Print bookPrint book

Preparing for Synchronous Sessions

Site: SCoPE - BCcampus Learning + Teaching
Group: Facilitating Learning Online - Synchronous May 2020 (Group 1)
Book: Preparing for Synchronous Sessions
Printed by: Guest user
Date: Wednesday, 30 September 2020, 9:16 PM

What is synchronous online facilitation?

Many people new to online learning have not yet heard the terms synchronous and asynchronous. Quite simply put, synchronous means "at the same time", whereas asynchronous means "not at the same time". You may already be familiar with examples of asynchronous online activities, that often take place in learning management systems such as this one, like discussion forums, polls and feedback surveys. Learners participate in these activities at times of their own choosing.

Alternatively, synchronous online describes when people gather together in a web-based space at the same time. Such gatherings often have a facilitator who is responsible for guiding the group's process during their meeting.

We should note that there are other ways to gather and facilitate synchronously online, such as in chat rooms, using instant messaging and even via video conferencing. Collaborative online documents such as wikis could also be used synchronously. However, for the purposes of this course, when we talk about "synchronous online" facilitation we are referring to facilitating in web conferencing environments, such as those provided by tools like Collaborate Ultra or Adobe Connect. These tools allow us to gather in virtual rooms and give us the ability to see and hear each other in real time.

Why facilitate synchronously online?

There are many reasons why people choose to facilitate synchronously online in educational settings. Some of these are:

  • accessibility for participants (allowing them to learn from home, connect from rural settings, etc.)
  • real time interaction opportunity between facilitator and participants
  • promote participants' active learning
  • enable a diverse virtual classroom, potentially with participants from around the world

In addition, particularly when synchronous sessions are combined with longer, asynchronous online courses, they can:

  • be used to drive discussions deeper around course topics
  • build course community among participants and participants/facilitator(s)
  • decrease participants' feelings of isolation
  • address participants' concerns or questions at the beginning of the course or points throughout

Stefan Hrastinski, in his article "Asynchronous & Synchronous E-Learning", notes:

"Synchronous learning, commonly supported by media such as videoconferencing and chat, has the potential to support e-learners in the development of learning communities. Learners and teachers experience synchronous e-learning as more social and avoid frustration by asking and answering questions in real time." (p.52)

Though the quote above mentions just videoconferencing and chat, today it could be argued that we rely even more heavily on web-conferencing platforms to support synchronous learning online, and these platforms also offer the benefits described above. And Martin & Parker, in their article "Use of Synchronous Virtual Classrooms: Why, Who and How?", have noted that "synchronous virtual classrooms via web conferencing systems are increasingly being used in higher education" (p. 192). (That could be the reason why you are here!)

Potential limitations

There are both benefits and limitations to holding learning events synchronously online. Limitations could include:

  • the difficulty of choosing a time for the session(s) that all participants can attend (i.e. time zones, work and family schedules etc.)
  • the contradiction between what participants have potentially signed up for (e.g. students who choose to learn online for its asynchronous benefits and flexibility) and the planning of accompanying synchronous events which must be attended at a certain time and day
  • maintaining an accessible environment for all participants

The next page asks you to think more about these and further considerations when choosing your session's mode of learning.

Starting to plan

When starting to plan synchronous online sessions you will need to think about why you want to hold the session, who your participants are, and what you hope they will be able to do by the end of the session (outcomes). This type of analysis is necessary to help you design a great session which will meet both your needs and the needs of your participants.

Purpose and Participants

Purpose

First, think about the overall purpose of the session that you'd like to hold. Why would you like to do it? Some common purposes might be to:

  • host a discussion or question and answer session
  • plan or make decisions about something as a group
  • hold office hours
  • build or maintain online class community
  • gather feedback from people
  • interactively teach a topic
  • host a guest speaker
  • model or demonstrate a skill

Determine if your synchronous session will be part of a longer, asynchronous course or if it will be "stand alone", i.e. a session that doesn't relate to anything else and will be the only thing your participants attend on the topic. If it's part of a longer asynchronous course you will want to think about how your synchronous session will help you with the purpose and goals of your longer course event. Here's an example from well known ed tech "guru" Tony Bates:

"In a fully online course, I also sometimes use Blackboard Collaborate to bring all the students together once or twice during a semester, to get a feeling of community at the start of a course, to establish my ‘presence’ as a real person with a face or voice at the start of a course, or to wrap up a course at the end, and I try to provide plenty of opportunity for questions and discussion by the students themselves. However, these synchronous ‘lectures’ are always optional as there will always be some students who cannot be present (although they can be made available in recorded format)".1

Thinking about your session's purpose is a necessary step to confirming whether it does make sense to hold your session synchronously online. For example, if you determine your purpose is to "hold a lecture" in which you talk at your participants for the entire hour, you may wish to ask yourself if you think that is the best use of your participants' time (or even if it is the best way for your participants to learn!) Although there may be a place for "web-casts" (uni-directional synchronous online learning events) in some situations, they perhaps aren't best used in the higher education context where we aim to promote participatory and interactive learning and/or some of the other purposes mentioned above.

