Online Synchronous Learning Reconsidered

For the longest time I used to resist online synchronous learning. I’m not sure where this negative attitude to real-time web conferencing came from, but it may have had something to do with my long history in university-level distance education. I suppose I had a bias for asynchronous web-based learning because it freed learners from the twin constraints of geography and time. We served learners from around the world, and the scheduling of universally convenient real-time learning events was very near impossible. Also, years back, synchronous web conferencing software was not exactly user-friendly (e.g. required complicated user downloads, had balky audio, complicated interfaces, etc.).

Well, I have come a long way and so has web conferencing software. I can clearly see the benefits of online synchronous learning events, and the necessary software to do so is now much more user-friendly, reliable, and affordable. I am using it and recommending it to clients more frequently because it provides the following key benefits.

Immediacy: There is a level of excitement afforded by synchronous learning events that is hard to duplicate in asynchronous environments. Interaction and feedback are immediate and outstanding issues and questions can be dealt with on the spot. There is not the lag in response that happens in asynchronous web-based learning when participants are making contributions at different times and facilitators are providing feedback a day or two later.

Structure: One of the biggest challenges in asynchronous web-based learning is persistence; getting learners to stick with it and see the training through to the end. It is too easy to put off things that do not have a set schedule, especially when adult learners are bombarded with a litany of demands on their time. Synchronous learning events provide the same sort of structure as classroom training (e.g. meet at a certain place at a certain time), but without taking learners away from their work environments.

I think these advantages are why I see more organizations adding synchronous approaches into their training mixes. It can provide some of the advantages of in-person training, while avoiding a logistical nightmare of trying to get everyone physically in the same place at the same time. Also, it can be blended with other approaches to minimize the amount of in-person training required, and/or to provide the immediacy and structure missing from existing asynchronous approaches.

However, a word of caution is necessary. Purchasing or leasing good web conferencing software is a very small part of the formula for success. As always, great care must be taken in applying the principles of good learning design and facilitation practices.

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