Editor’s Note: Increasing availability of broadband web connections is leading to increased use of video such as YouTube, Skype, and a wide variety of video-conferencing systems. Commercial systems include GoToMeeting, while educators are using software such as Wimba and Video Connect. Although these systems were initially designed for group instruction, they are valuable tools for recruiting, interviews, tutoring, counseling, and team planning.
Using Web Conferencing and the Socratic Method to Facilitate Distance Learning
Jan P. Tucker, Patricia W. Neely
The Socratic Method of teaching encourages instructors to engage students in dialogue which challenges students to participate in active learning. The goal of this teaching method is to encourage student efforts to become critical thinkers and problem solvers. The Socratic method of teaching is often promoted in the traditional college classroom but distance education instructors may find it challenging to institute in an online environment. This paper evaluates the effectiveness of using web conferencing technology such as the Adobe Connect meeting platform to support the Socratic Method of teaching in an online environment. A pilot group of students who were unsuccessful in passing a business assessment in an online, asynchronous environment were given the opportunity to participate in a series of web conferences. The students were interviewed after their participation in the synchronous sessions to gather their opinion on the effectiveness of the sessions in helping them gain understanding of the concepts presented.
Keywords: Socratic Method, distance learning, teaching methods, web conferencing, active learning, online education, online classroom, business management
Teaching methods in higher education often emphasize active learning in an effort to create meaningful experiences that can be transcended beyond the classroom. Business schools often rely on the case study approach in an effort to prepare students for the work environment. Research has demonstrated that the case study approach allows students to apply their classroom learning to their work environment (Hargreaves, 2008; Kunselman & Johnson, 2004). Collaborating with, debating and even challenging classmates can lead to a lively discussion in the classroom and lends itself well to the traditional, in seat classroom experience. Encouraging this same type of active learning in the online classroom can be challenging. Over 80% of higher education institutions offering online courses expect an increase in the number of online enrollments for the foreseeable future (Allen & Seaman, 2008). This paper presents a case study that examines how web conferencing was used to facilitate active learning of undergraduate students on business management topics. The case study was conducted at a medium size (approximately 13,000 students) online institution. The authors review the success of employing the Socratic Method of teaching with technology (namely Adobe Connect) to promote active learning in the online classroom.
In the spring of 2009, college of business administrators identified a continuing problem with the pass rates for the business management objective assessment. The multiple choice exam, the final assessment in the business management major, covered content in organizational behavior, innovation and change, decision making, quality management, strategic management, and operations management. The course was self-directed and allowed students to progress through the course material at their own pace. The course material consisted of five text books, a detailed syllabus which outlined the suggested course of study and practice assignments. Once the student felt they had gained the competencies required to pass the exam, the student scheduled the exam. The exam was pass/fail based on a pre-determined cut off score statistically calculated by the University’s assessment department. A passing score on the exam indicated the student demonstrated competency in these topics. Study material was made available through a series of self-paced modules, practice exams and via an online community for students which was facilitated by a subject matter expert on the topics covered on this exam. A regular analysis of exam pass rates revealed extremely low rates as compared to other exams with similar levels of difficulty and with similar learning resources available to prepare students for the exam. The inability to pass the assessment was delaying graduation for a number of students who had attempted the exam several times with little success.
In order to identify issues with student success, the first step in the process was to analyze section scores for the objective assessment and to develop a list of learning objectives that seemed to be problematic for students. Faculty members supporting students in preparing for this assessment as well as students who had attempted the exam several times were surveyed and asked to list concepts or learning objectives they found most problematic on this exam.
The data gathered from research into the cause of poor pass rates indicated three distinct hurdles for students. First, the sheer volume of content covered on the objective assessment was excessive. The learning objectives for this exam corresponded to four distinct courses in a traditional undergraduate business program. Second, the more complex concepts were difficult for students to master in a self-directed learning environment. Students also indicated that isolation contributed to the difficulty in mastering the concepts. The distance learning process is often associated with isolation and alienation as the social interactions which are present for traditional students are often lacking in online courses (Chou, 1994; Healy 2009). Third, many students lacked real life experience with the concepts being studied making it difficult for them to place the theories into a meaningful context.
The college of business administrators developed a plan for addressing the hurdles faced by students. The first hurdle, the breadth of material on the assessment, was addressed by developing a plan for splitting the exam into two separate assessments which would allow students to focus on specific topics rather than a range of topics. Due to the complexities of changing the assessment, this change took several months to implement. The second and third hurdles were addressed by planning synchronous web conferences to provide opportunities for students to interact around a set of pre-determined questions. The faculty members supporting the synchronous workshops designed a set of examples for each of the concepts to provide for student discussion.
