The other day I sat in on an online synchronous session in a graduate blended degree program. As I watched the session I kept thinking to myself "YES!" Yes - this is the sort of learning that technology can catalyze. Yes - this is the educational experience we would would construct if getting learners and faculty together at one place around an oval table is not feasible. And yes - we need to find a way to share the potential of education at a distance to match the quality of a face-to-face seminar.
Why was I so excited?
Intimacy: At at time when so much of our discussion around online learning is about going to scale, about massive courses with thousands of learners, this online synchronous class that I witnessed was small. About 20 learners, including students and faculty and curriculum experts and technology specialists together on the discussion. The real breakthroughs in education are instances where we can recreate the seminar experience in situations where holding an actual seminar is not possible. Maybe the goal is to make large classes feel like seminars, or as in this case to take people who live all over the world (and who work full-time) and bring them together virtually for an intense seminar experience.
Collegiality: The professor leading the discussion interacted with the students as colleagues and fellow learners. She (the professor) had definite (and articulated) learning goals for the session, but she brought the class to these goals via discussion, probing, and role playing (on the students part). More of a conversation than a lecture, but a conversation that was informed by the curriculum and a set of specific teaching goals. The professor was also a person who both knows the students very well, having been working with them in both on-ground and online coursework for over a year, and who is deeply involved in the leadership of the graduate program. I understand that every course, and every synchronous class session, cannot be taught by a full-time faculty member in a department (and that adjuncts are some of the world's best teachers), but there are clear advantages to the student experience with faculty who have a history (and a future) with the students and the program.
Technology: Or maybe I should say "platform." The synchronous class was held using Adobe Connect, which meant that every participant in the discussion had a live video feed via webcams. I'm not sure if other synchronous learning platforms scale up to multiple webcams, but I've found that seeing people is a critical aspect of a productive synchronous class session. For audio all the participants were on the phone (with VOIP as backup), which meant no delay in the conversation. The voice discussion was complemented by the chat box, so the interactions between the participants was very rich. Finally, the professor had the students engage in a role play, and during this exercise everyone else turned off their cameras so only the student protagonists were visible. This was a very effective technique.
Watching this wonderful online synchronous class session made clear to me that this sort of teaching cannot scale beyond a certain number of students. Maybe 30 at a time at most? At some point we need to embrace the idea that one of the hallmarks of a quality education, an education worthy of a high tuition price, is precisely this inability to scale.
Synchronous learning platforms have made available high quality educational experiences to students at a distance, but we should not expect that creating these learning experiences will be any less expensive (or will scale up any more) than an in-person seminar. We need to discover ways to expose and celebrate innovations in teaching and learning at the high-end of the value distribution, just as we (quite rightly) get excited about technologies ability improve access at the lowest cost points. The metric that should matter most is not in the end cost, but value.
What has been your experience teaching online synchronous classes?
What platforms and methods are you using?
Can you share any best practices and lessons learned?