Participants

In the planning of your session you will also need to think about your participants. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • who will attend this session?
  • do they have any common characteristics? how might they be different from each other?
  • what is their anticipated technical skill? do they have the computer hardware/software to be able to connect to a web-conferencing system?
  • how many participants do I anticipate having in my session?
  • when might they be able to participate in the session? (e.g. time zone, work schedules)

Keeping your participants' needs in mind is important in being able to plan for and design a session that works for all who will attend.

To think more about how your participants may be different from each other and planning your session accordingly, watch this short [4:36 min] video on Universal Design for Learning. (Note: Don't let the K-12 images put you off...these concepts are absolutely applicable to adult learners too.)



1A.W. (Tony) Bates, 2015. Teaching in Digital Age. Retrieved from: https://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/chapter/11-10-step-eight-communicate-communicate-communicate/

Outcomes

When planning your session it is important to articulate the learning outcomes that you hope your participants will be able to achieve by the end of the session. What do you want them to be able to know/do/value by the time your session is over? Can you use synchronous online learning to help your participants achieve them?

Again, use this step as a check and balance as to whether it does make sense to hold your session synchronously online. For example, if you hope your participants will be able to "Swim 50 metres in the competition pool" by the end of the session, I think you have your answer as to whether synchronous online learning will help your learners achieve that outcome!

Writing measurable learning outcomes is certainly the subject of an entire other course, but generally you could start with the stem, "By the end of the session, participants will be able to..." and then use appropriate verbs (perhaps using Bloom's taxonomy to guide you) to try to articulate what you'd like participants to be able to achieve. (Hint: Avoid the terms 'know' or 'understand' - they aren't very measurable!)

Examples:

  • By the end of the session participants will be able to describe why learning from failure is an important part of innovation.
  • By the end of the session participants will be able to name the essential three parts of an essay.
  • By the end of the session participants will be able to summarize briefly three different change models and their key points.

Caveat: We're not saying the learning outcomes above are great examples of outcomes that would be appropriate for synchronous sessions per se, but they are examples of outcomes in general. It will be up to you to decide if what you're trying to help your participants achieve is something that they can achieve best via a synchronous online mode.


Knowing your tools at hand

Before we dive into talking about designing your session and the elements that you should consider when doing so it may be useful to talk about the tools that you will have at hand in your synchronous online platform.

While it's not usually effective or recommended to start designing a learning event thinking about the online tools you would like to use and then building your design accordingly, it does make sense to be at least aware of the tools you will have available in order to design a session that is indeed possible to carry out in your platform.

Now, no two web conferencing platforms will be alike, but many will have similar features and tools. For example, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra currently offers us the ability to:

  • share audio and video
  • use a collaborative 'whiteboard' that all participants in the session can view and draw/write on
  • upload and view PowerPoint slide decks
  • put participants in virtual breakout rooms
  • ask our participants one-question polls
  • share our desktop or an application on our desktop so that participants can see something on our own computer
  • have our participants raise their virtual hand
  • have a live text chat with others in the room

Get to know the platform that you will be using for your synchronous online work and then have its capability and functionality in your mind as you start to design. Remember, it IS possible to use other web-based tools (such as wikis or other collaborative web-based tools) in concert with your web-conferencing system.

Designing your session

Designing learning is a big topic overall, but here are some key points that you'll want to consider as you think about designing your synchronous sessions.

Alignment with your Learning Outcomes

We said earlier that it is important for you to think about your purpose of why you think it's best to hold this particular session synchronously online and to get clear on the learning outcomes that you'd like your participants to be able to achieve by the end of the session. Once you are clear on these items, it's time to think about the content and activities that you'd like to incorporate into your session and how can help support your participants to achieve those outcomes.

