Promoting Synchronous Interaction in an eLearning Environment

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Cyber-instructors continuallyseek instructional tools that willhold students’ attention, andmake online communicationsmore efficient and effective.
Skype is the latest one to test.

Communication is always a toppriority in an online learning environment.A course managementsystem (CMS) will typically promotecommunication and interaction by using adiscussion board, chat, and course e-mail.Such synchronous and asynchronouscommunication tools are used in Webbasedcourse interaction between instructorsand learners for multiple purposes.Alvin Wang and Michael Newlin (“OnlineLectures: Benefits for the VirtualClassroom,” T.H.E. Journal, 2001,www.thejournal.com/magazine/vault/A3562.cfm) contend that those asynchronoustools are viewed as the backbone and musclefor the subject content, whereas synchronousmedia such as chat and the audiobridge are the heart and hustle of onlinecourses. Curtis Bonk and Vanessa Dennen(“Web Advances Continue: From BestPedagogical Practices to Evaluation andAssessment Techniques, ”Proceedings of the18th Annual Conference on DistanceTeaching and Learning, 2002) argued thatlive communication via chat is alwaysdesired by online learners who expectimmediate assistance, response, and recognition.Using these features, class activitiesare recorded and logged, which allows forreflective teaching (Faridah Pawan,“Reflective Teaching Online,” TechTrends,2003). When CMS access is not available,e-mail can sustain communication.

However, some concerns have risen overthe use of these tools. The aforementionedcommunication tools have been blamed fortheir rigidity and inefficiency. Bonk andDennen (2002) warned that without deliberateplanning, asynchronous media canexacerbate a learner’s feeling of isolation byallowing for scattered forum postings (i.e.,message postings) in lieu of a meaningfuland intellectual dialog (i.e.,discussion questions).The lag time between the mail correspondencesis not what most desire (DerrickLavole and Gerald Foster, “An Inter-University Internet Exchange Project toNetwork Pre-Service Science Teachers,”Proceedings of the 1996 Association for theEducation of Teachers in ScienceConference, www.ed.psu.edu/CI/journals/96pap16.htm). Additionally, RovyBranon and Chris Essex (“Synchronous andAsynchronous Communication Tools inDistance Education,” TechTrends, 2001)noted that some cyber-learners do not checkin often enough to carry the dialog forward.

Online chat, a synchronous classactivity, is likewise as prone to user criticismas its asynchronous counterpart. Twomajor reasons that online chat is notfavored by cyber-instructors are: 1) a largeclass is simply unmanageable for mostinstructors, and 2) students believe theyshould be able to gather all information byaccessing course materials on the courseWeb site (Wang and Newlin 2001). Otherdisadvantages include insufficient time forstudent reflection, scheduling students inthe chat room at the same time, and slowtypists (Branon and Essex 2001).

Thus, additional instructional tools forinteraction are needed to supplement thepresent ones. Web conferencing systemssuch as Macromedia Breeze (www.macromedia.com) may be a solution, but asignificant up-front cost precludes usingsuch a system by all but a small percentageof online programs. Underfunded highereducation institutions may have to turn toother resources or sources that promotecommunication links.

VoIP Freeware Solution: Skype

One of a cyber-instructor’s responsibilitiesis to seek instructional tools that rendercommunications more efficient and effective,as well as catch and hold users’ attention.One such instructional tool is thevoice over IP freeware tool, Skype(skype.com), which provides high-qualityaudio communication between two PCs,at no cost, with proper input and outputdevices such as headsets.

Skype was used for instructionalpurposes in two entry-level online graduateeducational technology courses at theUniversity of Texas at Brownsville andTexas Southmost College, which has partneredwith the University of TexasTeleCampus (a central support unit thatfacilitates distance education initiativeswithin the University of Texas System), todevote its educational technology programto eLearning. With a student enrollment ofabout 400, the school’s online master’s ofeducation program is committed to servingconstituencies regionally, nationally, andinternationally, using the Blackboard 6.0(www.blackboard.com) CMS.

There are two major purposes forSkype’s use in these courses: 1) to supplementgroup chat discussion, and 2) tocontact the instructor during office hoursor other appointed times. The followinguse of Skype may be a viable alternative forinstructors and institutions that aresearching for new tools to enhance theironline interactivity.

Skype’s Impact on Teaching & Learning

The purpose of this study is to answer thequestion: “To what degree d'es Skypeimpact the learning and teaching experiencein a Web-based learning environment?”Three aspects of the investigation follow:

  • To what extent d'es Skype change theway the individual learner thinks ofsynchronous interaction in a Webbasedcourse?
  • To what extent d'es Skype augment theway group members interact?
  • To what extent d'es Skype influence theway the instructor facilitates an onlinecourse?

Research method. During the spring2005 semester, Skype was piloted in twoonline graduate courses (N=12 andN=16). Throughout the semester, fiveone-hour chat sessions were planned ineach course. On the night the study wasconducted, students in both courses wereable to choose either Blackboard Chat orSkype to accomplish an in-class activity.(The diagram below represents theactivity design.)

Online Chat Activity Design

During the first half of the chat session,students met in “Lecture Hall” withinBlackboard Chat, where class announcementswere made and course conceptswere reinforced, which was followed by aquestion/answer session. In the secondhalf of the session, learners were dividedinto groups of four and asked to brainstormand respond to a given question oractivity by group deliberation. Studentscould meet in groups using either Skype orChat. In the Skype groups, a seat in eachgroup was reserved for the instructor formonitoring and advising purposes. Eachgroup, in both the Skype and Chat teams,assigned a secretary to post the groupeffort in the designated forum. Each groupmember was required to read and respondto at least one other group’s posting by thefollowing midnight.

