Increasing Interaction in Web-based Instruction: Using Synchronous Chats and Asynchronous Discussions

Increasing Interaction in Web-based Instruction: Using Synchronous Chats and Asynchronous Discussions

Hines, Rebecca A


Incorporating four levels of interaction characteristic of effective course design are possible in online coursework. These levels, including (a) interaction with the content, (b) interaction with the instructor, (c) interaction with classmates; and (d) interaction with self (Lynch, 2002) are critical to effective instruction and difficult to replicate in an online format. The need for students to be involved in the process of activities such as “discussing issues” may pose a significant challenge. Techniques and strategies to manage and maximize the use of synchronous chats and asynchronous discussions are described.

Geographic location creates a gap in service to educators in rural school districts. Many of these districts are frequently the very ones that have the highest percentages of special education teachers out of field. However, when Williams, Martin, and Hess (2002) surveyed 166 ACRES members, they found that, despite the fact that institutions of higher education in rural areas were experiencing difficulties with recruitment of special education teachers because of distance from campus, only 40% of those surveyed indicated using distance learning strategies. Williams et al. concluded that IHEs must “maximize the utilization of distance education techniques” (p.10).

Ideally, online learning communities should make it possible for learners to connect with people in a variety of geographic locations, eliminating many of the barriers imposed by physical limitations. Institutions of higher education are recognizing a need for high quality online instruction. Web-based instruction (WBI) is growing at a rapid pace in universities across the country (Carr, 2000; Charp, 2002). Lynch (2002) cautioned, “Much of this storm of development has been undertaken in haste, without expert preparation or knowledge of the process” (p. 1). Numerous examples of “bad” e-learning highlight the limited abilities of educators to employ available technologies in the development and implementation of effective web-based instruction (Ludlow, 2001; Eudlow & Duff, 1998). Such examples raise concerns regarding the integrity of teacher preparation curriculum.

According to Dede and Kremer (1999), “Historically, learning across distance has often been limited by low affective/social stimulation and purely presentational pedagogy, seen as intrinsically interior to face-to-face teaching” (p. 4). Foremost among concerns with WBI is the isolation experienced by the distance learner (Abbey, 2000; Beard & Harper, 2002; Charp, 2002; Lynch, 2002). According to Vygotsky’s social development theory, learning does not occur in isolation. Individuals socially negotiate meaning by interacting with one another in social situations (Jaramillo, 1996). Research revealing that high dropout rates are associated with courses with little interaction (Charp, 2002) supports Vygotsky’s theory.

Supporters of WBI challenge the assumption that cognitive, social, and emotional isolation are an inherent result of the physical isolation of the distance learner. When isolation is experienced, it is most often the result of poor course design (Abbey, 2000; Lynch, 2002). According to Harrasim’s 1997 study (as cited in Lynch, 2002), course designers and instructors often fail to make use of the internet tools available to provide information and increase interactivity. Successful web-based instructors assume the role of tutor/facilitator successfully moderating e-learning communities, facilitating online discussion, and integrating rapidly emerging technologies into elearning environments (Hart, 2001).

Dede and Kremer (1999) conducted a study to examine student preference patterns for six media including, face-to-face interaction, videoconferencing, synchronous interactions in a text-based virtual world, “groupware” that incorporated a shared design-space, threaded discussions, and wcbsites structured around an ongoing interaction or experience. Findings indicated that students exhibited very different patterns and supported a balanced use of both synchronous and asynchronous experiences. Asynchronous medium provided “richer, more inclusive types of interchange” (p. 4), but they also required more time and provided less social interaction than classroom or virtual synchronous settings. While synchronous tools require immediate response, they have the advantages of providing a greater sense of presence and generating spontaneity (Inglis, Ling, & Joosten, 1999). As instructors develop online teaching styles, each is likely to favor certain techniques (Meyen & Lian, 1997). It is important to understand which of these techniques are truly responsive to the diverse needs of the e-learners in varied virtual communities. Ludlow and Duff (1998) noted, “All of the various technologies present opportunities and constraints that educators must understand. At issue is not which technology is better, but how each technology is best used for specific goals” (p.3).

In the article, “Socrates at the Terminal,” Weinstein (1997) conjures up the image of the ancient master teacher who engaged both heads and hearts with his “provocative queries” (p.1) and challenges educators to consider, “when all talk of speed and bandwidth, the miracles of long-distance electronic learning and intranets, begins to dissolve into a weak hum, think of how the Socratic form of education can be technologically recast” (p.3). The online course described sought to do just that through extensive use of both synchronous and asynchronous tools.

Synchronous Chatt Structure

The requirement that students be involved in the process of “discussing issues” posed the most significant challenge to the course designer and instructor of the online Critical Issues in Special Education course used in this example. Key components of the course included synchronous chats, asynchronous discussions, weekly reading activities and article reviews, “guest speakers”, and a final essay exam.

