Synchronous Course Delivery

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Module Summary

Some online courses require synchronous interactivity—based around real-time events, guest lectures, panel discussions, simulations, student group work, consultations, or meetings that have required attendance. The attendance is mediated through web conferencing tools, “telepresence” rooms, live video, and other forms of technological mediation for live interactivity. This module describes how synchronous time may be used in online learning. This also introduces some of the technologies used for live interactivity, and offers some “best practices” used for synchronous online learning.


Learners will...

  • Explore some examples of synchronous real-time e-learning.
  • Describe some of the pedagogical benefits of synchronous learning.
  • Consider some of the technologies used for synchronous e-learning: web conferencing tools, live video telepresence systems, text chat, and voice tools.
  • Strategize ways to add value to synchronous online learning.
  • Build accessibility into synchronous learning.

Module Pretest

1. What is synchronous real-time e-learning?

2. What are some of the pedagogical benefits of synchronous learning?

3. What technologies are used for synchronous e-learning? What are web conferencing tools? What are live video telepresence systems? What are virtual immersive worlds? What is text chat? What are voice tools?

4. How may instructors add value to synchronous online learning?

5. How may synchronous real-time e-learning be made as accessible as possible to the widest possible range of learners?

Main Contents

Online courses rarely require full real-time attendance and participation because of the busy-ness of people’s schedules. Many online courses consist of asynchronous interactivity (through the use of message boards), with only a few synchronous events. Some online “short courses” that last an hour to a few weeks may require live attendance, but even these are quite rare. After all, the convenience of online learning often relates to the convenience of being able to log in at a convenient time—particularly if learners are based out of various locations around the world (in different time zones).

The most common types of online learning may be best represented by the two most far right columns “Asynchronous Mediated” and “Fully Online Learning.” This particular module will focus on the second module from the left, which is titled “Synchronous Mediated (or Unmediated)” learning. In other words, synchronous learning may be mediated or facilitated by an instructor or guest speaker or group of experts. Synchronous online learning may be unmediated—for example, in the case of students studying together in real time or students critiquing each other’s work in a live circumstance.


Synchronous Real-Time E-Learning

Synchronous real-time e-learning, by its nature, must be valuable and necessary to the learning. Adult learners have many demands on their time. If the same learning may occur with asynchronous means, then learners will wonder why they had to spend synchronous time.

Online real-time may be used for a number of learning purposes. There may be a small window of time when an online class may access a digital lab; a simulation; a world-class expert; a live demonstration; or an interactive streamed event.

Synchronous time may be used to introduce learners starting a cohort-based program. The sense of connectivity to other people may improve retention. In such events, there may be icebreakers to help people connect online. There may be informal interchanges. People may be paired in dyads or in small groups to support each other through the lifespan of their degree programs. And sometimes, these programs will not require synchronous real-time again until near the end of the program.

Sometimes, real-time may be used to conduct high-value assessments to assure the identity of the test-taker. Some assessments require live interactivity with a certified instructor.

Online real-time may be used for academic and professional advising and counseling. It may be used for group or expert critiques of student designs and e-portfolios. Students themselves may be asked to present live—whether individually or in groups.

Real-time may be used for student group work, collaborations, and study sessions. Learners may interact with each other for problem-solving, planning, co-design, or strategy sessions. In these situations, there may not be facilitation of student learning.

Or students may co-create a simulation. They may conduct a live role play or dramaturgy event. They may hold online debates with each other. They may present various works that they’ve created. They may perform via digital avatars or in mediated ways for their peers and their instructor.

The strategies are to move whatever learning happens best asynchronously to the asynchronous activities and whatever learning happens best live to the real-time, synchronous activities. (If there is not a need for synchronous learning, then it may well be better left alone.)

Some Pedagogical Benefits of Synchronous Learning

Synchronous learning may add a variety of benefits to the online learning experience. It may help learners feel more connected to each other and more supported—and that may raise learner retention. In collaborative and learning endeavors, people may spark each other synergistically through real-time interactions—for a wider range of innovations. Synchronous learning may result in more real-time feedback from others. Live events may enable learners to achieve learning that is not possible otherwise—such as through role plays and simulations—that may go off in unplanned directions.

Technologies Used for Synchronous E-Learning

There are two main types of technologies used for synchronous e-learning. The more popular one involves desktop tools that are built into learning / course management systems (L/CMSes) or are stand-alone tools. The most common media-rich type used in higher education involve web conferencing tools. (See the References section below for a listing of some of the better known web conferencing tools.) These tools often involve the sharing of desktops, slide shows, digital imagery, websites, video, and audio. URLs and digital files may be “pushed out” to learners digitally. Web conferencing tools also include auditory exchanges and text chat.

Another desktop tool would be virtual immersive worlds in which people embody avatars and interact through these humanoids.

A thinner tool may be simply text chat in real time or even just voice tools, with free voice over IP (VOIP) tools as popular choices.

The second main type of technology involves expensive built telepresence systems offer 2D and 3D live video interchanges between people at predetermined locations. These high-tech rooms are wired for video and sound and transfer these signals via the Internet, or land lines, or other high-tech means. These are expensive built systems but may enable the sensation of live real-time interactivity with real people “in the room.”

Adding Value to Synchronous Online Learning

Instructors may add value to their synchronous online learning in several ways.

