July/August 2003 // Tools
Distance Learning and Synchronous Interaction
by Joel Foreman
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Joel Foreman "Distance Learning and Synchronous Interaction" The Technology Source, July/August 2003. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Suppose you are a distance instructor who wants to emulate the conventional "best practice" of face-to-face learning by dividing a class into autonomous work groups. You want your distance students to form 4- or 5-person teams whose collaborative, problem-based learning work requires brainstorming, planning, negotiation, problem solving, and document production. What are the best readily available tools to support these activities?

A likely starting point would be the familiar asynchronous communication tools (e-mail and threaded discussion) that have played a primary role in distance learning to date. At the very least, asynchrony allows those students with challenging work, family, or study schedules to do schoolwork at any time. Under the best circumstances, skillful online instructors have successfully designed, facilitated, and monitored e-mail exchanges and threaded discussions that produce reasonable learning benefits. We may conclude that such asynchronous tools are indeed powerful (in that they are major enablers of online instruction), but they are also primitive (in that their temporal delays significantly limit interactivity and efficient collaborative learning).

If instructors want to optimize the performance of learning teams working on complex problems, they will need to consider working with the speed and immediacy of synchronous (or same-time) communication. Based on the accelerating development of such systems, their deployment in the workplace, and my own work with them, I expect synchrony to become the mode of choice for collaborative, small-team forms of online learning. In this article, I review the benefits and disadvantages of diverse synchronous tools, with an ultimate emphasis on application sharing and voiceover IP (VOIP) as the most advantageous and promising combination for educators in the future.

Tools at the Top and Bottom

Videoconferencing and chat, both part of the synchronous tools hierarchy, attempt to approximate face-to-face communication. Videoconferencing is at the top of the hierarchy because it addresses both sight and sound, and it comes closest to reproducing the multi-sensorial experience of "presence." Chat is at the bottom because it is the most removed from the audiovisual reality of face-to-face encounters.

Neither works especially well as a tool for collaborative teamwork. Videoconferencing is still too expensive for widespread use; it lags behind the broadcast standards to which we have been habituated and, even at its best, fails to capture many of the visual cues that make face-to-face the preferred work medium. Chat is slow; it forces users into an awkward, unfamiliar behavioral terrain when employed for complex intellectual work; and it benefits greatly from good writing and typing skills, which are not widely available. Chat has a deserved place in the panoply of online instructional tools, especially in the form of instant messaging, but why use it for complex team-learning work when better tools (e.g., voice conferencing and Web conferencing) are available?

Audio Only

The phone conference is highly effective for organizing small-team distance learning experiences, and as a communication mode, it is superior to both e-mail and chat. It plays to a skill set?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùphone talk?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthat we all have developed as members of a telephonic culture. Although students need to learn some protocols, they otherwise see the phone conference as an extension of their natural lives. Moreover, the phone conference provides immediacy, a high rate of information exchange, and complex multi-person interaction facilitated by a familiar audio cueing system.

Unfortunately, this tool gets expensive when one tallies the per minute/per person charges. One solution to this problem is to take advantage of the three-way calling option offered by most telecom providers (wireless included) in the United States. My students use Verizon's three-way calling, which is provided to subscribers as a regular service for a small monthly charge, or for a $0.75 (USD) single-use charge. Despite its name, four or more people can use the system at once (Exhibit 1).

My student teams regularly use phone conferencing to organize a series of assignments in a course on advanced business writing. Conference calls make it possible for the teams to efficiently analyze the workload, divide the duties, report progress, and change directions if necessary?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùall tasks that are performed over a number of weeks.

Despite its conveniences, the audio-only approach does have significant limitations. Taken by itself, it cannot enable the synchronous sharing and manipulation of artifacts (e.g., flowcharts, mind maps, Web pages, and memos) that help focus the cognitive synergies of a distributed team. The shortcomings of unassisted audio are most apparent in the document production phase of an assignment?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùwhen team members must jointly write, revise, edit, and polish a report.

Web Conferencing and Application Sharing

Web conferencing remedies these problems through a function, known as application sharing, that will become an important part of distance learning as the price point improves.

Typical Web conferencing systems (such as those provided by Genesys and Raindance) integrate the phone and networked computer screen so that an unlimited number of participants can talk to each other while viewing the same content. For example, a distance learning team might collaboratively write and edit a document with Microsoft Word or collectively surf various Web sites to research a given topic. The audio element allows the team to coordinate, negotiate, and collaboratively manipulate whatever object (e.g., an Excel spreadsheet) appears on their screens. If one member proposes a change of any sort, the result can be viewed and evaluated simultaneously by all. The resulting cycle of instant action/reaction (the strength of good synchronous team work) allows team members to quickly complete tasks and build documents.

Accessing such a Web conference is simple. Participants obtain an 800 number, URL, and password; they then phone in for audio and login online to pull up a common page. Unfortunately, many students cannot meet the requirements associated with Web conferencing: the high cost due to per person/per minute charges as well as the need for a DSL line, two phone lines, or a phone line and a cable modem so that they can access the Internet while talking on the phone.

Voiceover IP

An alternative that is likely to mature in the near future is application sharing with voiceover IP (VOIP). These systems, which bypass the telephone and transmit audio over the same Internet lines that link users to their shared applications, are relatively simple to use. Participants in a conference typically communicate with the microphones and speakers installed on most computers; they need only to adjust the volume and balance controls before starting. Headsets work best because they free the hands for typing and using the mouse. Once a conference is underway, users simply interact as they would in a conventional phone conference.

