What is it?
It is hard to be involved in modern online teaching/training of any sort and not have heard about ‘synchronous‘ and ‘asynchronous‘ training sessions. Synchronous online sessions are those that the learners and the trainer have to be online at the same time while asynchronous online sessions use other platforms which don’t require real-time learner-trainer interaction.
Asynchronous learning which was once just called distance learning and only meant lessons sent to the learner using postal services at the end of the 19th century is now one of the most popular learning modes in the 21st century with hundreds of tools to bring people to the educational fold.
What is the importance?
Asynchronous online learning is gaining more popularity because people usually find it a better and more efficient way of learning in our modern busy life. It is really hard to physically attend a course and take some development steps which might take several months when you have a lot of other never-ending personal and professional commitments.
However, to make this online distance learning experience feel more natural and make some physical and emotional relationship among the participants, the idea of mixing asynchronous online sessions with some synchronous ones sounds practical and even necessary in some cases.
Stefan Hrastinski in Educause Quarterly (number 4, 2008) discusses the importance of these two different learning modes and the fact that each supports different purposes. The following two tables are from his study:
In a forum discussion with some other colleagues while we were doing an e-moderation course with the British Council in August 2014, we came to the following conclusions:
What are the available tools?
Synchronous online sessions at different stages of a course can be done for various reasons using various tools. These tools can be as basic as instant messaging services and real-time fast e-mails and can get as complicated as Second Life interactive sessions depending on the technical feasibilities. Out of the very long list of all these tools and services, video and web conferencing seem to be the most practical ones that all online educators are interested in.
Video conferencing is simply a video session in which all participants can see each other and has almost all features of an in-person session except that of ‘direct physical cues’, while web conferencing usually refers to more interactive sessions and platforms where the participant can take part in polls, chats and break-out sessions. They can also share files, screens and presentations and even an interactive Q&A session can be added to the end.
Video conferencing tools are easy to use. They are the ones we use everyday to talk to our family and friends on the other side of the planet! I am taking about apps like Skype, Apple’s Facetime, Oovoo, etc.
The tools to conduct web conferencing sessions are numerous but the following list shows the ones I have worked with. They have provided me with the best options and features I needed for an online synchronous meeting:
- Adobe Connect: The most popular and comprehensive platform but hard to work with in slow internet areas. It also has a smartphone app. which makes it much easier to attend online sessions on a tablet or a mobile phone but some functions won’t be easy to work with while on the go!
- Blackboard: Formerly known as Elluminate Live provides similar services and is as pricey as Adobe Connect. Cambridge English Teachers use this platform for their webinars. Blackboard, too, has a smart-device app.
- WebEx: A professional Cisco product with all the features the above two have.
- Saba: This seems to be the most well-known platform after Adobe Connect. Pearson Education use this platform for their webinars. I haven’t noticed any differences between this and adobe connect except that it might be able to work better in some countries with Bandwidth problems and it is a bit less expensive than the previous choices.
- Samba: Onsync is the name of their product. Less expensive than Adobe Connect and the Whiteboard section has a lot more features than Adobe Connect. It supports more file types and the video quality is a lot better.
- CUmeeting: This is easier to use as it uses a very basic platform but you still get the same sort of similar services and is even less expensive than the above options!
- BBB: This is a free service! It can be a good alternative to Adobe Connect but you should consider a couple of issues:
- Their platform is flash-based and unlike the other alternatives mentioned earlier, Big Blue Button doesn’t have a mobile application so participants have to use their computers.
- The service has to be set up on your own server (the main reason it is free because you will have to pay for a server if you haven’t got one already.)
- They don’t provide a ‘recording’ option so you can’t watch the webinar again later. However, there are several solutions for this specific issue and the most popular one is Camtasia.
- On24: It has a free section which can be easily used if you are not worried about certain features. It doesn’t have a smart-device app but works well on tablets. Some features like polls and questionnaires might not work properly on mobile devices.
But if you are looking for something we are all familiar with, Google has one of the best choices:
I have discussed the benefits of Google Hang-outs in a separate blog post where a PDF tutorial and some screenshots can be found on conducting live Hangout sessions where the world can see you on Youtube. Probably the interactive Q&A feature of Google Hangout is the one a lot of online educators are interested in:
Any innovative new platforms?
There are new platforms which might make these online meetings simpler for smaller groups. I will be updating this list as I learn more about these new platforms:
As the image says, it is free for up to 8 people and no one needs to log in! You simply create the room and share the link with those you want to talk to! If you really need to have that room and use it in the future, you can register it on the system. It has an iOS app and works fine on Chrome, Opera and Firefox.
This is not an online meeting platform but it is only a shared whiteboard on which you and the participants can write. You can set questions and see the learners develop their answers. Many of the applications mentioned in this post have whiteboard features which can help participants to collaborate in the meeting. But such functions do not always work well if you don’t have a stable internet connection. Pear Deck can be a helpful tool to use instead.
I am currently (April 2015) doing a top-up online module on ‘synchronous e-moderating’ with the British Council and I am going to post my reflection notes here. This was the first one! Check this space for more soon!
- A study on asynchronous vs. synchronous learning by Stefan Hrastinski (PDF)
- Webinars- A Cookbook for Educators
- Nik Peachey on Using the Webcam to Engage Online Students