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distance : Are We There Yet?

The Problem with Synchronicity

March 4, 2010 · Posted in distance, Teaching 2.0 · 3 Comments 

Distance delivery of instruction has always presented educators with problems–particularly, as in my case, when you are delivering the same content to on-campus students as to off-campus students. Some of the problems are obvious: how do you deliver a hands-on science lesson to someone in another state, for example, or how do you demonstrate a geometry proof to a student when all they can see is the instructor’s  smiling face on a monitor? Most are much more subtle: how do you make the distance students in your class feel as if they are part of a community or cohort, or do you split your class into two sections and address each class separately? If you do the latter, how do you assure that both groups are getting equal access to every part of the instruction? Can you undertake some activities with one group that you can’t with another? Will that “dumb-down” one of the sections or give some students advantages over others?

Technology has solved, at least partially, many of these problems. Videoconferencing systems are much more sophisticated than they were a few years ago, allowing an “almost like being there” level of participation from distance students. Even many desktop video solutions allow multi-point connections and file exchanges in real time. Access to broadband is increasing in many areas of the country, making these services more approachable for more students. We’re getting close to the point that most students will be able to fully participate in synchronous, real time classes just as if they were sitting there.

And therein lies the problem.

The more I deal with issues of distance delivery, the more I find that striving for total synchronicity can be a waste of time (pun intended). It’s easy to assume that the more we make distance classes like face-to-face classes, the better the distance class will be. I’ve come around to the notion that we should make our face-to-face classes more like our distance classes.

I have been giving a lot of thought to distance education lately. While I have taught distance classes in the past, I had never until last year taught two sections of the same class at the same time where one section is on-campus and the other is taught via distance delivery. My initial desire was to teach the distance class via videoconference–that way, I could engage my students in real time, share my computer screen with my students, and make the experience much like being in the same classroom with me.

As it turned out, most of my rural Alaskan students did not have access to videoconferencing services. I’d have to teach the distance class using more conventional methods–Elluminate, Blackboard, and maybe even some audio conferences. I was quite concerned that my distance students would miss out on the experience of being in a “real” classroom.

So, I planned my distance section differently. I provided most of the instruction that I normally would have done in class in asynchronous formats–podcasts, streaming media, wikis, shared Google documents, etc.–and I planned the times that we were actually “together” via Elluminate so that we used the time to interact, share ideas, and react to the instruction that was provided asynchronously. I thought carefully about what it meant to interact with an instructor and planned those interactions to give students maximum time to talk and interact. We eventually decided–as a class–that we really didn’t need as much synchronous time as the schedule provided, because students were able to interact with me and with their peers in a variety of different ways, many of which were new to them.

The results were fascinating to me. My distance students interacted with me and with each other much more frequently and on a much deeper level than did my on-campus students. The distance students consistently took more initiative with their projects and eagerly shared them with their classmates, whereas their on-campus counterparts tended to perform in the usual “school” mode of finding out what they had to do to complete the project and doing just that. (We’ve trained them well, unfortunately.) And, my distance students have maintained that contact over time, whereas my campus-based students have not made efforts of similar magnitude.

My experiences with those two classes changed the way I structure my face-to-face classes and has given me new insight in what it means to bring students into a cohort with common objectives. The elements that I initially perceived as barriers to distance education became strengths, and the traditional nature of synchronous teaching–for me, at least–looked more and more like a barrier to effective interaction and involvement. When all we have is traditional structure, the answer to every problem is to create a class for it. That’s wrong. We need to create inquiry-based cohorts of students and instructors who know how to leverage their time together to get the maximum benefit from that time. We’re in the post-class era of post-secondary education, whether we know it or not.

I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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