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Flipping Your Online Course with Synchronous Sessions


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The flipped classroom concept is a popular one. It usually involves shifting more passive learning activities, such as listening to lectures, out of the face-to-face classroom to an online format. The second half of the flip moves more active learning tasks, such as collaborative exercises, to a face-to-face setting.

When I attended Jackie Gerstein’s featured presentation “The Flipped Classroom, The Full Picture” at last month’s TCC Online Conference, I wanted to know more about the resources available, but didn’t expect this current trend to be particularly applicable to my online course. I was wrong. Gerstein, an educator and authority on the flipped classroom, inspired me to reconsider my approach and modify my class for next semester.

Flipping the Online Learning Environment

Is the flip relevant in courses that are delivered completely online, with no in-person requirements? I think it is. In an online course, the idea of flipping the classroom moves from balancing face-to-face and online interactions to planning for real-time, or synchronous, and asynchronous interaction.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the learning activities we generally expect to encounter in online courses:

  • Discussion forums: These threaded boards allow students respond to a question posed by the instructor, and then reply to each other’s posts. These are text-based and everyone adds to the conversation in his or her own time, with an overall deadline for participation.
  • Reading lists: From textbook chapters to scholarly journal articles and web-based publications, the amount and type of reading varies by course, but is almost always a requirement.
  • Individual assignments: Papers, projects, presentations, quizzes, and exams continue to be popular ways to assess student learning, both on campus and online.
  • Group assignments: Online courses also often require students to work in small groups on a variety of tasks, such as case studies and other projects.

My online course includes all of these activities, as well as four live sessions scheduled throughout the semester. During these sessions we all meet via Blackboard’s Collaborate system at a pre-determined day and time, and I provide what is essentially a lecture, followed by open question-and-answer time. In the past I’ve used these synchronous meetings as a chance for me to present course concepts, provide general updates, and review requirements due in the upcoming modules.

But while I’m doing this, my students sit quietly in their virtual seats – raising their hands only occasionally and interacting primarily through the emoticons and text chat capabilities of the online meeting space. Many of those logged in to the session don’t interact at all, leaving me wondering if they are “there” beyond seeing their names in an on-screen list. How could this opportunity to engage in real-time communication be used more effectively?

Consider the Experience

In a follow up conversation with Gerstein after the conference, she reiterated that flipping the classroom is “not just about videos.” It’s about re-examining the interaction among students, between students and the instructor, and between students and the content. As you get started with the process in your online course, you should focus on engagement and “begin with developing a sense of community.”

Time is another consideration and a precious commodity, especially for online students, who often choose online learning for the convenience and flexibility it allows around their already busy schedules. If we ask our students to meet in real-time, there should be a reason for this with goals that couldn’t be achieved as effectively in another way. As educator Jennifer VanDommelen shared via Twitter, “face-to-face or online, there needs to be a good reason to gather. Information delivery is not enough.”

While the capabilities and functions available vary depending on the platform used to meet synchronously, there are a few guidelines for creating a meaningful experience.

Establish social presence.

In a case study presented in Learning Solutions Magazine, one of the successful outcomes of a synchronous learning initiative was “promoting a social presence.” Among the activities that helped to accomplish this: “a visual roster with … a map where learners can mark their location” and “short ice-breaker type activities based on course content … supported team building … and learner engagement and collaboration.” In a 2012 study of graduate students experiencing online synchronous meetings in their courses at the University of Northern Colorado, they reported “being able to hear the instructor’s voice gave a little bit of a human element in an online course.”

Facilitate small groups.

Provide time for these teams to work together in the virtual meeting space, to coordinate ongoing projects or work in groups on problems and exercises taking place just during these live meetings. Some systems even allow you to set up breakout rooms for these groups, which you can then visit in turn to answer group specific questions. The Teaching With Technology (TWT) Wiki lists activity instructions for icebreakers, as well as exercises for partner, group, and whole class participation.

Encourage backchannel communication.

As students often do in traditional classrooms, they can help each other out in an online session. Encourage students’ use of the communication tools available to have these (often beneficial) side conversations during a live meeting. The Learning Solutions case study found that having a chat window open during the session “helped with formal and informal interaction. … When a learner had questions regarding a specific topic, another learner could provide a link to an online resource.”

Yield the floor.

Giving a presentation and providing course updates can be helpful in a live session, but don’t be afraid to step away from the microphone and give students a chance to speak. One of Gerstein’s suggestions is to ask them to give project or other progress updates during this time: “I ask the students to review the week’s readings and videos prior to the webinar. The webinar then becomes a time where they share their own thoughts, ideas, and applications. Each student is asked to ‘take the mic’ and webcam. While they are ‘checking in’, I propose questions in the live chat and find additional resources to share based on what they are saying.”

Manage challenges.

Consider the learning curve for the technology, too, for both yourself and your students. The options are open and continue to expand, ranging from school-supported systems like Collaborate to online tools with free account registration like Skype. Find out what tech support is available to assist in your initial sessions and provide training or “how to” instructions prior to launching your first meeting.

Set expectations.

When I asked the Twitterverse for input about planning synchronous sessions, Eric Clark, an experienced college instructor and tutor, quickly suggested that student and institutional perceptions are often problematic. Clark explained that “the online learning experience is not supposed to be an isolated one. Expectations must be communicated to ensure students participate in synchronous learning.” Make synchronous participation requirements available to students before they enroll – on the syllabus, in the course description, or as part of registration information provided by your school.

I do realize that not all online instructors have the authority to modify the pedagogical approach to their courses, or even to engage with their students using technology outside of the school’s learning management system. If you find yourself in this situation, explore what is available and start a conversation with your program: propose a pilot test, share how you would implement the technology and what benefits you expect for you and your students.

Finding Opportunities for Improvement

This can all get a little overwhelming, and making substantial changes to an online course can be a complex and time-consuming process. Gerstein’s presentation included advice to “think of something you do well now, and one way you could flip it,” giving us all a manageable place to start.

So, while I am still not sure how I will change my online course in the fall, here are a few of my ideas to make the most of the four real-time events already on the calendar:

  • Move the class discussion for the weeks in which the live sessions are scheduled from the threaded forum to the Collaborate platform, and post video of my concept overview (which is pretty consistent every semester) to be viewed asynchronously before the meeting.
  • Provide guidance on participating in a Twitter backchannel with our class hashtag during one of the live sessions. This would also enhance my use of Twitter in the course and provide another opportunity for students to practice communicating with each other via their accounts.
  • Include project updates in additional sessions. This course is primarily project-based with a large team effort over the second half of the term. I currently require informal project updates in the last live meeting, but asking students to share their experiences earlier in the term may have benefits.

Making course changes on-the-fly is risky. Take some notes, explore more examples of webinar and live classroom activities, and make your decisions in advance. Then try them out with the understanding that you will likely need to tweak your approach again in the future. Ask your students for feedback on what worked and what didn’t from their perspective.

Are you using synchronous sessions for active learning in your online courses? Share your favorite resources and techniques with us here.

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May 24th, 2013 written by (learn more about our authors)

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