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Promoting synchronous interaction in an eLearning Environment: cyber-instructors continually seek instructional tools that will hold students' attention, and make online communications more efficient and effective. Skype is the latest one to test.

Communication is always a top priority in an online learning environment. A course management system (CMS) will typically promote communication and interaction by using a discussion board, chat, and course e-mail. Such synchronous and asynchronous communication tools are used in Web-based course interaction between instructors and learners for multiple purposes. Alvin Wang and Michael Newlin ("Online Lectures: Benefits for the Virtual Classroom," T.H.E. Journal, 2001, www.thejournal.com/magazine/vault/A35 62.cfm) contend that those asynchronous tools are viewed as the backbone and muscle for the subject content, whereas synchronous media such as chat and the audio bridge are the heart and hustle of online courses. Curtis Bonk and Vanessa Dennen ("Web Advances Continue: From Best Pedagogical Practices to Evaluation and Assessment Techniques," Proceedings of the 18th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning, 2002) argued that live communication via chat is always desired by online learners who expect immediate assistance, response, and recognition. Using these features, class activities are recorded and logged, which allows for reflective teaching (Faridah Pawan, "Reflective Teaching Online" TechTrends, 2003). When CMS access is not available, e-mail can sustain communication.

However, some concerns have risen over the use of these tools. The aforementioned communication tools have been blamed for their rigidity and inefficiency. Bonk and Dennen (2002) warned that without deliberate planning, asynchronous media can exacerbate a learner's feeling of isolation by allowing for scattered forum postings (i.e., message postings) in lieu of a meaningful and intellectual dialog (i.e., discussion questions). The lag time between the mail correspondences is not what most desire (Derrick Lavole and Gerald Foster, "An Inter-University Internet Exchange Project to Network Pre-Service Science Teachers," Proceedings of the 1996 Association for the Education of Teachers in Science Conference, www.ed.psu.edu/CI/journals/96pap16.htm). Additionally, Rovy Branon and Chris Essex ("Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication Tools in Distance Education," Tech Trends, 2001) noted that some cyber-learners do not check in often enough to carry the dialog forward.

Online chat, a synchronous class activity, is likewise as prone to user criticism as its asynchronous counterpart. Two major reasons that online chat is not favored by cyber-instructors are: 1) a large class is simply unmanageable for most instructors, and 2) students believe they should be able to gather all information by accessing course materials on the course Web site (Wang and Newlin 2001). Other disadvantages include insufficient time for student reflection, scheduling students in the chat room at the same time, and slow typists (Branon and Essex 2001).

Thus, additional instructional tools for interaction are needed to supplement the present ones. Web conferencing systems such as Macromedia Breeze (www.macromedia.com) may be a solution, but a significant up-front cost precludes using such a system by all but a small percentage of online programs. Underfunded higher education institutions may have to turn to other resources or sources that promote communication links.

VoIP Freeware Solution: Skype

One of a cyber-instructor's responsibilities is to seek instructional tools that render communications more efficient and effective, as well as catch and hold users' attention. One such instructional tool is the voice over IP freeware tool, Skype (skype.com), which provides high-quality audio communication between two PCs, at no cost, with proper input and output devices such as headsets.

Skype was used for instructional purposes in two entry-level online graduate educational technology courses at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, which has partnered with the University of Texas TeleCampus (a central support unit that facilitates distance education initiatives within the University of Texas System), to devote its educational technology program to eLearning. With a student enrollment of about 400, the school's online master's of education program is committed to serving constituencies regionally, nationally, and internationally, using the Blackboard 6.0 www.blackboard.com) CMS.

There are two major purposes for Skype's use in these courses: 1) to supplement group chat discussion, and 2) to contact the instructor during office hours or other appointed times. The following use of Skype may be a viable alternative for instructors and institutions that are searching for new tools to enhance their online interactivity.

Skype's Impact on Teaching & Learning

The purpose of this study is to answer the question: "To what degree does Skype impact the learning and teaching experience in a Web-based learning environment?" Three aspects of the investigation follow:

* To what extent does Skype change the way the individual learner thinks of synchronous interaction in a Web-based course?

* To what extent does Skype augment the way group members interact?

* To what extent does Skype influence the way the instructor facilitates an online course?

Research method. During the spring 2005 semester, Skype was piloted in two online graduate courses (N=12 and N=16). Throughout the semester, five one-hour chat sessions were planned in each course. On the night the study was conducted, students in both courses were able to choose either Blackboard Chat or Skype to accomplish an in-class activity. (The diagram below represents the activity design.)

During the first half of the chat session, students met in "Lecture Hall" within Blackboard Chat, where class announcements were made and course concepts were reinforced, which was followed by a question/answer session. In the second half of the session, learners were divided into groups of four and asked to brainstorm and respond to a given question or activity by group deliberation. Students could meet in groups using either Skype or Chat. In the Skype groups, a seat in each group was reserved for the instructor for monitoring and advising purposes. Each group, in both the Skype and Chat teams, assigned a secretary to post the group effort in the designated forum. Each group member was required to read and respond to at least one other group's posting by the following midnight.

