whiteboard tools. Teleconferencing adds too many extra setup and admin issues, although the audio is good.
  4. Feedback Icons that ideally include yes/no, I have a question, stepped away and feedback eraser.
For the Facilitator:
  1. Sole control over whiteboards/PowerPoint slides whilst participants simultaneously have use of whiteboard text and drawing tools.
  2. Specific control of the rights of participants to use individual features of the synchronous classroom e.g. audio, chat, whiteboard, whiteboard tools, application sharing and remote control.
  3. Ability to Record presentation
  4. Ability to create breakout rooms for small group work.
In this model, although the lecturer’s role is to facilitate learning they need to have control over the environment and its tools in order to ensure that a structured, well thought out session will achieve the intended learning outcomes. At the same time participants/students need the best possible tools to encourage spontaneity and ease of participation in a lesson.
I don’t believe that video webcam’s are necessary to achieve the interactive and collaborative learning I wish to employ, but recognize that others may see value in the use of the interactive live lecture and the videoconferencing models of use.
Compromises necessarily need to be made, but assuming the reliability and the pricing are more or less equal then it would be prudent to ensure functionality that best meets the requirements outlined above are incorporated into any synchronous classroom solution that is going to be deployed.
I have recently looked into a number of synchronous classroom solutions. I shall reveal my findings shortly in my next blog.

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