Adobe Connect was selected as the web conferencing software for the workshops. Adobe Connect was selected as it was a tool that was readily available within the university’s computer resources and faculty had some limited experience using the tool for faculty meetings and training sessions. Adobe Connect would allow student-to-student interaction as well as student-faculty interaction.
This case study examines the effectiveness of using web conferencing as a method for supporting the Socratic Method. The research questions examined include:
The Socratic Method
The Socratic Method of teaching involves asking questions in an effort to challenge common assumptions, beliefs and ideas (Pang, 2008). The Socratic Method is often used to promote critical thinking skills in students of all ages. The idea is to create an inclusive classroom environment where students feel comfortable debating and participating in dialogue in order to discover a greater understanding of the material presented in the class. The traditional classroom, where students and instructors are in a face to face environment, lends itself well to the Socratic Method. The instructor can break the class into teams and have them prepare and present their ideas on various concepts. Mock trials, case studies, scenarios and debates are used to promote critical examination of specific topics in an in seat college class. Employing these same teaching methods in an online environment presents many challenges. Can instructors facilitate critical thinking and complex arguments in an online environment?
The Socratic Method, by its very nature, places the instructor in a subordinate role versus a leader role (Maxwell, 2009). The instructor employing this method of teaching starts by asking questions in an effort to elicit responses from students and then follows up on the student responses with additional questions. The idea is that by participating in the active sharing of dialogue, students can develop and refine their critical thinking and problem solving skills. Technology can assist the instructor in successfully implementing this model in an online environment.
Several technologies exist to assist the college instructor in facilitating interactive classroom learning. The web conferencing software, Adobe Acrobat Connect, is one method which allows real-time interactive meetings or seminars and was the software utilized in this case study. Web and video conferencing are becoming popular methods of supporting learning in online higher education (Reushle & Loch, 2008). Adobe Connect was chosen for this trial because it is web based, supports multi-media presentations, and students can connect using a web browser and Adobe Flash Player Runtime which most students already have installed on their personal computers. Adobe Connect also supports both video and audio conferencing tools and has a chat function.
E-mail invitations to the sessions were sent to 41 at-risk students. The at-risk students were identified by analyzing previous scores on the business management objective assessment. Of the 41 students identified as at-risk, 18 students were considered high risk having failed the business management objective assessment multiple times. Students who had been unsuccessful in passing the assessment in the previous six months were contacted via email and telephone by the lead faculty member and invited to participate in the Adobe Connect sessions. The students’ academic advisors were also contacted and asked to encourage students to attend. The students and advisors were told that the facilitator would be reviewing the concepts that students often find difficult on the exam. As the course is asynchronous and self-paced, the synchronous chat sessions were not required but those struggling with the concepts were strongly encouraged to attend as many were facing financial aid suspension due to poor performance.
One week prior to each session, reading material on the concept to be discussed was forwarded to students via an e-mail attachment. General announcements concerning the sessions were posted prior to each session in the student learning community. An open invitation was issued to business management students who would like to attend the sessions. The lead faculty member developed a PowerPoint presentation with a series of questions to get the discussions started.
Eight, 90-minute synchronous sessions were scheduled in the evenings to accommodate students in multiple time zones. Each of the eight sessions had a specific agenda covering specific topics covered on the exam. The topics to be covered in each session were made available to the students at least one week in advance via email and posted as an announcement in the course community. All sessions were archived immediately after the live session and were housed for three months in the course community. Students could view and download the archived sessions at any time after the conclusion of the live session. Two faculty members acted as facilitators. The dean observed the sessions and provided coaching and feedback to improve student support. Both facilitators were on camera during the sessions and shared control of the desktop being viewed by students. Students logged into the web conference to view the PowerPoint presentation and were able to interact via the instant messaging feature in Adobe Connect. The audio portion of the conference was conducted using a phone conferencing bridge. Table 1 represents the sessions offered and the numbers of students in attendance.
Session Titles and Attendance
Ground rules were established at the beginning of each web conferencing session. The rules were reviewed by the facilitator at the beginning of the session. These rules were reviewed at the beginning of every session as new students participated in each session. Table 2 presents the group rules for the sessions.
Lessons Learned from Adobe Acrobat Connect Sessions
During the Adobe Acrobat Connect Sessions, the two workshop facilitators and the dean gathered data on what worked, what did not work and how to construct sessions that were more effective for students. Student feedback was solicited in the form of student interviews. The interviews were conducted by one of the session facilitators. Students were asked to respond to 16 questions about their experiences with the Adobe Connect sessions (see Table 3). Six of the questions addressed the technical aspects of workshop delivery including using Adobe Connect web conferencing and phone conferencing.