Using a Lesson Plan

Similar to designing to facilitating sessions in person, it may be useful to create a lesson plan to design your synchronous online session and use it when facilitating the session. You may have a lesson planning structure that you are already familiar with using but if not, something like the BOPPPS framework could be useful.

At the very least it would be ideal to create a plan - perhaps like the table below - that notes timings of all your content and activity sections, duration of those sections, facilitator activities, participant activities and any resources needed. You may wish to script some of what you'd actually say or paraphrase during the session.

Here is the beginnings of such a plan:

screenshot of a table with time, duration, facilitator and participant activities and resources needed

And here's a similar yet slightly different Sample Session Planner Tool from Cindy Huggett which you may also find useful.

Building Community

Depending on who your participants are and how well everyone knows each other already, you may want to think about starting with activities that can help start to make everyone feel comfortable in the synchronous online space if you have time. Even something very quick in a short session could be beneficial to the overall goals of your session.

Some questions to think about as you design your opening activities to build community together include:

  • How can the facilitators introduce themselves? If so, what should be shared in that introduction and how much time should it take?
  • Should the participants introduce themselves? If so, what should be shared in those introductions and again, how much time should it take?
  • How much time should the facilitators spend talking before participants are asked to do something active, such as introduce themselves? (Hint: not very long!)
  • What will be comfortable for people to share if they don't know each other? What will be comfortable if they do?
Participatory, Active Learning

Overall in this course we are discussing and promoting synchronous online sessions that feature participatory, active learning. Thinking about how to design a session that actively includes your participants in contributing to their own learning is our ideal. Some of the questions we can ask ourselves to be able to design these types of sessions are:

  • How can I "share the air" with the participants in the session? How can I make sure that the facilitators are not the only ones talking?
  • How I can create situations where participants are able to share from their own experiences, to contribute to group learning?
  • How can I ensure that the session includes time and space to allow for questions and discussion?
  • Are there ways in which I can use the platform's tools (see above) to contribute to an active learning situation, that are appropriate to my intended outcomes for the participants?
  • How can I balance content sharing from facilitators with discussion or other participant activities? How can I "chunk" sections of the plan into short pieces, to keep the agenda moving and participants involved?
  • How can I engage my participants visually and auditorily during the session?

Nancy White, in her blog post entitled, What are your most useful synchronous online facilitation practices?, said "It is the masterful use of a shared white board to move people from being consumers of a meeting to being active participants." (A whiteboard is just one example of a tool that could support active learning.) Overall, thinking about how your participants could be not just passive "consumers" of information that you dump into their heads, but actively involved in the process is a useful lens to keep in mind. And you know what? Facilitating sessions that are active and participatory often end up being less work for the facilitator than if you were just to present content the whole time! (And a lot more engaging.)

Assessing Participants

Depending on the nature and purpose of the session you are designing, you may need to evaluate your participants at the end of your session (or after it) to see if they can truly achieve your intended learning outcomes. While assessment and evaluation is also another topic for another whole course (!) we'll just say this: your stated learning outcomes, content, activities and assessments all should be aligned. What does this mean? Here's an example:

If we think about our swimming example mentioned earlier, which of the following situations would be fully aligned, with learning outcomes, content/activities and the way you assess your participants all directly relating to each other? Which would be misaligned?

Situation #1

  • Learning outcome: "Participants will be able to describe three strategies which would help them swim 50 metres in a competition pool."
  • Content/activity: During the synchronous online session you and your participants discussed three strategies which would help them swim 50 metres in a competition pool.
  • Assessment: After the session you took them to a competition pool and graded them on whether they could swim 50 metres.

Situation #2

  • Learning outcome: "Participants will be able to describe three strategies which would help them swim 50 metres in a competition pool."
  • Content/activity: During the synchronous online session you and your participants discussed three strategies which would help them swim 50 metres in a competition pool.
  • Assessment: After the session you asked them to write a minute paper describing three strategies which would help them swim 50 metres in a competition pool.

Design ideas

Some of the following resources may give you ideas about how you can design engaging activities online.

  • The Ideas for Active Online Learning article from Faculty Focus (approx. 2 pages) features a 'synchronous collaboration' section which gives some ideas to support active learning, such as using breakout rooms for collaborative student activities and the chat feature for a fun, simultaneous check of student learning.
  • This article, Graduate Degrees through Synchronous Online Learning at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, talks about the design, outcomes, benefits and challenges when teaching graduate programs through mostly synchronous online methods.
  • The following video features several instructors talking about how they are using or tips for using Blackboard Collaborate and other synchronous web-conferencing platforms in their online classrooms [4:48 min]:

  • This Activity Selection Grid from CindyHuggett.com may give you ideas as to how you could use application tools interactively.

