Planning Synchronous Learning Sessions
When planning a synchronous online session you will need to think about why you want to hold the session, who your participants are, and what you hope they will be able to do by the end of the session (outcomes). This type of analysis is necessary to help you design a great session which will meet both your needs and the needs of your participants.
First, think about the overall purpose of the session that you'd like to hold. Why would you like to do it? Some common purposes might be to;
- host a discussion or question and answer session,
- plan or make decisions about something as a group,
- hold office hours,
- build or maintain online class community,
- gather feedback from people,
- interactively teach a topic,
- host a guest speaker,
- model or demonstrate a skill.
Chances are, your synchronous sessions will be part of a longer asynchronous course so you will want to consider how your synchronous session will help you with the purpose and goals of your longer asynchronous course. Here's an example from his 2015 book Teaching in a Digital Age of how online learning pioneer Tony Bates thinks about incorporating synchronous sessions into a larger asynchronous course.
"In a fully online course, I also sometimes use Blackboard Collaborate to bring all the students together once or twice during a semester, to get a feeling of community at the start of a course, to establish my ‘presence’ as a real person with a face or voice at the start of a course, or to wrap up a course at the end, and I try to provide plenty of opportunity for questions and discussion by the students themselves. However, these synchronous ‘lectures’ are always optional as there will always be some students who cannot be present (although they can be made available in recorded format)".1
Thinking about your session's purpose is a necessary step to confirming whether it makes sense to hold your session synchronously online. For example, if you determine your purpose is to deliver large chunks of content as a lecture, you may ask yourself if that is the best use of all participants' time, or even if it is the best way for your participants to learn. Although there may be a place for the types of webcasts (uni-directional synchronous online learning events), generally they are not the most efficient use of a synchronous session where the aim should be to promote participatory and interactive learning. Perhaps a better strategy might be to prerecord a video with the content, have learners watch it on their own time, and then gather together in a synchronous session to discuss the content.
Working with co-facilitators
Working with a co-facilitator or a facilitation team to facilitate synchronous sessions can be a useful experience, both to handle "the load", so to speak, and to continue our own learning when seeing each other demonstrate great facilitation skills.
In Facilitating Live Online Learning, Colin Steed notes (p. 54) the following four roles that co-facilitators can play:
- handling technical issues
- ensuring content is available and working
- keeping note of the questions asked in Chat or Q&A panels
- acting as a side-kick
Although the way he frames his advice is to have one leader facilitator and one co-facilitator to act as a producer or host, the roles could easily be shared by two or more co-facilitators equally. This is often what we see in higher education, rather than - as sometimes experienced in the corporate world - one facilitator or presenter and one producer whose role is to support the session more behind the scenes. Particularly when we are facilitating sessions that involve participatory and active learning, it is preferable to add more facilitators to the mix.
Working with co-facilitators does mean that you will need to find time to plan your session together and have discussions about who is going to take on which pieces or which role. Talk about each of your strengths and preferences, and potentially your "stretch goals" - what you'd like to try to get better at when facilitating in this way. Talk about your current technical skills and help each other learn the "techy things" that will help you facilitate a great session.
You may wish to indicate how you have divided your responsibilities between facilitators in your lesson plan or in the notes section of your PowerPoint slide deck, although make sure that you are very familiar with all sections of the session just in case things get mixed up when you are actually facilitating and one facilitator takes another facilitator's slide to discuss.
In the planning of your session you will also need to think about your participants. Ask yourself questions such as:
- who will attend this session?
- do they have any common characteristics? how might they be different from each other?
- what is their anticipated technical skill? do they have the computer hardware/software to be able to connect to a web-conferencing system?
- how many participants do I anticipate having in my session?
- when might they be able to participate in the session? (e.g. time zone, work schedules)
Keeping your participants' needs in mind is important in being able to plan for and design a session that works for all who will attend.
When planning your session it is important to articulate the learning outcomes that you hope your participants will be able to achieve by the end of the session. What do you want them to be able to know/do/value by the time your session is over? Can you use synchronous online learning to help your participants achieve them? Use this step as a check and balance as to whether it does make sense to hold your session synchronously online.
Writing measurable learning outcomes is certainly the subject of a course on its own. But generally you could start with the stem, "By the end of the session, participants will be able to..." and then use appropriate verbs (perhaps using Bloom's taxonomy to guide you) to try to articulate what you'd like participants to be able to achieve. (Hint: Avoid the terms 'know' or 'understand' as they are not very measurable).
- By the end of the session participants will be able to describe why learning from failure is an important part of innovation.
- By the end of the session participants will be able to name the three essential parts of an essay.
- By the end of the session participants will be able to summarize briefly three different change models and their key points.
Caveat: We're not saying the learning outcomes above are great examples of outcomes that would be appropriate for synchronous sessions per se, but they are examples of outcomes in general. It will be up to you to decide if what you're trying to help your participants achieve is something that they can achieve best via a synchronous online mode.
Know Your Tools
Before we dive into talking about designing your session and the elements that you should consider when doing so it may be useful to talk about the tools that you will have at hand in your synchronous online platform.
While it's not usually effective or recommended to start designing a learning event thinking about the online tools you would like to use and then building your design accordingly, it does make sense to be at least aware of the tools you will have available in order to design a session that is indeed possible to carry out in your platform.
Now, no two web conferencing platforms will be alike, but many will have similar features and tools. For example, most tools will give facilitators and participants the ability to:
- share their webcam and audio
- use a collaborative 'whiteboard' to view and draw/write on
- share screens, including the ability to share a presentation slide deck
- participate in virtual breakout rooms
- create simple polls for participants
- have participants raise a virtual hand or otherwise get the attention of the facilitator
- have a live text chat with others in the room
Get to know the platform that you will be using for your synchronous online work and then have its capability and functionality in your mind as you start to design. Remember, it IS possible to use other web-based tools (such as collaborative documents like Google Docs) with your web-conferencing system by sharing the link in the chat with the participants ahead of time or in the chat.
