Editor’s Note: Computer technologies have the ability to emulate almost any environment. It is not surprising that for distance learning we simulate the familiar aspects of the classroom for presentations and discussions. Of course, the computer can enhance what we do in regular classrooms by adding additional communication channels (chat and video) and the ability to download files, share screens and keyboard controls, and access other internet resources. What used to require an expensive studio and team of technicians can now be accomplished from your home or office computer.
Challenges in Synchronous Virtual Classrooms
Undergraduate and Graduate courses
Summer I and II 2010
The purpose of this research is to determine why so few faculty members at the university use synchronous tools, specifically Horizon Wimba (Wimba) to teach their online classes. Specifically, this study answers the following questions.
1. What are the main reasons why faculty do not use synchronous tools?
2. Would the faculty be willing to adopt synchronous tools in the future?
A survey was distributed to all instructors who taught online in the Spring 2010 or Summer I and II 2010 semesters at this university. Using Survey Monkey, a web-based survey application, participants were asked questions regarding their attitude towards and experience with synchronous tools. The survey was sent through the universities’ email system as a link. Survey Monkey’s simple template and immediate reporting allowed for immediate feedback and prompt analysis of the survey results.
The participants who responded to the survey were from various disciplines at this southeastern university, including but not limited to chemistry, physics, sociology, criminology, anthropology, communications, environmental studies, and foreign languages. The respondents were all instructors who taught an online class in either the Spring 2010 or Summer I and II 2010 semesters. The participants were selected based on a list generated by the registrar’s office. The participants had varying degrees of online teaching experience; while some instructors only taught one online course, there were 10 respondents who indicated they taught three or more online courses in their disciplines. Of the 149 professors surveyed a total of 53 responded (35% response rate) to the questionnaire.
A total of 39 responses were received to the question on the survey which focused on why faculty do not use synchronous tools.
Upon completion of the analysis it is evident that there are several reasons as to why faculty are reluctant to use synchronous tools in their online courses. However, survey results demonstrate overwhelmingly that professors do not use it mainly because of its lack of flexibility. When asked why they did not use synchronous tools in their online instruction, out of the 39 individuals who responded to the question, 19 indicated that they did not use Wimba, because they believe students prefer asynchronous online classes. The professors stated that the reason students sign up for an online course is because they have jobs and family obligations and they like choosing when and where they complete their work. In addition, some students live in different time zones and some students are service members who are on deployment overseas, so participating in a synchronous class would be impossible for many students.
# of respondents
Lack of flexibility for the student. The instructor believes that students prefer asynchronous courses to synchronous courses, because they want to learn when and where they choose.
Instructors’ lack of knowledge in how to use the tool and frustration with the complexity and time commitment in learning how to use it.
Believes that synchronous classes are not necessary to teach the required content.
The instructor has a personal preference for teaching online courses asynchronously.
Technology issues for both students and instructors.
The second reason professors identified that they are not using synchronous tools is because they are not comfortable with the technology and feel that they lack the necessary training to conduct synchronous classes. Wimba is integrated into the Blackboard system and requires all participants to have at least a microphone/headset, but preferably a webcam, as well. Instructors expressed frustration in not only learning how to use the tools, but also in managing a class discussion synchronously. They also question whether or not their students are comfortable using the technology themselves. Some feel that synchronous interaction hinders communication and makes discussions less compelling. Furthermore, they feel that students are more comfortable with asynchronous methods, because they are used to communicating in social networking environments such as Face Book.
The third reason instructors indicated that they did not use synchronous tools is because they felt that synchronous meetings were not necessary to teach the required content of their courses.
The survey results also revealed that there is no motivation or incentive for professors to use synchronous tools or to take the time to learn to use them. However, instructors feel most encouraged by their colleagues, their department leaders, and the Office of e-Learning, to use synchronous tools. Some professors feel that there are more important professional matters that need immediate attention. For example, one professor said: “If it doesn't count for RPT, it doesn't exist. I'm hearing in my RPT committee work that only research publications matter now.”
There was another question on the survey that focused on the respondents’ willingness to use Wimba for synchronous classes in the future if they were not currently doing so. A total of 20 respondents answered the question. The main reason instructors are reluctant to adopt synchronous tools, such as Wimba, in the future is due to their own lack of knowledge in how to use the tool and in how to use the tool effectively in their classroom.
Willingness to use synchronous tools.
Upon completion of the analysis, instructors indicated that they are not willing to adopt Wimba as a synchronous tool, because they feel that they lack the overall knowledge not only to use the tool, but also to use the tool effectively in an online course. The tool is viewed as being difficult to learn and difficult to use on a regular basis, presenting technology issues for both students and instructors. The second reason instructors indicated that they were not willing to adopt the tool was because they felt that with other responsibilities there was simply not enough time to learn how to use a new technology tool. Lesson planning, publications, service, and committee work were cited as higher priorities.
There were three main reasons why instructors at this southeastern university do not use synchronous tools, such as Wimba, in their online courses: synchronous meetings lack the flexibility that attracts students who want to attend class on their own time; instructors lack the skills and knowledge to use synchronous tools; and synchronous meetings are not necessary in order to teach the content required in the course.