First, they may plan for synchronous events to make sure that there is high learning value. They may bring in expertise to the classroom that would not exist otherwise. Or they may set up a simulation or role play with sufficient learner preparation for deeper learning value. Or they may facilitate student group work for higher creativity and less friction.

Second, instructors may prepare students by discussing the learning value of the synchronous events. They may properly set expectations. They may ensure that students all have a voice in the activity.

Third, instructors may record the event and offer learning takeaways—like digital handouts and articles or other items that may be beneficial to the learning experience.

Ensuring High Accessibility in Synchronous Real-Time E-Learning

Accessibility may be challenging for individuals with visual acuity, deafness, cognitive symbolic processing, and mobility challenges. Accessibility mitigations suggested for non-live events—annotating imagery for textual equivalencies of the visual information; labeling tables for text reader clarity; captioning or transcribing audio and video files; allowing learners to control simulation speeds and animations (where possible)—should be applied to live events.

One way to enhance these mitigations is to plan pre-events in a way so that those with such accessibility challenges can fully benefit from the faster-paced live events. During the event, there may be multiple channels for communications—including the chat. Some live online events include the valuable work of closed captioning—for real-time sight-reading understanding of auditory speech. After an event, the contents may be made accessible…and reviewable by learners.

Instructors may work towards continuous improvements in terms of accessibility. They may work with their learners with special needs to make sure that their concerns are met in the optimal way possible with the most-reasonable available resources.


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How To

Accessibility considerations: As of 2016, there are technologies that enable the development of accessible synchronous learning. These include tools for real-time machine-transcription and other efforts. Accessibility is a critical element in the delivery of live courses and course content. If automated transcription is not available, human notetaking in the "chat window" is another option.

Possible Pitfalls

Synchronous online learning may offer plenty of liveliness and chances for serendipity and creative sparks, but it also comes with risks.

Learner Expectations / The Need for Learning Value

One risk involves learner expectations. Synchronous time is more expensive than asynchronous time. In the latter learning situation, people may log on when it is convenient. Scheduling for real time may involve more stress and more inconvenience for learners. It may help for instructors to clearly set expectations about the synchronous learning, the pacing, the learning objectives, and the general procedures. It is important to plan live events that have actual learning value for the learners.

Coordination Challenges

If learners are not notified about the various real-time commitments during an online course, there will likely be numerous challenges with time coordination—which may get worse with a higher number of learners, and a greater diversity of geographical locations from which learners hail. Many universities and colleges require instructors to list any and all required synchronous dates for required meetings, to head off such scheduling challenges. (Likewise, if an in-field expert will serve as a guest speaker or e-portfolio critiquer, that should be scheduled ahead of time. High-value learning events need to be planned ahead of time, and back-up plans should also be put into place in order to protect learner time.)

Technology Failure

Another risk involves technology failure. Failure may occur at any point in the chain. Instructors may experience technology failures—on their computers, their connectivity to the Internet, the head-phones and mics, or other aspects of their systems. Learners, guest speakers, and others, may also experience any number of failures that may make real-time online learning challenging.

The Speed of Online Real Time

The speed of real-time in an online setting often requires instructors to pre-plan extensively and to pre-create and pre-upload all digital learning contents (slide shows, digital images, text files), set up activities, write surveys and polls, and test-run all technologies. Another speed challenge may be headed off by having multiple staff on hand to handle student questions and to serve as an interface between a large group of participants and the presenter—in order to allow the presenter to focus on the presentation…but without losing the value of the students’ observations and questions.

The Learner Intimidation Factor

Another risk is the learner intimidation factor. Many who have never engaged in live online interactivity may find this experience intimidating. Many faculty plan dry-runs of the technology for learners. These activities should be low-risk and low-value—in order to help learners acclimate to the technologies. Also, many faculty members will go online 10-15 minutes prior to a live event in order to communicate in an informal and relaxed way with learners and to help others with technology challenges.

An Accessibility Risk

Accessibility is another challenge. One solution which is an expensive one is to have live captioning of the event. The captioning is flowed live in text through the Closed Captioning feature in many web conferencing tools. However, such captioning is often imprecise and incomplete. Another accessibility challenge may be mitigated by posting contents prior to the live event and after the live event. Pre-event, contents may be annotated, and there may be ways to prepare for the live event with the proper accessibility mitigations. Post-event, simulations, slide shows, audio files, and video files may be transcribed and captioned. Some web conferencing tools enable participants to call in using a telephone…if they do not have access to an Internet connection and their computers. Finally, live events may be captured and recorded for those who may wish to review an event…or to see it for the first time if they happened to miss the live event.


Faculty have also mentioned the fear that they would say something that they didn’t mean in a recorded live online session because of the perceived pressure. Some faculty members approach this by preparing well ahead of time and even using a light script to stay on message.

Module Post-Test

1. What is synchronous real-time e-learning?

2. What are some of the pedagogical benefits of synchronous learning?

3. What technologies are used for synchronous e-learning? What are web conferencing tools? What are live video telepresence systems? What are virtual immersive worlds? What is text chat? What are voice tools?

4. How may instructors add value to synchronous online learning?

5. How may synchronous real-time e-learning be made as accessible as possible to the widest possible range of learners?


The contents here are from applied work.

Extra Resources

Adobe Connect™


Go to Meeting™

Live Meeting™

Sonic Foundry’s MediaSite™

“Web Conferencing Software” (Wikipedia)

Cisco's WebEx™

Blackboard Collaborate (formerly Wimba™)