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The real-time online tutor
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by Clive Shepherd
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Sometimes, life's simply too short to be asynchronous. The offending 'a' has to be removed to allow us to get on with things more quickly. In this article, we'll be looking at the various ways in which a more natural communication interface can be established between learners and tutors, by going real-time, or 'synchronous'.

Contents
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Knowing when to go synchronous
Forms of synchronous communication
The mechanics of asynchronous discussions
Managing asynchronous discussions

Knowing when to go synchronous
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Thousands of years ago, before we learned to write things down, all communication was synchronous - we talked to each other, face-to-face. And with the advent of the telephone, we became capable of extending real-time communication to people at a distance from us. Unfortunately, with the paucity of bandwidth currently available to us, it's been difficult to maintain our synchronous communications in the digital age. Most of our online communication uses asynchronous methods such as email and bulletin boards.

However, bandwidth is increasing substantially, with the advent of new formats such as ISDN and ADSL, and new digital channels such as cable and radio. We can begin to expand our synchronous horizons.

But when is synchronous communication right within online learning? Here's some suggestions:

Use synchronous methods when:

  • It is important that your audience gets your message: Synchronous communication is a push medium. Use it when a notice on the web site or a broadcast message would not do the trick.
  • You want an instant response or resolution to an issue: With synchronous methods, there's no delay while participants check their email, compose and despatch responses.
  • It's important that learners can see and hear each other: Assuming you have the facilities for audio or video conferencing, then the communication becomes more personal and direct. Tutors and learners can get to know each other, for better or worse!

Don't use synchronous methods when:

  • You need time to compose your message: Some communication is better spontaneous. At other times, you need time to prepare what you're going to say, which is difficult to achieve with real-time methods.
  • Your students need time to consider their responses: Some discussions and debates require participants to research and develop their arguments before putting them forward. This is not really feasible in real-time.
  • You require a record of the communication: With some  text-based chat software, you can keep a record of the discussion, but with audio and video conferencing, this is not really practical.
  • Students find it difficult to be available at the same time: By definition, synchronous methods require participants to be available at the same time and this is not always practical, particularly where learners are situated across different time zones or are having to fit the learning in alongside many other commitments.
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Forms of synchronous communication
Synchronous communication comes in a variety of forms:

Text chat
Text chat is the most basic of synchronous methods and the easiest to implement. It's not surprising, therefore, that it's also the most popular.

Electronic whiteboards
An electronic whiteboard makes it possible for participants to contribute to a common visual working space. They can draw on the whiteboard, type text or paste images and each participant sees the same end result.

Audio conferencing
With audio conferencing, participants can talk to each other in real time. With half-duplex audio, only one person can speak at a time. With full-duplex audio, more than one person can speak simultaneously.

Video conferencing
Video conferencing allows participants to see as well as hear each other. For full, multi-way video conferencing to take place requires a great deal of bandwidth and technology. Most virtual classroom packages allow only one video stream to be transmitted at a time.

Application sharing
This feature allows participants to view and work on documents jointly or for one participant to take over and work on another's computer. In other cases, a group can share web addresses so that, when one participant goes to a web page, all other participants follow automatically.

Polling
Another possibility is real-time polling of all the participants in the meeting. This could be to gauge opinions or to gather answers to a test question.

The mechanics of synchronous communication
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It is more complicated to use a network for real-time communication than it is for such familiar tasks as email, browsing web pages, transferring files or running bulletin boards. For communication to be truly synchronous, participants have to be able to find each other on the network and exchange messages at sufficient speed for the term synchronous to have some credibility.

Synchronous communication can be accomplished on intranets or the Internet in two main ways:

Dedicated software tools
Products like Microsoft NetMeeting, a free Windows software package provided alongside Microsoft Internet Explorer, are dedicated to supporting synchronous communication.

NetMeeting provides many of the facilities described earlier in this section, but, as a general purpose tool, does not have every feature an online tutor may desire. For example, it has no way for  the tutor to control which participant inputs and when, and no means for real-time questioning and polling. For the full range of training facilities, you need a full virtual classroom environment, such as the products provided by Centra and LearnLinc.

Web tools
Asynchronous communication facilities can also be provided within web browsers. Simple web pages can not, in themselves, provide the necessary functionality, so extra programming must be provided, typically using Java applets.

