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Tools for Synchronous and Asynchronous Classroom Discussion

The image used in this post is of a small group of students sitting in a room together, (seemingly) energetically talking about the issues at hand. This is an example of synchronous discussion—the students are in the same room, ostensibly discussing the same topic (the caption says they are “debating search engine liability,” which sounds really interesting to me, at least). When we teach in the physical classroom, we are engaged in synchronous communication with the students. We hope that when they get into small groups they carry on the same sort of lively real-time interaction that we’ve modeled for them as we move around the classroom.

But if you teach online, you might employ a synchronous model—”same time, different place”—or an asynchronous model—”different time, different place.” Or, you might use a combination of tools to meet a variety of scholarly needs. Or, you might teach in a physical classroom, face to face with your students, yet still employ one or more of these communications methods.

Below is a partial list of synchronous and asynchronous communication tools—file this under “things to think about” if not implement at some point in your teaching career. A word of advice—more like common sense, actually—don’t throw a lot of different tools at your students all at once (unless it is a class specifically about tools). As with any tool, carefully consider its use before offering it as an option, and certainly before requiring its use (unless you’re ready to be a role model, to play tech support, and to be a cheerleader).

Synchronous Tools

If using the “same time, different place” model of communication, some common barriers to implementation of synchronous tools are cost and bandwidth—not only cost and bandwidth on your end, as the individual teacher or the institution, but also to the students. This is especially true with conferencing systems; video/web conferencing requires equipment to deliver but also to receive. Although the benefits of real-time video conferencing are clear—it’s as near to a physical classroom environment as you can get—the software, hardware, and bandwidth necessary on both sides can be more cost-prohibitive than actually physically attending a class.

Some learning management systems/e-learning systems/virtual learning environments have integrated synchronous tools within the delivery platform—here I’m thinking specifically about Blackboard’s integrated chat and whiteboard features. Although there are still software, hardware, and bandwidth requirements for these tools, the requirements are likely not as cost-prohibitive as those required for video conferencing.

But when thinking about setting up synchronous discussion, don’t discount the basic, free, “old school” group instant messaging platform, ICQ.

Asynchronous Tools

But when it comes to virtual communication in support of our classes, asynchronous communication is by far the more popular model if for no other reason than the barriers to implementation tend to be much lower—many of these tools are free and require minimal hardware and software. The drawbacks of asynchronous tools are that they are by nature less timely and efficient—they are asynchronous, after all. However, planned excursions with asynchronous tools can turn into synchronous events. In other words, if students and instructors all happen to be logged in to a discussion board, conversation can happen in near-real time.

Common examples of “different time, different place” tools include:

  • Discussion boards: whether integrated into your online learning environment or not (such as Google Groups), well-managed discussion board can produce incredibly rich conversations about the topics at hand.
  • Blogs: my personal favorite, as not only are the students discussing with one another (and the instructor), but they’re learning something about writing for a wider audience who may or may not be listening in. The open nature of blogs also allows for communication between students in other classes at other institutions who are studying the same topics. You might have to make “comment on blogs” count for a grade in order for some students to do it, but such is the nature of the beast—those students probably wouldn’t talk in class, either.
  • Social Networking Sites: Facebook and Twitter can play important roles in your asynchronous communications strategy. Facebook pages for a class can be the destination for up-to-date information about the course, without your students having to friend you (or even one another). Twitter, and Twitter lists, can be useful sites of asynchronous discussion, although not in the threaded format that one is used to seeing in a discussion board setting.
  • E-mail/Listservs: Some people consider mailing lists to be quaint relics of a previous technological age, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that they still work: an e-mail based discussion list does afford one the ability to carry on threaded discussions in a private environment, yet outside the confines of a managed system (for discussion boards). In fact, Google Groups (referenced above) is a threaded discussion board that can also take place via e-mail, putting a different twist on the typical concept of the listserv.

Regardless of the tool or set of tools that you use, be sure your communication plan is clear to your students. Online communication does have rules, just like face-to-face communication. Set guidelines as well as expectations, and use only those tools that you’ve evaluated and which clearly enhance your teaching and student learning.

Edited to Add: The fact that I didn’t mention Google Wave at all, despite its ability to be both a synchronous and asynchronous communication tool, should tell you what I think of its current stage of development.

[Creative Commons-licensed image by Flickr user Felix42 contra la censura.]

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