A voice compression algorithm transforms the analog input (the speaker's voice) into a collection of digital packets (the same kind that carry all other traffic on the Internet), which then are routed over a variety of different lines to their destination. The technology is a brilliant exploitation of the Internet, but it has drawbacks that potential users need to recognize. Because the packets in a given message do not travel together, some of them may get lost, while others may arrive at different times for final assembly. The result can be noticeable delays in a VOIP conversation. Such undesirable latency effects may be worsened if the various participants are operating with different download speeds. A student working with a 56K modem or less, for example, will definitely introduce lag into a conversation with students using DSL or cable modems.

Compared to the telephonic standards we are accustomed to, voiceover IP is intrusive and clumsy for a couple of reasons. As noted, lag is one. Yet its effects are not so disruptive as to render communication impossible; students learning and working together over VOIP will simply need to lower their typical expectations of high fidelity and immediacy. Moreover, the better and usually more expensive VOIP systems tend to alleviate lag with load-balancing devices that control the delivery of consecutive messages, thus simulating the spontaneous rhythm of face-to-face conversation. We can expect this to become the norm eventually, as the diffusion of broadband access continues and system developers learn how to lower the cost of latency alleviation.

The second consideration that potential users should keep in mind is the distinction between one-way and full duplex systems. One-way systems allow only one user at a time to speak, usually by mouse clicking a button on the graphical user interface (GUI). The next speaker must ascertain when the first has finished, and then vie with the others in the conversation to be the first to depress the audio button and begin talking. These are not insurmountable problems; they are merely features that students will need to anticipate if they are to appreciate the benefits of VOIP.

Groupware and the Virtual Classroom

The tool suites that incorporate VOIP are business-oriented groupware products like Groove and Documentum and pedagogical "virtual classrooms" like those offered by LearnLinc, HorizonLive, and Interwise. The groupware products contain many of the tools found in typical course management systems (e.g., file storage, whiteboards, threaded discussions, team spaces, and calendars), whereas the focus of the virtual classroom is synchronous teacher/student and student/student interaction. Although the GUIs of these respective tool suites reflect their different orientations, they are alike in that they both provide VOIP and application-sharing features. Consequently, both types of tool sets are able to support small learning teams who want the speed and efficiency of synchronous VOIP work sessions as well as the ability to conduct Web searches, review documents, and build documents collaboratively.

My own operational experience is with Groove, the brainchild of Lotus Notes innovator Ray Ozzie. The course design team that I work with uses Groove as the learning space for four-person student teams to develop their critical thinking skills. The students use either phone conferencing or Groove's VOIP to support two weekly online team meetings (each week for 4 weeks), during which they review and build a number of conceptual maps. The knowledge mapping tool that they use (MindManager) is a shared application that is embedded in Groove or can stand alone. By working online with a shared view of MindManager maps and an audio connection (either a conventional telephone conference or Groove's VOIP), the students orient themselves to the problem-solving mission, analyze and sequence the tasks they need to perform, organize who does what, perform metacognitive reflections, arrive at a solution, and produce a final report. Each of these phases is represented visually in and by MindManager.

For example, in a course on collaborative critical thinking, the students must solve an information systems security problem. The schedule for the second week appears as a MindManager map (Exhibit 2) and directs the students to conduct a series of MindManager Web conferences, first with two-student subteams and then with the whole team. During these conferences, they discuss and collaboratively build initial and goal state maps of the problem they must solve. The initial state map visualizes what students know about the problem. The goal state map represents what they are able to specify about a desired solution. In the following week, the students Web conference again, reflect upon the "gap" between the initial and goal state maps, and fill in the parts of a MindManager "gap analysis" map (Exhibit 3) that organizes their problem-solving efforts for the rest of the course.

An instructor wishing to ease into this kind of synchronous learning work might start with Microsoft NetMeeting, a free tool that provides VOIP and application sharing and that is relatively easy to use. This well-reviewed product is now integrated with MSN Messenger, an instant messenger tool with a file share function. One might start down the road to synchronous learning by having student teams download, explore, and report on the tools themselves. This effort will produce a level of comfort (for both instructors and students) that can serve as a foundation for more complex team learning efforts. Structured as a blend of individual work and synchronous collaboration, such experiences will help learners manage complex projects, perform collaborative research and writing, and solve difficult problems in much the same way that these tasks (increasingly) are handled in the so-called "real world" beyond academe.


As the efficiencies of high-speed networks transform the predigital structures of a place-based academe, we should expect to see many student teams using the kind of synchronous tools discussed above to self-manage the more complex learning tasks of higher education. VOIP and application sharing in particular can create inexpensive cyberspaces where geo-distributed students can perform their learning work through the preferred medium for intense communication?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùtalk. Their talk will focus on shared screen objects (e.g., texts, spreadsheets, Web pages, and flowcharts) that facilitate the dialogue and that can be changed as the need arises. Under the best circumstances, the students will divide the work, perform it separately, and then gather online to share their findings and integrate them into a deliverable product that can be assessed by the instructor. This is the decentered classroom taken to a logical extreme by an emerging technology.

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