1. Technical Requirements
  2. Ways to Use Synchronous Learning
  3. Lesson Planning for Synchronous Live Sessions
  4. Ideas for Synchronous Sessions
  5. Example of an Online Lesson Plan
  6. Record or Not to Record?
  7. Best Practices
  8. More information on synchronous web conferencing tools
  9. Further reading

Synchronous learning tools provide a virtual learning environment for students and allow for live classroom collaboration for distance learners.

During a real-time, online lesson, the instructor and students meet via web-conferencing tools at scheduled days and times. Instructors and students share information, ideas and learning experiences in a virtual course environment. Synchronous sessions allow you to check in with your students on a regular basis. Breakout rooms are an especially good way for you to speak with students, since they allow students to ask questions in a smaller setting.

Generally, when looking at transitioning to online teaching, there are several options to consider and many decisions to make. For example, you can try to find an online substitute for activities that you typically do with your students in the class. The other option is to introduce something new or different, because online teaching makes it possible or necessary. And yet another option is to reluctantly drop something that you would like to do but choose not to because the online teaching just wouldn’t do it justice. Choose what feels comfortable for yourself and for your students!

For tips on asynchronous learning tools, check out this webpage.

Technical Requirements

Participation in synchronous courses requires students to have reliable, high-speed internet access, a computer (ideally with a webcam), and a headset with a microphone. You might want to include in your syllabus the technical requirements for your course while also being open to allowing for accommodations/alternative assessments if a student cannot meet the technical requirements. For help composing such a statement, check out Technical Specs for New Students.

Ways to Use Synchronous Learning

  • Process teaching – show your students how to work a program or tackle a problem live. You can also show them where to find resources you’ve uploaded to cuLearn and demonstrate your expectations for an assignment. Immerse your class in a new environment that allows significantly greater participation and room to bounce around new ideas.
  • Remote guest speaker – have a specialist in the field guest lecture and contribute to your students’ knowledge without having to arrange for them to be physically present in your classroom.
  • Online office hours – supplement your office hours with pre-scheduled online hours. Address all your students’ questions in one setting, while still being able to collaborate privately with TAs to keep them on the same page. With your entire class logged in to a pre-scheduled session, get your message across instantly to all participants without having to repeat yourself.
  • Make up for distance – with Voice Over Internet (VoIP) functionality, you can see the person you’re talking to, but even if you’re not equipped with a webcam, you can still speak to them. Users without access to a computer with a microphone can still join in by calling the session phone number.
  • Let students help you teach – one main concern in a traditional classroom setting has been the inability for students to communicate with the instructor to verify their comprehension of materials. Encourage student input and offer bonus points for greater participation.

Lesson Planning for Synchronous Live Sessions

You might want to plan out the structure of a synchronous online lesson in advance, similar to an in-class lesson plan. A simple table for your own planning purposes, and/ or to share with your students, may be of benefit (see example below). Students learn best if they get an opportunity to engage with the content you are planning to cover in a session. By embedding questions and activities, such as small formative quizzes and reflection prompts, at regular intervals you can help students reflect on their learning. In the absence of seeing all of your students face-to-face, you can collect quick and convenient feedback on your teaching activities and check understanding of content using e.g. Zoom or Poll Everywhere surveys.

Ideas for Synchronous Sessions

  • Make use of chat and poll features to learn about students questions about the content.
  • Use of breakout rooms to allow students to communicate with each other, discuss material, and share concerns.
  • Have students present ideas, either in video or audio form (ideally, you would ask them to prepare in advance).
  • Have them contribute ideas to a shared online document (e.g. Microsoft OneDrive).
  • Use Poll Everywhere activities to allow all students to engage by submitting open-ended contributions, submit answers or comments into a word cloud or a clickable map.
  • Collect ‘micro feedback’: use Zoom or Poll Everywhere surveys to get feedback on your teaching activities and check understanding of content recently covered.

Example of an Online Lesson Plan

If you are planning to do some synchronous teaching, it is important to break the online session down into different parts and to use your learning outcomes to make decisions about what kinds of activities you might include.

For example, a 60-minute synchronous online lesson could be broken down into several smaller parts. The table shows an example activity in the first column and a suggested type of technology in the second column.

What Are We Doing?
(Lesson Components)
How Are We Doing It? (Technology/Method)
Ice breakers (5-10 mins)
For example: indicate your location on the map, identify what TV show are you currently watching, and so on
Zoom or BigBlueButton, PowerPoint, and Poll Everywhere
Mini-lectures (10-15 mins) PowerPoint or similar (you could choose to record this part of the lesson and make it available afterwards)
Check understanding (10 mins) Asking questions verbally and/or on a slide deck, or using Poll Everywhere or a short poll (Zoom)
Breakout rooms (10-40 mins)
For example: after students discuss a question or problem in a breakout room, one student per group could present their findings to the class
BigBlueButton or Zoom: both will allow you to create breakout rooms for groups of students (either randomly assigned, or manually assigned by you)

Group discussions (5-20 mins) Zoom or BigBlueButton: often work best with smaller groups in breakout rooms

(Bonus option: asynchronous discussion via a Forum on cuLearn)

Student presentation (10-20 mins) Zoom or BigBlueButton: use the screen sharing feature to allow students to present live

(Bonus option: show pre-recorded student presentation, or have presenter pre-record using Kaltura Capture, then share with students for viewing, then focus in the live session on question and answer)

For a blended approach, the 1-hour synchronous online lesson could be used in conjunction with virtual office hours, using the same technology and learning materials available via cuLearn to create a blended teaching plan.

Remember, a 3-hour face-to-face lecture slot can be replaced by 7-10 weekly hours of learning activities for your students. These activities can consist of, for example, a 1-hour synchronous lesson, as well as asynchronous learning tasks such as readings, external videos, your recorded videos, and cuLearn activities such as quizzes, discussion forums or portfolio work.

For equity reasons, you might want to make all content that is relevant for your assessments and course learning outcomes available via cuLearn. This will ensure that you do not disadvantage students who may have missed one of your synchronous online lessons.

Record or Not to Record?

In addition to pre-recorded lectures, you can choose to record your synchronous live online lessons. You can either record the whole lesson or just the parts where you present lecture content and/or information about the course or assessments to the students. The recording of live synchronous lessons enables access for students with internet connectivity problems, those who are based in different time zones, or who have conflicting commitments.

It is recommended to include a section in your syllabus that informs students that part of the session may be recorded. You can find some suggested language to include in your syllabus here. You should also inform the web conferencing participants when the recording will commence. Zoom will always notify meeting participants that a meeting is being recorded.

Best Practices

  • Orient yourself with the interface, since first-time users will often need some time to become accustomed to their synchronous learning tool prior to bringing the class into the environment.
  • Set an itinerary for your online synchronous sessions rather than playing it as you go, so that students will know what you have planned and not lose interest. Keep the class on task. Once the session has begun, ask students to confirm that they are not experiencing any technical issues and that they are ready to proceed.
  • Preset the correct settings before commencing any activity. Let students know that they need to have an up-to-date version of Java and Adobe Flash Player installed on their machines in order for BigBlueButton to work. For Zoom, you need to enable breakout rooms in the settings before you use them for the first time.
  • Adjust your firewall, if needed, so that BigBlueButton will be allowed access through your internet connection. Ensure that BigBlueButton is one of your trusted items.

More information on synchronous web conferencing tools

Further reading

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