Working with co-facilitators

Working with a co-facilitator (or a facilitation team) to facilitate a synchronous session can be a really useful experience, both to handle "the load", so to speak, and to continue our own learning when seeing each other demonstrate great facilitation skills.

In Facilitating Live Online Learning, Colin Steed notes (p. 54) the following four roles that co-facilitators can play:

  • handling technical issues
  • ensuring content is available and working
  • keeping note of the questions asked in Chat or Q&A panels
  • acting as a side-kick

Although the way he frames his advice is to have one "facilitator" and one "co-facilitator" - who would act as a producer or host - the roles above could easily be shared by two or more co-facilitators equally. This is often what we see in higher education, rather than - as sometimes experienced in the corporate world - one facilitator or presenter and one producer whose role is to support the session more behind the scenes. Particularly when we are facilitating sessions that involve participatory and active learning, it is easy and desirable to add more facilitators to the mix.

Working with co-facilitators does mean, though, that you will need to find time to plan your session together and have discussions about who is going to take on which pieces or which role. Talk about each of your strengths and preferences, and potentially your "stretch goals" - what you'd like to try to get better at when facilitating in this way. Talk about your current technical skills and help each other learn the "techy things" that will help you facilitate a great session.

You may wish to indicate how you have divided your responsibilities between facilitators in your lesson plan or in the notes section of your PowerPoint slide deck, although make sure that you are very familiar with all sections of the session just in case things get mixed up when you are actually facilitating and one facilitator takes another facilitator's slide to discuss. :-)

Preparing to facilitate

Preparing your participants

When planning your session, think about your participants and if you need to prepare them to come to your session. For instance:

  • will they need to watch or read anything before they come? if so, when will you send this to them ahead of time?
  • have they participated in this type of session before? do they know what to expect? will they know what is expected of them in terms of participation?
  • are they aware of the timing of the session and the importance of arriving on time? (relatedly, it's within your role as the facilitator to start and end the session on time)

Preparing yourself

What about you, as the facilitator? What might you need to do yourself to prepare to facilitate the session? Some of these items might include:

  • being very familiar with your lesson plan or session agenda
  • being very familiar with the technology platform you are using and making sure your equipment is working (e.g. computer, headset, webcam)
  • thinking about and planning how you're going to stay on time
  • anticipating how you could be flexible with the session as it's happening, e.g. if a section takes longer than anticipated, can something be eliminated?
  • and, as mentioned earlier, being aware and prepared of how you're working with your co-facilitator

Lastly, expect that you will likely make facilitator mistakes and know that this is a natural process of facilitation, not to mention facilitating synchronously online. Plan to be a professional presence in the session but also make sure that you show up as a real person as well - a human who sometimes makes mistakes (we all do!). And lastly, unless the topic is very, very serious, have fun!

In Week 2 we'll talk more about the skills and details of facilitating synchronous sessions and you'll be able to hear some advice from seasoned synchronous facilitators.

Practical considerations

There are many practical considerations you should take into consideration when planning synchronous online sessions. These include:

  • considering privacy issues - who will be there? what will be discussed? does the group know each other? will there be trust in the room or does it have to be built?
  • distribution and longevity of the session - should the session be recorded? how will it be shared with others, if at all? what might we need to ask or tell participants about sharing the session itself or session details with others? what impact might recording the session have on the participants during the session itself - do people behave differently if they are being recorded?
  • logistics - will an advertisement need to be created? how will people register for the session? how will they know how to connect to the session?
  • testing the platform - have you used the platform before? how familiar are you with it? do you need to test it again? when? with whom? does anything need to be arranged in advance? does the platform work with your computer system? where will you be connecting from at the time of the session and how good is the internet connection? do you have a headset and is it working?
  • your space - what does your space look like where you will be sitting during your session? what can be seen on camera? will pets, children, phones, partners or other noises interrupt or how could those distractions be eliminated or mitigated?
  • and, as already mentioned on the previous page, working with a co-facilitator or producer - how will you work together? what will your roles be?

The online article Interactive Web Conferencing Brings Benefits to the Online Classroom has some additional practical "tips for success" to think about before and during your synchronous session.

Note: Regarding the "decision to record" above, please note that in this course we ask that you DO record your facilitated session for the purposes of self-reflection and gathering feedback from course peers and facilitators.