Students were expected to log in at a designated time for five out of ten real time chats scheduled throughout the twelve-week summer course. The intent was to create an opportunity for more Socratic discussions than are typically offered in the asynchronous format. Socratic questioning fosters critical thinking, evaluation, and knowledge application. Richard Paul (1995) developed a taxonomy of Socratic questions including questions that probe reasons and evidence, questions of clarification, questions that probe assumptions, questions about viewpoints or perspectives, questions that probe implications and consequences, and questions about the question. Students were allowed opportunities to respond directly to probing questions, and student responses drove the nature of further discussion. It had been the experience of the instructor that this element is difficult to replicate in asynchronous chats, and opportunities for spirited discussion seemed particularly important to an issues course.

Synchronous Challenges

Live chats pose a number of problems for both instructors and students. Students often sign up for on-line courses because they prefer the flexibility to set their own schedule, whereas real time chats require that students sit down in front of their computers on a specific day, at a specific time. Allowing students to choose which chats to attend only partially addresses this concern. Also paramount are concerns with discussion management. Flexibility and new thinking about how to conduct the chats is critical.

Chat Protocol

The following protocol was posted on the course website for students to follow while participating in class chats:

1. If you have a question, do not type the question and send it! This causes chaos as we all begin answering/asking questions and is confusing for the reader. Instead, if you have a question just type a question mark (?) and send.

2. Since this is an issues course and I encourage debate, we’ll use an exclamation point (!) to signal that you want to make a point.

3. Your name will appear on the screen with a question mark or exclamation point, and I will “call” on you. This will help keep a little order.

4. Please do not make extraneous comments when others are “speaking”. Again, it gets really confusing. Use the ? or! system.

5. Do not wait to hit return until you have typed your complete question or point. Instead type four or five words and then hit return.

6. Save questions that are not related to the topic until after the official chat. At that time, other students will have the opportunity to sign off and I will remain online to answer individual student questions.

A protocol practice session was scheduled. Students were able to ask general questions about the course while they practiced using the protocol. In order to manage the coherency of the discussion throughout the chats, the instructor noted the names of students as they posted a ? or a! and called on students from that list. With occasional lapses, the majority of students adhered to the protocol in the chats that followed.

After two chats, the protocol was extended to include a “whole group question” strategy. This gave all students the opportunity to jump in with a one-line response. The instructor cued the group that everyone was to respond by posing a question without calling on a specific student. This format helped to break up the participation wait time, kept the screen “moving,” allowed students to view a wide variety of responses from classmates, and encouraged those who were reluctant to participate. The instructor had the opportunity to determine how students were thinking on particular topics. The whole group question strategy was used for simple yes/no, agree/disagree opinion questions and it also allowed more Socratic questioning about each topic.

(Twenty students responded to this question. Responses were reduced for the purpose of publication).

After reading all responses, which were posted within seconds, the instructor could elaborate, summarize, or narrow down to a specific question and return to the protocol format for individual student responses.

Guest Speakers

Another use of the synchronous chats was the inclusion of guest speakers for the course. On two occasions, outside experts joined the chat. The guests were provided with a login and password prior to the class chat and encouraged to attempt logging in to the website the day before the chat to ensure technical difficulties had been resolved.

The format for guest speakers included the general class protocol and an explanation to all participants that the chat would begin with a question/answer session between the instructor and the guest after which, students would be invited to participate. In addition, students had been given the opportunity to email questions to the instructor in advance of the chat to ensure that all questions might be answered.

One guest speaker participated in an asynchronous discussion regarding the state of special education in California. The instructor initiated the discussion by posting a question to which the guest responded. Students then posted questions, and the speaker replied later in the week. In comparing the synchronous and asynchronous guest speaker formats, it should be noted the asynchronous format was much more time consuming for the guest since it required repeated log-ins to respond to individual student postings whereas the synchronous format required only one hour of online time.

Asynchronous Discussions

For each of the 10 issues explored in the course, students were asked to take a pro/con stance with a brief defense of their respective positions. Topics were posted to the course discussion section, an asynchronous communication tool, each week. The instructor did not respond to the asynchronous chats, but tabulated and reported class opinions for each topic. The results of the class opinions were posted on the website each week as illustrated in Figure 1.

Update on Issue 2: Are Minority Students Over-represented in Special Education?

Final Thoughts

Goldberg (2002), founder of WebCT, questioned the usefulness of synchronous chats in the learning environment and proclaimed his bias toward, and “almost exclusive use of asynchronous communication tools”(p.1) in electronic course offerings. However, instructor preference for asynchronous tools may not necessarily match student preferences as indicated by student responses in this course. Though students may not have time to carefully consider and prepare responses, the immediacy of the synchronous exchange stimulates overall interaction.

According to Lynch (2002), the first foundational rule of web-based instruction states, “We must push beyond our comfort zones” (p. 3). It has been demonstrated that forty-four people in forty-four different locations can participate in a stimulating and coherent discussion on a given topic. It is hoped that online instructors who have not explored the possibilities of synchronous tools will be prompted to consider going live.


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Rebecca A. Hines and Cynthia E. Pearl

University of Central Florida

Contact Information:

Rebecca A. Hines

University of Central Florida

1200 International Speedway Blvd.

Daytona, Beach, Florida 32114

(386) 254-4428

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