1. 1. Definition

Synchronous learning is a general method of education in which participants are engaged in learning all at precisely the same time, but different place. In lieu of technological innovations, synchronous learning can now also happen online via media such as video conferencing and chat. This is antonymous to asynchronous learning, which occurs in both different places and at different times (see Asynchronous Learning).
Synchronous learning, however, is an educational term used to describe a system of gaining knowledge that is geared towards the convenience of both teachers and students. The teacher or instructor may set up a time frame in which to give an online lecture, test, or live chat via a certain program. Then students may log in to the program to watch or complete the task. This online option helps to remedy the issue of transactional distance between the teacher and student.

2. Background

    1. a. History

i. Distance Learning

Distance learning has dated back to the early 18th century starting with letters and postcards. More specifically, one of the earliest dated cases was in 1844 in England, after the creation of the new postal system (Threstha, 1997), where a series of postcards transcribed by Sir Isaac Pitman with course information for his students (Tait, 2003) allowed for student feedback. As technology was further developed through inventions such as the radio, TV, computers, as did the flexibility in open and distance learning. Research proposing a theory of media richness, which explored the impact of technology as a conduit of information relation, was proposed in the mid 1980’s (Kock, 2005). However, synchronous-type learning really made head way after the arrival of the internet in the 1990’s. This began the revolution in educational deliverance possibilities, offering more in-time instruction. Synchronous learning has been able to evolve and become more refined as technology gets better, allowing for more methods to engage in synchronous instruction.

ii. Evolution of different Platforms

        1. 1. TV, radio, computer, internet

    1. b. Theories

i. Transactional Distance Theory

First introduced by Michael Moore in 1972, this independent learning theory addresses the educational setting in which students and instructors engage in the learning process over a geographical separation of space (Moore, 1993). This theory has become prominent in setting the general frame for further synchronous learning studies. Moore (2007) has since furthered the development of this theory. The theory identifies three main elements: dialogue, structure, and learner autonomy (Mcbrien, 2009).

ii. Media richness theory

MRT is a "descriptive model" (Robert, 2005) based on the thought that face-to-face communication is more important and educational as a “rich medium” (Hrastinski, 2008). It is more effective in information clarity and distinguishing context between media and tasks. This supports the idea that synchronous learning is a more effective means of instruction as students are able to ask questions and revise their work in real time.The theory of media richness is tricky in terms of the general support provided through studies. Some studies offer support for the theory suggesting that media-sensitivity correlates with positive performance in a workplace (R.L. Daft, 1987) or educational institution (Bernard, 2006), while other studies found little or no evidence supporting the theory or found contradicting evidence. For example, a “lean medium” such as an e-mail or other non-direct means of communication, can arguably be a means for complex communication depending on the social context (Hrastinski, 2008).

iii. Media Naturalness Theory

The media naturalness hypothesis is built on the foundations of the media richness theory, taking certain aspects of the theory and combining them with a relevant hypothesis based on Darwin’s natural selection theory and social behavior. It emphasizes the evolution of human communication through synchronous natural media into a sophisticated complexity involving facial expressions, body language, and speech (Kock, 2005). In accordance with this theory in natural communication, synchronous learning using computers is able to meet most, but not all five of the key criteria as co-location is not included in synchronous learning.

iv. Sociocultural learning theory

The social cultural learning theory is used to explain the influence of social interaction and participation in developing a sense of culture. Guided participation supports the interactive learning and social activity done through synchronous instruction.

v. Constructivist Learning Theory

This is an epistemologically-based argument that learning happens through positive interactions and reinforcements. Synchronous online learning supports "resource-rich, student-centered, and interactive learning" (Zhang, 2004).

vi. Equivalency Theory

The equivalency theory is argued to be a necessary account to be included due to the unique features of teleconferencing (Simonson, Schlosser and Hanson, 1999) over distance education. Simonson et al. describe the perspective that there should be equivalence in learning experiences among learners in a classroom setting as well as distance learners (Bernard, 2006).

