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Real-time Solutions for Online Learning: Using Synchronous Communication Tools for Right-now Learning


By Rebecca Lawson, Professor
Information Technology Department
Lansing Community College

Today’s students are comfortable with the use of web-based communication tools, such as email and instant messaging, to build social connections. According to the Pew Internet Project 2004, 59% of young Internet users (ages 18-29) are likely to use instant messaging while 91% use email. Nearly 84% of Internet users belong to some kind of online community. More than half of all Internet users feel that the Internet has greatly improved communication with their friends and family.

We have begun to leverage the students’ comfort level with synchronous communication tools to foster collaboration in online learning environments. Lansing Community College (MI) serves nearly 40,000 students annually on its mid-Michigan campus and beyond. As the home of the state’s first entirely online degree program, many of our students reside outside of our six-county district. As part of the “e-Army U” program, we provide online educational opportunities for active-duty military personnel stationed around the world. In addition, we take part along with 25 other community colleges in the Michigan Community College Virtual Learning Collaborative (MCCVLC) serving students anywhere in the state.

Yet despite the ability to transcend the factor of place while seeking educational opportunities, many online students feel they must learn in isolation. The depth of the students’ learning is hampered by the lack of timely interaction with other students. LCC educators have begun the construction of activities to support collaboration and build community among online learners. Although our initial online course offerings at LCC during the fall 1997 semester was likely founded amid a very text-heavy virtual environment, the flow of learning and the thought development process may now become more akin to the face-to-face classroom learning experience.

Email remains the most commonly used communication tool on the Internet and it plays a big role in many online courses. However, it may not be the best choice for collaboration and learning support. You have no way of knowing if or when the email is received, read and understood. There are several steps involved when reading and responding to emails. All of these concerns slow down the learning process. Synchronous communication tools such as instant messaging and chat provide a great improvement over email because of the capability for providing immediate responses.

Several instant messaging programs are available for free download. The development of unifying utilities encourages communication between users regardless of their preferred IM program by allowing the sharing of names from individual contact lists with one common contact interface. Most IM programs offer several features that can be used to enhance the online learning environment. These features include chat, file sharing and the integration of web links, images and sound.

But it d'esn’t stop there. Not only is it possible to use chat in the online classroom, it is a wonderful tool for providing research help. The librarians at LCC are piloting a program designed to offer virtual reference desk hours via chat. As part of a consortium with 17 other Michigan colleges, students find help with how to formulate research questions and how to access electronic databases and articles. Any librarian from any of the colleges can help any student from any of the participating colleges. The hours of availability are aligned with times when students are most likely to be studying and not with the library building hours of operation. Students are clearly benefiting from this unique service.

Office hours for many LCC instructors occur on a regularly scheduled online basis or anytime these instructors are at the computer using IM or chat. This affords students the opportunity to receive speedy responses to questions about their homework as they arise. From the instructor’s side, chat and instant messaging may appear as a time intensive venture. However, the efficiency of delivering individualized instruction becomes greatly improved by the development of an FAQ file. Over time, instructors begin to recognize that the same or a very similar set of questions are repeatedly asked. The use of an FAQ file allows for the cut and paste of answers into the IM or chat textbox with only small modifications needed to create customized responses.

Many students use instant messaging or chat for the planning of group projects. Students feel comfortable with these tools for social interaction so using it for project planning with classmates is a natural progression. The main drawback is keeping everyone from getting sidetracked by the flood of statements that appear quickly on the screen. Because chat and IM conversations are displayed as they are typed, students move simultaneously from thought to thought creating the potential for never reaching a conclusion on the main point of discussion.

At Lansing Community College, we’ve taken the first step toward helping our students learn to use synchronous communication tools for education by asking our students to add our names to their contact lists. Chat and instant messaging enable us to deepen the connection between student and instructor while promoting spontaneous learning experiences. We encourage a stronger connection among classmates and set the stage for powerful peer interaction and learning support. While we are still able to accommodate the factor of place so prominent in online environments, we now have a way to bridge any barrier that time may impose on collaboration. The direct application of real-time tools in the online environment provides the opportunity for right-now learning.

Rebecca Lawson, Professor, Information Technology Department Lansing Community College, ([email protected]) will be presenting on this topic at the July 2005 Syllabus Conference in Los Angeles.

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