Ground rules for the Adobe Acrobat Connect Sessions
What action did you find most affirming during the discussion?
What confused you most about the session
What surprised you the most about the session?
How many of the eight sessions did you attend? If less than eight sessions, why did you miss the sessions?
Was the scheduled days and times for the sessions convenient for you? If not, what days and times would work better
Did you experience any technical issues with accessing the phone conference or the Adobe Connect sessions?
Did you have any problems viewing the PowerPoint slides for the sessions?
Do you have suggestions of ways that we can improve the technical aspects of the sessions?
Did the reading material or learning resources provided prior to the workshop help you gain understanding of the topic?
Were the objectives of the discussion clear?
Was the class organized in a way that facilitated you understanding the material?
Did you find the polls helpful?
Do you feel that you have a better mastery of the competencies at the end of the discussion?
Which sessions did you find most helpful in mastering the business management competencies?
Which sessions were least helpful in mastering the business management competencies?
What can we do to improve the sessions?
Data from faculty observations were gathered during the sessions and reviewed during weekly planning and debriefing phone conferences. This information was also aggregated into a report at the end of the sessions. Student responses to polling questions were compiled and a number of lessons learned were gleaned from this process. Lessons learned about how to effectively use Adobe Acrobat Connect as a tool for active learning are discussed in the following paragraphs.
The first lesson learned was that online students could access the Adobe Acrobat Connect web conference quickly and with little technical trouble. Several students commented on the ease of use of Adobe Acrobat Connect. One student commented, “the Adobe Connect environment is very user friendly, easy to understand, follow and participate in.” Students accessed the web conferences using a web link provided in the e-mail invitation to the session. Student responses to an end of program survey indicated that the students found the web conferences easy to access.
An unexpected plus in the Adobe Connect web conferencing software was the ability to poll students during the workshop. The polls were developed by the lead faculty member and were used to evaluate student understanding of concepts being discussed. One lesson learned is that polling is an effective real-time assessment tool for faculty. The polls were used to evaluate student comprehension of concepts addressed during the discussion. Faculty facilitators were able to expand on concepts, ask leading questions, and to provide examples when polls indicated that students had not mastered the concepts being discussed. Polls were also used to evaluate student perceptions of the workshop. An end-of-session poll was administered to gather student feedback on the effectiveness of the session. The facilitators determined that more polls should be included in future workshops to assess student understanding of concepts presented.
A third lesson learned is that visual slides need to be used at the beginning of each session to orient students who are participating in the session. In planning the sessions, it was assumed that the same students would participate in each of the sessions, but the students participating varied by topic. Students needed a basic orientation to the Socratic Method used in the workshops and instruction on how to use polling and messaging within Adobe Acrobat Connect at the beginning of each session.
The PowerPoint presentations were effective in getting the student discussion started on each topic. The PowerPoint slides often contained too much information. One lesson learned was to reduce the amount of text on each slide. Slides which contained too much text were difficult to read on the computer screen. Also, students were more collaborative and offered more diverse examples when less information was provided in the PowerPoint slide. A fourth lesson learned was that being clear and concise in the design of the questions was important in drawing students into the discussion.
The final lesson learned was that recording of student interaction in Adobe Acrobat Connect does not work if the audio portion of the workshop is supported with phone conferencing. In order to record the audio portion of the conferences, the facilitators and the students need to have microphones on their computers and to interact via the web. The facilitators of the Adobe Connect sessions planned to record the audio portion of the conferences and archive the conferences for student access at a later date. The use of a phone conferencing bridge resulted in no archived audio for the sessions. Archived sessions of the course included the PowerPoint slides and notes taken during the session by one of the facilitators.
Data gathered from student interviews indicated that the student experience using Adobe Connect was positive. The Adobe Connect platform was an effective web conferencing tool that online students could master in a short period of time. Student comments highlighted the ease of use for the web conferencing program. The only negative feedback received about the student experiences with the sessions was around the lack of archived audio transcripts for students to review at a future time. The technical skills of students participating in the Adobe Connect sessions may not be representative of a typical student population as students in these sessions had several terms of experience in an online learning environment.