  1. 3. Educational Application

‍a. Types and Forms‍

Synchronous learning in a computer-based educational setting can take the form of online chatting and/or teleconferencing.

i. Chatting

Online chatting in an educational setting is used to synchronously send text-based messages between two or more people, often in small groups or class discussions. This allows textual feedback, but contexts within the language may sometimes be lost. This method offers less technological interferences and may be more convenient for participants (Foreman, 2003).

ii. Teleconference

Teleconferencing utilizes the video and/or audio tools to communicate information or feedback. Both of these forms of synchronous instruction allow for many advantages including real-time feedback and better relationship development (as opposed to asynchronous learning). This allows increased personalization of the participants, (not eliminating but) helping to decrease a sense of isolation (Linton, 2009).

b. Applications

Despite the growing use of these synchronous methods, not enough sound research has been made to guide the learning design process more effectively. Andrew & Klease (2002) noted that, “Although video conferencing has been around for some years, in many cases, the use has not been informed by rigorous research leading to sound pedagogical practices. Videoconferencing has frequently copied typical lecture style format of didactic lecture style delivery rather than exploring approaches….”
This form of learning can be implemented through technology for interactive studying, group work, and collaboration among students. In a study conducted at Indiana University, several synchronous conferencing tools were also used to assess the effectiveness of communication and student reception (Park, 2007). The result of the study showed an overarching satisfaction in experiences, however, there were also several limitations in smoothness of the the technology (see "Issues").
The synchronous style of instruction may also be used in conjunction with blended learning. Garrison and Kanuka (2004) conclude that this method of teaching had significantly better results in student learning. They infer that the integration of both synchronous and asynchronous learning activities can bolster the effectiveness of learning experiences. However, criticisms of this study may lie in the large range of various teaching theories that may be applied. Also, in this case, the researcher refer to synchronous learning as largely being face-to-face interactions, not including chatting capabilities.

c. Solutions

Platforms for computer-based synchronous learning include (but not limited to):
Elluminate - A web-conferencing system for schools and businesses to "rent" out a room. Initially developed by Elluminate, Inc., it has since been bought by Blackboard Inc..
BlackboardCollaborate - Blackboard offers a wide range of platforms and collaborate is one of the most used. It is synchronous and can be used on both computer and mobile devices.
Moodle - An open-source learning platform that allows synchronous and asynchronous discussion forums.
Adobe Connect - A web-conferencing system that is mostly geared towards businesses but it is still possible for classroom use.
WebEx - Part of the Cisco collaboration portfolio, WebEx provides general web conferencing and video conferencing tools.
Skype - A well-known teleconferencing application that can be used for messaging and video conferences through a computer, tablet, or smart phone.‍

4. Advantages

Within synchronous instruction lies points of advantage as well as disadvantage when compared to offline instruction or the asynchronous method of instruction. Advantages to synchronous instruction in an online educational setting allows more flexibility and extending beyond the barriers of students' geographical locations to participate (Kelly, 2014). This allows for more theoretical access and convenience as opposed to the classical method of face-to-face instruction. By using online tools, smaller schools are also better able to afford more specialized instruction ("Distance Education," 2004; "Hidden Curriculum," 2014). It also gives the opportunity for a wider variety of education, as noted by Andrew & Klease (2002), "they [the students] liked the experience of interacting with a wider peer group and of learning from each other's different knowledge-base and backgrounds."
In contrast to an asynchronous method of online learning, synchronous technologies may increase general motivation among students as it more closely resembles face-to-face communication (McBrien, 2009). The forms of online chatting and teleconferencing allow a higher method of communication between the students as well as the instructor. Students are more easily able to ask questions to peers and the instructor in realtime, which allows more comparative access to the instructor's individual experiences and expertise. Following the ability to communicate within the class or group of instruction, students may be better able to "develop and strengthen instructor-student and student-student relationships, which can be a challenge in distance learning programs." (Foreman, 2003). In a study on the potential benefits of synchronous learning by education professors at St. Leo University, the professors found that there was a general decrease in social isolation effects than in asynchronous learning (Kelly, 2014).