Let's start by looking at the ways in which text-based chat can be achieved. There's a number of ways in which you can build this into your courses:

Use a public service
You can run a chat room for your course by utilising a public service like egroups.com. Although this site is used primarily for asynchronous discussion, it also has facilities for text-based chat and simple audio conferencing.

Use a specialist package
Text-based chat facilities are built-in to Microsoft NetMeeting, as well as specialist virtual classroom products like those provided by Centra and LearnLinc.

Build chat into your own site
It's also possible to incorporate chat facilities into your own site, typically with the aid of a Java applet. For example, the ParaChat applet, from Paralogic Software, is in use on over 250,000 sites.

If you're planning to use audio or video conferencing as part of your course, you'll need to make sure that the right hardware and software is in place:

Sound capture
In an audio or video conferencing session, every participant who will be contributing in sound to the meeting must have a microphone connected to a sound card on their computer. The sound card captures (digitises) the signal from the microphone, so it can be transmitted to other participants.

Video capture
With video conferencing, every participant who will be seen on video needs a video camera connected in some way to their PC. With the more expensive systems, the computer is fitted with a video capture card, which digitises and compresses the video signal. The cheaper option is to buy a camera that plugs directly into the parallel port or a USB (universal serial bus) port on the PC. In this case, the computer's processor has to do the job of digitising and compressing the picture.

Conferencing software
Each participant in an audio or video conferencing meeting needs to have the necessary software to manage the process of exchanging messages between participants. As we have seen, some of this software -such as Microsoft NetMeeting and virtual classroom packages from Centra and LearnLinc - is dedicated to the job of conferencing, whilst in other cases the necessary functionality can be achieved on a web site.

Network connection
All participants need to be connected via an intranet, the Internet or some other network. Both audio and video conferencing are heavy on bandwidth, which means that you can expect pretty poor results on simple dial-up connections, particularly with video. However, bandwidth is improving all the time and it will become increasingly feasible to include sound and video in your real-time communications.

Sound playback
Every participant will need to have speakers or headphones connected to the sound card on their computer.

Video playback
This is not a problem, as all a participant needs is a monitor.

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Managing synchronous discussions
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It can be hard at times to manage a face-to-face meeting - keeping the discussion on track in order to achieve the objectives of the session whilst ensuring that all participants are involved. Online you are faced with a host of additional difficulties, brought about because of the constraints of the media at your disposal.  Even with video conferencing, you will not be able to maintain visual  contact with all your learners at once.

By taking a few simple actions, as a tutor you can make quite a difference to the effectiveness of your synchronous communications:

Communicate the goal and the timeframe
As with any other form of meeting, it's essential to agree a common goal and a timeframe. As someone once said: "If you don't know where you're going, you're likely to end up somewhere else."

Establish the rules of communication
Real-time online communication will be an unfamiliar process to many of your learners. It's better to establish the rules for communication up-front:

  • the mechanics of using the software
  • the procedure to follow, if any, for making a contribution
  • how you, as tutor, will signal the need to move on
  • the rules for using private, one-to-one messaging
  • any rules for acceptable behaviour

Encourage all to contribute
As with face-to-face meetings, some members of the group will tend to dominate. You can use much the same methods to remedy the situation:

  • initiate activities or ask questions that require all participants to respond
  • ask questions directly to quiet participants
  • tactfully restrain members who are tending to dominate (you could do this with one-to-one messaging)

Control discussions that are straying off course
If time is short or you are in any danger of failing to meet your goal for the session, you will want to ensure that the discussion stays on course. All that is needed is a quick and tactful response to any participant who is obviously leading the group off at a tangent.

Summarise outcomes at each stage of the discussion
One way to help keep the discussion on track is to summarise the key points that have been raised and any conclusions reached at the end of each stage of the discussion. You can then redirect the discussion or bring it to a satisfactory close.

Act any against misuse of the facility
As with asynchronous discussions, occasionally the rules that you establish for the discussion will be broken and you will have to take action to remedy the situation. You may be able to deal with the situation on a one-to-one, but in extreme cases you may have to expel someone from the session. Nearly all conferencing software provides facilities for the tutor or 'moderator' to accomplish this. Of course, the action you can take will depend on the authority you are granted by your organisation.

So that's it. Our guide for online tutors who want to communicate in real-time. Look out for our companion article, providing guidance to those tutors who want to add asynchronous communication to the mix.
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