Collecting student evidence. Anecdotal evidence and Skype conversation during and after the chat session were collected to explain student use of Skype on the individual level. To acquire insight into the actual use of Skype at the course level, a set of eight open-structured questions was e-mailed to participants, followed by a content analysis. The questions were:

* How important is synchronous interaction (e.g., chat, Skype, and phone calls) in a Web-based course like EDTC XXXX?

* If real-time communication is significant in a Web-based course such as EDTC XXXX, one can simply use a land line or cell phone to conduct the group deliberations. Then, from your understanding of Skype, what is the value of Skype in this case?

* What was your experience with Skype last night?

* What are the strengths and weaknesses of Skype in our chat session?

* Whom were you using Skype to speak with?

* What other tools (e.g., Blackboard Chat or Skype Chat) were you using with Skype at the same time? What is the rationale of your blended use?

* Compared to a text-based chat room discussion, what difference does Skype make, as far as easing the communication issue (or making it tougher)?

* What instructional use of Skype do you think we can include in this course in the near future? Or what can we do to make it better next time using Skype or other tools?

Major Results and Discussion

Preliminary findings suggest that the freeware program is an effective tool to build synchronous interaction, and to provide just-in-time clarification and information.

To what extent does Skype change the way the individual learner thinks of synchronous interaction in a Web-based course? Respondents report that their overall experience with Skype is positive. Student responses indicate that synchronous interaction in a virtual learning environment is needed, especially in a group project with time and space constraints. Compared to their prior experience with Blackboard Collaboration (aka Chat), use of Skype in facilitating synchronous interaction is promising. Some learners also note that talking via Skype makes them more aware of the topic, and that abstract topics seem to make more sense than when using Blackboard Collaboration. Not only are they conversing with others, they are having an intrapersonal dialog where the individual student is empowered to take an active and responsible learning role. Audio interaction seems to change the way individuals view synchronous interaction in a Web-based course.

To what extent does Skype augment the way group members interact? Skype seems able to augment group interaction; interaction between learners becomes consistent and responsive during the half hour. In Skype, typing is not an issue; learners can save all the mental effort to communicate thoughts, raise questions, and seek clarification by listening, thinking, and speaking. Skype users reported that talking made them stay on task and motivated them to learn.

To what extent does Skype influence the way the instructor facilitates an online course? Anecdotal evidence shows that class activities dictate media selection. Activities in the selected classes include significant time spent in group activities. The rationale for the use of Skype to promote a virtual team exercise is three-fold: 1) to solicit immediate feedback and input from peers, 2) to reinforce key points of the course content, and 3) to develop a working relationship toward a final group project. Skype fulfills students' needs to provide and receive just-in-time information, to access real-time content clarification when necessary, and for all members to get to know each other in a manner that transcends text.

Conclusions

Online courses may not be for everyone. However, when eLearning is the only opportunity to receive education, it will be one of the instructor's responsibilities to ensure the eLearning experience is as compatible and comparable as possible to students' prior experience. Any online program may have to accommodate those who are limited to the choice of eLearning.

This qualitative inquiry is deemed significant because of its attempt to discover a new tool that is suitable for a distributed learning environment. The Skype freeware enables CMS users (i.e., the instructor and learners) to provide just-in-time clarification and information. Thus, learners can receive an immediate recognition of their courses of action, such as responsible and responsive participation in the course activities, which, in turn, encourages their autonomous and active or proactive learning on the Web. The audio tool also adds a high-touch, high-tech experience. Above all, a causal relationship between the three key elements of an instructional design approach (i.e., outcomes>activities >technologies) is witnessed in this initial phase of analysis.

7 Instructor Recommendations for Skype Use

* Schedule the students" Skype subscription in the class orientation. The sooner students are exposed to the technology, the better they'll adjust to the unique learning experience.

* Organize a pre-class training session for a subset of the entire class. Instructors can schedule a meeting with a group of class "trainers." These trainers then teach their own group members skills.

* Divide students into groups of four. A Skype conference call can only take up to five participants. If needed, reserve a seat for the instructor for tracking/coaching purposes.

* Provide technology use protocols ahead of time. For instance, if someone accidentally hangs up, the conference call initiator (usually the group leader) ca n immediately add him back in to the meeting.

* Keep group deliberations on the record using additional tools. Skype conference calls are not recorded. Options are Skype Chat and Blackboard Chat.

* Reserve a Blackboard Chat Room for each group as the last resort. One of the drawbacks of using such freeware is that the service makes no guarantee that the program will be there when needed. An effective way to cope with this is to reserve the Blackboard Chat Room as a backup device.

* Encourage necessary accessories. A headset and a wired broadband connection are preferred accessories for use with Skype and other similar communication tools.

Cheng-Chang(Sam) Pan (Sam.Pan@utb.edu) teaches a fully Web-based educational technology graduate program as an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction for the School of Education at The University of Texas at Brownsville/Text Southmost College (UTB/TSC). Michael Sullivan (Mike.Sullivan@utb.edu), an associate professor of educational technology at UTB/TSC, has more than 25 years experience in public education and distance education.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Synchronous Interaction in eLearning
Author:Pan, Cheng-Chang; Sullivan, Michael
Publication:T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
Words:2014
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