5. Issues

Synchronous learning also possesses certain limitations as well as disadvantages. Although it is more convenient in terms of more broad locational access, it may still be limited by time convenience. This method of instruction may not always be convenient to the students as it leans toward a teacher-based schedule of instruction, resulting in flexibility that depends on the instructor. There may also be an issue in time zone differences. However, in a critique by Andrews & Klease (2002), dedicated students were more "willing to deal with the problems of time difference in order to take advantage of this opportunity." Similarly with the time zone difference issue, there may also exist language barriers when instruction is offered to such a wide range of audience. In realtime discussions and lectures, students are allotted less time to comprehend and refine, resulting in a quantity over quality-based work compared to asynchronous learning.
Furthermore, despite the evolution of online technology, there may yet be problems with internet connectivity (Haythornthwaite, 2005; Park 2007). Access to the technology or network connection may also be too expensive for some classrooms and smaller schools as it requires equipping classrooms with technology or students to purchase their own laptops.

5. Research Findings

With the development of technology, allowing a wide variety of tools to be implemented in the learning process, there is great potential in online education.These platforms and applications can now be used more quickly, efficiently, and also conveniently in facilitating synchronous learning activities. They create an environment where location holds little bearing on the capability (Hidden Curriculum), leaving only time as a constraint. As a result, students can better engage in student-to-student and teacher-to-student communication, nurturing social connections, giving support, allowing feedback, and also giving way to better real-time communications to foster discussion (Andrews & Klease, 2002).
In a case study by Hrastinski (2008), using two e-learning courses, online participation was increased and enhanced with synchronous online discussion. The study found that perceived participation was higher, standard deviations were smaller, and participation sentences could largely be classified as task support or social support in both courses. In the smaller class, even more information exchange occurred and the participants wrote almost four times more. In addition, the perceived quality of the social networks was also higher in the synchronous online discussions.
In another study by McBrien and Jones (2009) using Elluminate, found that that the majority of comments regarding dialogue quantity and quality on the synchronous online platform were positive (91%). One student commented that, "There seemed to be more participation from the classmates that are usually silent." Meanwhile, the structure of the online class was commented to have "instructional ease" because students were able to participate from home, saving on travel expenses, time, and more opportunity despite being ill. Because of this, students were still able to take care of family at home and also to attend to their work while maintaining a sense of having a "front row seat." Furthermore, McBrien and Jones inferred that teachers were also able to practice effectively using the changing technology. However, there were frustrations regarding mostly technical issues and over-stimulation.
Foreman (2001) tested the usage of the solution, WebCT, and wrote according to the instructor's perspective. He found that the cost of time in materials preparation for a class exceeded that of a conventional lesson (at least in using that particular solution) and time management issues both on part of the student and the teacher inhibited instruction. He also described that the imposed systems used can make teachers feel limited in their instructional methods, and as such may cause some teachers to avoid incorpoating the technologies in their teaching.
The application of tools should "fit with the curriculum in a pedagogically sound way that supports learning and achievement of the course objectives" ("The Next Big Thing...," 2014). While there is more than one mode of communication, it should not be assumed that one is better than the other as argued by Davidson-Shivers, Muilenburg, and Tanner (2001), "They can clearly be used for different purposes and provide different, but useful, means for students to engage in discussion and learning."

6. See Also

Asynchronous Learning
Synchronous Learning
Massive Open Online Course
Blended Learning

7. References:

1. Andrews, T., & Klease, G. "Extending learning opportunities through a virtual faculty: The videoconference option." International Journal of Educational Technology, 3(1). 2002.

2. Bernard, Robert M., Philip C. Abrami, Evgueni Borokhovski, Anne Wade, and Lou. "The Effects of Synchronous and Asynchronous Distance Education: A Meta-Analytical Assessment of Simonson's "Equivalency Theory"" (2006): 102-09. Research Gate. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.

3. R.L. Daft, R. H. Lengel, and L.K.Trevino, “Message Equivocality, Media Selection, and Manager Performance: Implications for Information Systems,” MIS Quart., vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 355–366, 1987.

4. Davidson-Shivers, G. V., Muilenburg, L., & Tanner, E. "How Do Students Participate in Synchronous and Asynchronous Online Discussions?" Journal of Educational Computing Research, 25, 351-366. 2001.

5. "Distance Education." Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology 31.3 (2010): 355-95. University of Missouri- St. Louis, Oct. 2004. Web.

