Nonverbal cues are very important for understanding in a F2F conversation. A change in tone or the raising of an eyebrow may completely alter the message, regardless of the words being spoken. Many of these cues are absent or altered in a synchronous environment. A body of literature exists discussing the importance of immediacy in communication for online courses. Immediacy lessens the psychological distance between communicators and creates a greater sense of closeness or proximity. In the F2F world, behaviors like eye contact, tone of voice, posture, stance, etc. all contribute to the feeling of closeness. In the synchronous world, these subtle cues are either absent or look very different.
One of your goals for a synchronous session should be to design ways to achieve greater immediacy with students. You can do some of this using audio through tone. You can do some of this through the words you write and the language you select in your responses to students. You will also need to intentionally work to add additional cues to this environment.
Gauging the Pulse of the Class
You can look for certain things to help you understand student engagement during your session.
- How long does it take for responses to questions or a poll are received?
- How frequently are emoticons used?
- Do you get full participation when conducting a poll?
- Do controversial or important statements or questions make the interface become busy with emoticons, text messages, or other indicators of activity?
- Is there ongoing and on topic chat activity while you are speaking?
- What is the level of participation when doing whiteboard activities?
- Are students submitting questions via the chat area?
- Do responses to questions demonstrate "deep" or "shallow" thinking?
- Do recall or simple comprehension questions generate rapid responses?
- What percentage of students are actively participating?
- Do some students never participate?
- Do some indicators (emoticons) remain unchanged throughout the session?
Techniques to Influence Immediacy
Emoticons are a combination of keyboard strokes or a small icon intended to convey a particular emotion, feeling, or mood. Although emoticons may seem unnecessary, they are actually an easy way to convey the nuances of communication when actual gestures cannot be seen. With the widespread adoption of texting, abbreviations and "textspeak" have also entered mainstream communication venues. We advocate the liberal use of emoticons to enhance communication in the asynchronous course. Emoticons can soften criticism, provide reinforcement, or show the nuances of meaning for a particular communication. One suggestion is to solicit emoticons from students and to establish the use of emoticons as a normal part of classroom communications.
Most synchronous tools have some sort of polling feature. These features allow you to approximate the time-tested method of asking questions of the class. Polling is also a low-threshold means to encourage students reluctant to post or speak to participate in the class. Polling can help you easily gauge interest and/or comprehension. A powerful use of polling uses the responses of the students to alter the pace and flow of the presentation. Just as you might cover material in a different way after listening to responses in a F2F classroom, polling provides feedback that allows you to adjust instruction based on students' responses.
Adapted from Finklestein, J. (2006). Learning in real time: Synchronous teaching and learning online. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
page last updated 8/27/2015 1:02 PM