The lack of flexibility is the most difficult of the three causes to address with interventions. Online instructors who choose to teach synchronously will experience a decrease of flexibility in their schedules. However, assuming that there are instructors who have schedules that would accommodate this situation, there are interventions that could increase the number of instructors who use synchronous tools to deliver their online classes.
Instructors’ attitude and aptitude towards technology and synchronous teaching have an impact on whether they chose to teach synchronously and therefore should be considered in the application process and included in the job description and specification. The Office of e-Learning should have an integral hand in staffing the right instructors for the job, keeping in mind the lack of flexibility that they will face.
To increase their ability to address the performance gap, the Office of e-Learning will need to document and preserve data in regards to online instructors, their use of synchronous tools, and the impact that synchronous teaching has on learning. This information will be valuable when trying to inform and persuade instructors that synchronous tools, such as Wimba, are worth the extra time constraints.
Some instructors are not using synchronous tools because they do not know how or because they are intimidated by the cumbersome technical issues that may arise. The Office of e-Learning can empower instructors to use synchronous tools through activities such as: interactive training, collaboration, scheduled practice, job-aids, and suggestions.
A significant amount of online instructors have reported attending training on Wimba but still feel uncomfortable using the tool. It is essential that instructors attend training for Wimba that is interactive, just-in-time, and supplemented by electronic or print job-aids. The Office of e-Learning should continue to encourage continuous growth and development for instructors and should require that instructors follow up training with feedback and suggestions.
To maximize the impact that the Office of e-Learning has on novice users, they should encourage the sharing of knowledge amongst instructors and across departments. The Office of e-Learning can look to the School of Nursing and the School of Education for expert Wimba users and utilize their expertise. Creating a network of experts and learners will increase the amount of instructors that use synchronous tools.
The third reason instructors indicated that they did not use synchronous tools is because they felt that synchronous meetings were not necessary to teach the required content of their courses. Depending on the various subjects that the instructors taught, some instructors thought that synchronous meetings were not needed for their particular subject area.
There are three main reasons why instructor’s indicated that they are not willing to adopt Wimba as a synchronous tool.
The first reason is because they feel that they lack the overall knowledge not only to use the tool, but also how to use the tool effectively in an online course. The tool is viewed as being difficult to learn and difficult to use on a regular basis, presenting technology issues for both students and instructors.
Most of these synchronous tools have a number of features which can be beneficial if mastered well. It is challenging at times for instructors to learn all the different features of the tool so that it can be used successfully in their courses.
The second reason instructors indicated that they were not willing to adopt the tool was because they felt that with other responsibilities there was simply not enough time to learn how to use a new technology tool, especially one that is already perceived as being difficult and complex. Lesson planning, publications, service, and committee work were cited as higher priorities.
Faculty are on a busy schedule all through the year, and taking time from teaching, research or service is not possible. They need to somehow make time in order to learn to use the tool successfully. If the department or the university offers incentives for them to learn the tool, that might be a motivation for them to make the required time.
The third reason instructors indicated that they were reluctant to adopt Wimba in the future is because they believe that asynchronous online learning is more preferable to students because of its flexibility.
In the case of synchronous tools, online instructors may need additional encouragement and motivation in order to adopt synchronous tools such as Wimba. Instructors can be energized and guided by mentoring, coaching, and incentives. Getting department leaders and expert Wimba users involved in the performance improvement will increase the impact and scope of the desired performance improvement. Through mentoring programs or coaching sessions, instructors will have the advice, knowledge, and support needed to confidently conquer synchronous tools. Leaders outside of the Office of e-Learning department will be a useful resource and an undeniable asset during implementation. Creating a social network of Wimba users on campus will foster an environment of collaborative learning and information sharing.
In order to enable professors to effectively teach synchronous online courses, it is important to have open communication between the professors and the Office of e-Learning to show there is support within the university that can be utilized to develop synchronous online classes. By including the professors in the implementation process, they will have a voice in the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions regarding synchronous learning. It will also form an inter-university network of professionals who all understand the shared goals of the Office of e-Learning and the university related to synchronous learning.
In addition to communication, there should be adequate employee development available to the professors who teach synchronous classes. Some examples of these would include training (possibly in addition to the training already available), job aids, tutorials on the Office of e-Learning webpage, mentoring and coaching. By communicating that there are several resources to help with synchronous classes, more professors may follow in the footsteps of 21st Century learners and utilize the phenomenal resources that are available to them.
Lastly, it is important for Office of e-Learning to establish clearly defined and understandable policies, procedures, and guidelines for online instruction with regards to synchronous tools. This will prevent any need for interpretation as to who should be conducting synchronous online classes and how these classes should be developed. The Office of e-Learning needs to complete their website with all of the necessary forms and instructions needed in order to have the developed synchronous online course reviewed and approved by the appropriate committee. By making this process easier and more understandable, more professors may see the appeal to teaching their courses synchronously.
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Florence Martin is at the Watson school of Education, University of North Carolina, Wilmington, NC.