Designing your session
Designing learning is a big topic overall, but here are some key points that you'll want to consider as you think about designing your synchronous sessions.
Alignment with your Learning Outcomes
We said earlier that it is important for you to think about your purpose of why you think it's best to hold this particular session synchronously online and to get clear on the learning outcomes that you'd like your participants to be able to achieve by the end of the session. Once you are clear on these items, it's time to think about the content and activities that you'd like to incorporate into your session and how can help support your participants to achieve those outcomes.
Using a Lesson Plan
Similar to designing to facilitating sessions in person, it may be useful to create a lesson plan to design your synchronous online session and use it when facilitating the session. You may have a lesson planning structure that you are already familiar with using but if not, something like the BOPPPS framework could be useful.
At the very least it would be ideal to create a plan - perhaps like the table below - that notes timings of all your content and activity sections, duration of those sections, facilitator activities, participant activities and any resources needed. You may wish to script some of what you'd actually say or paraphrase during the session.
Here is the beginning of such a plan:
And here's a similar yet slightly different Sample Session Planner Tool from Cindy Huggett which you may also find useful.
Depending on who your participants are and how well everyone knows each other already and if you have some time, you may want to think about starting with activities that can help start to make everyone feel comfortable in the synchronous online space. Even something very quick in a short session could be beneficial to the overall goals of your session.
Some questions to think about as you design your opening activities to build community together include:
- How can the facilitators introduce themselves? If so, what should be shared in that introduction and how much time should it take?
- Should the participants introduce themselves? If so, what should be shared in those introductions and again, how much time should it take?
- How much time should the facilitators spend talking before participants are asked to do something active, such as introduce themselves? (Hint: not very long!)
- What will be comfortable for people to share if they don't know each other? What will be comfortable if they do?
Think Participatory Active Learning
A good synchronous online session is one that features interaction and a way for particiapnts to engage in participatory, active learning. Thinking about how to design a session that actively includes your participants in contributing to their own learning is our ideal. Some of the questions we can ask ourselves to be able to design these types of sessions are:
- How can I "share the air" with the participants in the session? How can I make sure that the facilitators are not the only ones talking?
- How I can create situations where participants are able to share from their own experiences, to contribute to group learning?
- How can I ensure that the session includes time and space to allow for questions and discussion?
- Are there ways in which I can use the platform's tools (see above) to contribute to an active learning situation, that are appropriate to my intended outcomes for the participants?
- How can I balance content sharing from facilitators with discussion or other participant activities? How can I "chunk" sections of the plan into short pieces, to keep the agenda moving and participants involved?
- How can I engage my participants visually and auditorily during the session?
Overall, thinking about how your participants could be not just passive "consumers" of information that you dump into their heads, but actively involved in the process is a useful lens to keep in mind. As a side bonus: facilitating sessions that are active and participatory often end up being less work for the facilitator and a lot more engaging for participants than the facilitator presenting content the whole time.
Preparing your participants
When planning your session, think about your participants and if you need to prepare them to come to your session. For instance:
- will they need to watch or read anything before they come? if so, when will you send this to them ahead of time?
- have they participated in this type of session before? do they know what to expect? will they know what is expected of them in terms of participation?
- are they aware of the timing of the session and the importance of arriving on time? (relatedly, it's within your role as the facilitator to start and end the session on time)
What about you, as the facilitator? What might you need to do yourself to prepare to facilitate the session? Some of these items might include:
- being very familiar with your lesson plan or session agenda
- being very familiar with the technology platform you are using and making sure your equipment is working (e.g. computer, headset, webcam)
- thinking about and planning how you're going to stay on time
- anticipating how you could be flexible with the session as it's happening, e.g. if a section takes longer than anticipated, can something be eliminated?
- and, as mentioned earlier, being aware and prepared of how you're working with your co-facilitator
Lastly, expect that you will likely make facilitator mistakes and know that this is a natural process of facilitation, not to mention facilitating synchronously online. Plan to be a professional presence in the session but also make sure that you show up as a real person as well - a human who sometimes makes mistakes, as we all do. Finally, unless the topic is very, very serious, find ways to inject some fun and levity into the sessions.
There are many practical considerations you should take into consideration when planning synchronous online sessions. These include:
- considering privacy issues - who will be there? what will be discussed? does the group know each other? will there be trust in the room or does it have to be built?
- distribution and longevity of the session - should the session be recorded? how will it be shared with others, if at all? what might we need to ask or tell participants about sharing the session itself or session details with others? what impact might recording the session have on the participants during the session itself - do people behave differently if they are being recorded?
- logistics - will an advertisement need to be created? how will people register for the session? how will they know how to connect to the session?
- testing the platform - have you used the platform before? how familiar are you with it? do you need to test it again? when? with whom? does anything need to be arranged in advance? does the platform work with your computer system? where will you be connecting from at the time of the session and how good is the internet connection? do you have a headset and is it working?
- your space - what does your space look like where you will be sitting during your session? what can be seen on camera? will pets, children, phones, partners or other noises interrupt or how could those distractions be eliminated or mitigated?
- and, as already mentioned on the previous page, working with a co-facilitator or producer - how will you work together? what will your roles be?
The online article Interactive Web Conferencing Brings Benefits to the Online Classroom has some additional practical "tips for success" to think about before and during your synchronous session.
This chapter is adapted from the FLO Synchronous workshop by BCcampus and released under a CC-BY license.