6. Foreman, Joel. "Distance Learning and Synchronous Interaction." The Technology Source Archives. The Technology Source, Aug. 2003. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.
7. Foreman, Joel. "Trading Mules for Tractors: The Pros and Cons of Adopting a Course Management System." The Technology Source Archives. The Technology Source, Feb. 2001. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.

8. Garrison, R., and Kanuka H.. "Blended Learning: Uncovering its Transformative Potential in Higher Education." Elsevier, Inc. Internet and Higher Education. Feb 2004. Web. Nov 2014.

9. Haythornthwaite, Caroline. "Social Networks and Internet Connectivity Effects." Social Networks and Internet Connectivity Effects 8.2 (2005): 125-47. Information, Communication & Society. Taylor & Francis Group, 2 June 2005. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.

10. Hidden curriculum (2014, August 26). In S. Abbott (Ed.), The glossary of education reform. Retrieved from http://edglossary.org/hidden-curriculum

11. Hrastinski, Stefan. "Asynchronous and Synchronous E-Learning (EDUCAUSE Quarterly) | EDUCAUSE.edu." Asynchronous and Synchronous E-Learning. EduCause Quarterly, 17 Nov. 2008. Web. 29 Sept. 2014. http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/asynchronous-and-synchronous-e-learning

12. Hrastinski, Stefan. "The Potential of Communication to Enhance Participation in Online Discussions: A Case Study of Two E-learning Courses§." Contents Lists Available at ScienceDirect Information & Management (n.d.): n. pag. Information & Management. Elsevier, 18 Sept. 2008. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.

13. Kelly, Rob. "Build Community, Extend Learning with Online Synchronous Sessions." Faculty Focus Build Community Extend Learning with Online Synchronous Sessions Comments. Faculty Focus, 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2014. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/asynchronous-learning-and-trends/build-community-extend-learning-online-synchronous-sessions/

14. Kock, N. "Media Richness or Media Naturalness? The Evolution of Our Biological Communication Apparatus and Influence on Our Behavior Toward E-Communication Tools." IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 48.2 (2005): 117-30. IEEE, 2 June 2005. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.

15. Linton, Gregory. "The "Silo Effect" in Academia and Its Consequences."Higher Education Pedagogy Policy. G Linton, 14 Jan. 2009. Web. 28 Sept. 2014. https://glinton.wordpress.com/2009/01/14/the-silo-effect-in-academia-and-its-consequences/comment-page-1/

16. Mcbrien, Lynn J., Phyllis Jones, and Cheng. "Virtual Spaces: Employing a Synchronous Online Classroom to Engagement in Online Learning | McBrien| The International Review of Research in Open and Learning. Athabasca University, June 2009. Web. 29 Sept. 2014. http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/605/1264

17. Moore, M. G. Theory of Distance. In D. Keegan (Ed.). 1993. Theoretical Principles of Education. Routledge. 1993.

18. Moore, M.G. The Theory of Distance. In M.G.Moore (Ed.). 2007. The Handbook of Education. Second Edition. Mahwah, N.J. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 89–108.

19. Park, Yun Jeong, and Curtis J. Bonk. Synchronous Learning Experiences: Distance and Residential Learners’ Perspectives in a Blended Graduate Course 6.3 (2007): n. pag. Journal of Learning. Indiana University, 2007. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.

20. Robert, L., and A.r. Dennis. "Paradox of Richness: A Cognitive Model of Media Choice." IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication48.1 (2005): 10-21. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.

21. Simonson, Michael, Charles Schlosser, and Hanson. "Theory and Distance Education: A New Discussion." The American Journal of Distance Education. Vol 13 No.1 1999.

22. Tait, Alan. Reflections on student support in open and distance learning. 2003. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 4(1). 27 Oct. 2014.

23. Threstha, G. Distance Education in Developing Countries: Definition. 1997. United Nations Development Programme. 27 Oct. 2014.

24. Zhang, Dongsong, J. Leon Zhao, Lina Zhou, and Jay F. Nunamaker. "Can E-learning Replace Classroom Learning?" Communications of the ACM47.5 (2004): 75-79. May 2004. Web. 28 Sept. 2014. http://courses.christopherylam.com/5180/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/zhang2004.pdf

8. External links

Synchronous vs Asynchronous