Collecting student evidence. Anecdotalevidence and Skype conversation duringand after the chat session were collected toexplain student use of Skype on the individuallevel. To acquire insight into theactual use of Skype at the course level, a setof eight open-structured questions wase-mailed to participants, followed by acontent analysis. The questions were:

  • How important is synchronous interaction(e.g., chat, Skype, and phone calls)in a Web-based course like EDTC XXXX?
  • If real-time communication is significantin a Web-based course such asEDTC XXXX, one can simply use a landline or cell phone to conduct the groupdeliberations. Then, from your understandingof Skype, what is the value ofSkype in this case?
  • What was your experience with Skypelast night?
  • What are the strengths and weaknessesof Skype in our chat session?
  • Whom were you using Skype to speakwith?
  • What other tools (e.g., Blackboard Chator Skype Chat) were you using withSkype at the same time? What is therationale of your blended use?
  • Compared to a text-based chat roomdiscussion, what difference d'es Skypemake, as far as easing the communicationissue (or making it tougher)?
  • What instructional use of Skype do youthink we can include in this course inthe near future? Or what can we do tomake it better next time using Skype orother tools?

Major Results and Discussion

Preliminary findings suggest that the freewareprogram is an effective tool to buildsynchronous interaction, and to providejust-in-time clarification and information.

To what extent d'es Skype change theway the individual learner thinks ofsynchronous interaction in a Web-basedcourse? Respondents report that theiroverall experience with Skype is positive.Student responses indicate that synchronousinteraction in a virtual learning environmentis needed, especially in a groupproject with time and space constraints.Compared to their prior experience withBlackboard Collaboration (aka Chat), useof Skype in facilitating synchronous interactionis promising. Some learners alsonote that talking via Skype makes themmore aware of the topic, and that abstracttopics seem to make more sense thanwhen using Blackboard Collaboration.Not only are they conversing with others,they are having an intrapersonal dialogwhere the individual student is empoweredto take an active and responsiblelearning role. Audio interaction seems tochange the way individuals view synchronousinteraction in a Web-based course.

“Some learners note that talking via Skype makes them moreaware of the topic, and that abstract topics seem to makemore sense than when using Blackboard Collaboration."

To what extent d'es Skype augmentthe way group members interact? Skypeseems able to augment group interaction;interaction between learners becomesconsistent and responsive during the halfhour. In Skype, typing is not an issue;learners can save all the mental effort tocommunicate thoughts, raise questions,and seek clarification by listening,thinking, and speaking. Skype usersreported that talking made them stay ontask and motivated them to learn.

To what extent d'es Skype influence theway the instructor facilitates an onlinecourse? Anecdotal evidence shows that classactivities dictate media selection. Activitiesin the selected classes include significanttime spent in group activities. The rationalefor the use of Skype to promote a virtualteam exercise is three-fold: 1) to solicitimmediate feedback and input from peers,2) to reinforce key points of the coursecontent, and 3) to develop a working relationshiptoward a final group project. Skypefulfills students’ needs to provide andreceive just-in-time information, to accessreal-time content clarification when necessary,and for all members to get to knoweach other in a manner that transcends text.

Conclusions

Online courses may not be for everyone.However, when eLearning is the onlyopportunity to receive education,it will beone of the instructor’s responsibilities toensure the eLearning experience is ascompatible and comparable as possible tostudents’ prior experience. Any onlineprogram may have to accommodate thosewho are limited to the choice of eLearning.

This qualitative inquiry is deemedsignificant because of its attempt to discovera new tool that is suitable for a distributedlearning environment. The Skype freewareenables CMS users (i.e., the instructor andlearners) to provide just-in-time clarificationand information. Thus, learners canreceive an immediate recognition of theircourses of action, such as responsible andresponsive participation in the course activities,which, in turn, encourages theirautonomous and active or proactivelearning on the Web. The audio tool alsoadds a high-touch, high-tech experience.Above all, a causal relationship between thethree key elements of an instructionaldesign approach (i.e., outcomes>activities>technologies) is witnessed in this initial phase of analysis.

Cheng-Chang (Sam) Pan (Sam.Pan@utb.edu)teaches a fully Web-based educational technologygraduate program as an assistantprofessor in the Department of Curriculum &Instruction for the School of Education at TheUniversity of Texas at Brownsville/TextSouthmost College (UTB/TSC). MichaelSullivan (Mike.Sullivan@utb.edu), an associateprofessor of educational technology atUTB/TSC, has more than 25 years experiencein public education and distance education.


7 Instructor Recommendations for Skype Use

  • Schedule the students’ Skype subscription in the class orientation. The sooner studentsare exposed to the technology, the better they’ll adjust to the unique learning experience.
  • Organize a pre-class training session for a subset of the entire class. Instructors canschedule a meeting with a group of class “trainers.” These trainers then teach theirown group members skills.
  • Divide students into groups of four. A Skype conference call can only take up to fiveparticipants. If needed, reserve a seat for the instructor for tracking/coaching purposes.
  • Provide technology use protocols ahead of time. For instance, if someone accidentallyhangs up, the conference call initiator (usually the group leader) can immediatelyadd him back in to the meeting.
  • Keep group deliberations on the record using additional tools. Skype conferencecalls are not recorded. Options are Skype Chat and Blackboard Chat.
  • Reserve a Blackboard Chat Room for each group as the last resort. One of the drawbacksof using such freeware is that the service makes no guarantee that theprogram will be there when needed. An effective way to cope with this is to reservethe Blackboard Chat Room as a backup device.
  • Encourage necessary accessories. A headset and a wired broadband connection arepreferred accessories for use with Skype and other similar communication tools.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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