Online classroom platforms allow the college instructor to facilitate non-linear learning in a linear (online) environment (Chen, 2002; Yang, Newby, & Bill, 2008). Learning management systems typically use asynchronous discussion boards or forums to allow students and instructors to interact and explore various topics in an asynchronous environment (Hauben, 1996; Sahu, 2008). Many students find the self-directed, pre-defined instruction beneficial in their learning, but others struggle with this self-paced form of instruction. The Adobe Acrobat Connect sessions offered in this case study provided an effective alternative for students to interact and engage in the course material using the Socratic Method. Facilitator feedback indicated that student collaboration and active learning occurred as part of the web conferences. Asynchronous web conferencing tools, like Adobe Connect, provide new opportunities to meet the needs of diverse learners.
As educators continue to look for teaching techniques that are dynamic, interactive and promote critical thinking and problem solving skills, web conferencing techniques such as Adobe Connect are one way to help students share and collaborate their experiences. Although some research has been done on using web conferencing to facilitate student collaboration (Winter & McGhie-Richmond, 2005; Diziol, Walker, Rummel, & Koedinger, 2009), further research on the effectiveness of video conferencing and similar techniques should be employed to determine the value of allowing students to share their learning experiences in a synchronous environment. In addition, further study on the correlations between various learning styles and the effectiveness of this type of learning is also warranted.
Allen, E., & Seaman, J. (2008). Staying the course. Babson Survey Research Group: The Sloan Consortium.
Chen, S. (2002). A cognitive model for non-linear learning in hypermedia programmes. British Journal of Educational Technology, 33(4), 449-460.
Chou, P. (1994). Guide to managing a telecourse/distance learning program. Suisun, California: Learning Resources Association. Retrieved from
Diziol, D., Walker, E., Rummel, N., & Koedinger, K. (2009, December 18). Using intelligent tutor technology to implement adaptive support for student collaboration. Educational Psychology Review, 22(1), 89-102. DOI 10.1007/s10648-009-9116-9
Hargreaves, J. (2008) Risk: The ethics of a creative curriculum. Innovations in Education and Teaching International,45(3), 227-234.
Hauben, R. (1996). Chapter 2. The evolution of USENET: The poor man’s ARPANET. In Netizens, On the history and impact of the Internet. Retrieved from
Healy, A. (2009). Best practices of the knowledge society. Springer Berlin Heidelberg publishing. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-04757-2_6
Kunselman, J., & Johnson, K. (2004). Using the case method to facilitate learning. College Teaching, 52(3), 87.
Maxwell, K.J. (2009). Introduction to the Socratic Method and its effect on critical thinking. Retrieved from the Socratic Method Research Portal http://www.socraticmethod.net/
Pang, K. (2008). Sophist or Socratic Teaching methods in fostering learning in US graduate education. International Journal of Learning, 15(6), 197-201. Retrieved from Education Research Complete database.
Reushle, S. & Loch, B. (2008). Conducting a trial of web conferencing software: Why, how, and perceptions from the coalface. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 9(3), 19-28.
Sahu, C. (2008). An evaluation of selected pedagogical attributes of online discussion boards. In Hello! Where are you in the landscape of educational technology? Proceedings ascilite Melbourne 2008. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/melbourne08/procs/sahu.pdf
Winter, E.C. & McGhie-Richmond, D. (2005). Using computer conferencing and case studies to enable collaboration between expert and novice teachers.21(2), 118-129. Retrieved EBSCO Host database.
Yang, Y.C., Newby, T., & Bill, R. (2008) Facilitating interactions through structured web-based bulletin boards: A quasi-experimental study on promoting learners’ critical thinking skills. Computers & Education, 50(4), 1572-1585.
Jan Tucker has a PhD in Business Management from Northcentral University, an MBA from Florida Institute of Technology and a BA degree from Auburn University. Dr. Tucker has over 20 years experience in higher education in the areas of instruction and curriculum development. In addition, she spent over 10 years as a Human Resources consultant for several Fortune 500 companies. Her research interests include the integration of technology in education and change management processes. She also serves as a peer reviewer for the Academy of Management Learning and Education and is a member of the Management Advisory board for McGraw-Hill, Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, and the American Society for Training and Development. She is currently the the Associate Dean of Business, Argosy University College of Undergraduate Studies and resides in Tampa, Florida with her family.
Patricia Neely has an Ed.D from the University of Virginia, an MBA from Averett University and a BS degree from Radford University. Dr. Patricia Neely joined Kaplan University as an adjunct faculty member in the Master's of Management program in 2009. In March 2010, Dr. Neely accepted the position of Associate Dean for Higher Education. Dr. Neely has a rich background in higher education administration including curriculum design and development, program management and faculty supervision roles. Her work experience includes a number of leadership roles at Western Governors University, Old Dominion University and Bluefield College.