Synchronous Conferencing in Distance Education

A major drawback of distance education is the isolation practiced by learners. In traditional education it's easy to seek the guidance of instructors and fellow students. Students often form informal student groups and purely being present in an academic institution can boost motivation.

E-learning technologies can help increase the isolation of lone learners by enabling communication with instructors and peers.

Such technologies can be asynchronous, ie essentially bulletin boards where users post messages for others to view and respond to in their own time; or synchronous, ie communications take place in real time.

Synchronous conferencing applications originally consist of text-based chat systems. As Internet bandwidths have increased substantively so these systems can now support audio-visual conferencing. In selecting the delivery mode consider: i) students based in developing countries may not have the technological capacity to support audio-visual, ii) those studying in a second language may find it easier to follow with a textual record appearing on the screen.

General purpose messaging software such as Windows Live Messenger, Skype, and Yahoo! Messenger can all be utilized for educational purposes. In many cases students may already be using these services. Alternatively a product specifically designed for e-learning such as Elluminate can be employed.

Synchronous software can support e-learning in a variety of ways, eg:

* Instructors deliver pre-arranged seminars on specific topics, mirroring on-campus lectures or tutorials. In such cases it's important to avoid the monologue and allow plenty of opportunity for participation to take advantage of real-time collaboration.

* Instructors and support staff have "office hours" periods in which students can raise any issues of concern.

* Specialist guest speakers may be invited to give presentations (from their own location) and answer questions.

* The facility could be made available for student-to-student collaboration, either on specific projects or for general peer support through the course.

Where the student body is internationally based on the timing of sessions should be staggered to give everyone at least some chance to participate at a convenient local time. Different sessions could begin at different times, or (resources permitting) the same session could be offered twice (or more) to maximizeize opportunity for participation

Many people choose open or distance learning for the flexibility it offers. It's important not to compromise this flexibility by making participation in synchronous sessions mandatory.

Ideally synchronous sessions should be recorded and made available after the event. This minimizes any disadvantage to those unable to attend, as well as benefitting participants by giving the opportunity to review proceedings.