Tips and Tools for Synchronous Learning
What is Synchronous Learning?
'Synchronous learning' or 'live online interactive learning' (LOIL) is online education that happens in real time, with students or students and tutors interacting through specific online tools. Popular forms of synchronous learning include video conferencing, live streaming and live chat. Synchronous learning is characteristically active and dynamic and can play an important role in the engagement of learners online. However, as anyone who has sat through long back-to-back Teams calls will know, it is also demanding for participants, and live activities also lack the 'any time, any where' flexibility of asynchronous learning, so it's important to balance the two approaches in your practice.
In addition to engaging learners through active discussion and immediate feedback, synchronous/LOIL activities can also allow for more in depth exploration of ideas and concepts, in shorter periods of time than asynchronous discussions.
1. Flip the Classroom
‘Flipped teaching’ refers to the practice of assigning lecture content, videos and/or other interactive online exercises prior to the lecture, in order to use face-to-face teaching time for tackling the more difficult concepts, problem-solving and discussion. This method acts as a possible approach to deal with large classes, where students may be at different stages of understanding and skill, and offers one obvious approach to blending asynchronous and synchronous activities.
2. Let students know what to expect
Letting students know ahead of time what material will be covered gives them chance to prepare for the session and will also help them engage with the topic. Try to be as specific as possible by telling what is expected of them, what they can do to prepare, and what will be expected of them during the synchronous session. This can also encourage more reflective learners to contribute to discussions since it gives them the opportunity to reflect on the topic before the discussion.
3. Make the links to Learning Outcomes explicit
If students understand and appreciate how the topic at hand relates to the learning outcomes and any assessment activities they will subsequently need to engage with, they are much more likely to undertake any assigned pre-reading/watching activities, and thus more likely to arrive at your synchronous session well prepared, motivated, and able to contribute.
4. Ask students to bring key questions
Depending on the size of your class, giving students (or at least a few of them) the opportunity to ask any burning questions can be an excellent way to clear up any misunderstanding or confusion and clear the way for the session you have planned. If something is bothering one student, it’s likely to be bothering others too, so by dealing with key questions up front you are likely to help many students put the issue aside enabling them to be fully focussed on the discussion.
5. Test the tech beforehand
Check your connection ahead of the session and have a backup plan in case some students struggle with technical issues during the session. E.g. if some students have issues with a microphone, perhaps you can use the meeting chat to allow them to contribute. It’s also a good idea to send students simple, clear guidance on how to take part. This should provide joining instructions and notice if the session is going to be recorded. You should also let students know that they can say ‘no’ to this, or can ask to have their contributions removed from the final recording. On the day, login ahead of time so that you can upload any resources (such as presentation slides) and let students into the meeting room (if needed). At the start of the meeting it’s a good idea to mute all participants, particularly if you have a large cohort.
6. Classroom Management
Depending on the type of synchronous session, having a colleague available to monitor questions via the meeting chat, and field any technical questions, and hit ‘record’ (if needed) can be really helpful. During the session, bear in mind when you are sharing slides, or directly from your desktop, changes can take a bit of time to filter through to students screens. Remember to check in with them periodically to check that they are following what’s happening – you can do this, in Teams for instance, by asking them to raise a virtual hand. Build in opportunities for questions and make it clear to students when the opportunities to ask and answer them will be and your preferred method (e.g. in the meeting chat or over the microphone). Ask students to keep their cameras on (where practical). Seeing the faces of participants helps to overcome any sense of disconnectedness, and provides accountability for students, helping them to stay engaged with the session.
Tools for Synchronous Learning
- Microsoft Teams – Microsoft Teams allows groups to communicate (via text chat and video meetings) and collaborate (via shared Office documents and files). The linked FAQs result from the TEL teams conversations with staff around the University, particularly relating to Teaching and Learning.
- Mentimeter – Polling software that allows learners to participate in real time polling activities using a clicker or their own mobile device, tablet or computer. Mentimeter can operate from within or outside of PowerPoint (we recommend the latter), making it suitable for use in teaching sessions both in person and online. Instructors can collect and analyse feedback instantly through visuals such as charts, or after their sessions through automatically generated reports.
- Zoom - Online classroom and meeting platform. Zoom meetings are designed to be highly collaborative, giving attendees the ability to use audio and video, share their screen, and annotate in a live, interactive environment.
- Padlet – Can be used to create and share links, audio, video and pictures on a group canvas.