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Synchronous and asynchronous communication in an online environment: faculty experiences and perceptions.

INTRODUCTION

Distance education is becoming more and more popular as it does not have the limitations of space and/or time. According to the report of Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions: 2006-07, 66% of 2-year and 4-year Title IV eligible, degree-granting institutions offered online, hybrid, or other formats of distance education courses during the 2006-2007 academic year. It also reported an estimated 12.2 million enrollments/registrations in distance education courses (Parsad & Lewis, 2008).

While distance education can be delivered via different methods such as cable TV or CD, asynchronous web-based online instruction was reported as the most adopted delivery method for distance education (Parsad & Lewis, 2008). Asynchronous online communication does not require the real-time participation of instructor and students, which can be supported through tools such as e-mails, discussion boards, blogs, wikis, or video/audio recordings. Literature has documented the effectiveness of asynchronous learning environments to facilitate student learning. It has been found that asynchronous communication fostered in-depth learning and critical thinking as students would have more time to process information and their thinking (Benbunan-Fich & Hiltz, 1999; Bonk & King, 1998; Duffy, Dueber, & Hawley, 1998). However, the delayed feedback in asynchronous learning environments has been identified as one of its main limitations (Branon & Essex, 2001). In addition, asynchronous online learning environment may not provide sufficient opportunities for social interactions, thus it tends to create a sense of separation between students and instructors (Branon & Essex, 2001; Ory & Bullock, 1997).

Another mode of online communication, synchronous or live online communication, has begun to gain increasing popularity in distance education as affordable and advanced tools enabling this mode of communication are becoming available (see Barron et al., 2005; Cao, Griffin, & Bai, 2009; Chen, Chen, & Tsai, 2009; Hrastinski, 2008; Xenos, Avouris, Stavrinoudis, & Margaritis, 2009). Synchronous communication can be supported through tools such as chat rooms, instant messaging, or web conferencing with whiteboard, audio, and video capabilities (e.g., Blackboard Collaborate, Adobe Connect). Research shows that synchronous communication can overcome some of the limitations associated with asynchronous learning environment, such as providing opportunities for immediate feedback and helping to build connections between instructor and students (Hines & Pearl, 2004; Im & Lee, 2003). Synchronous communication has also been found to have positive impact on other aspects of distance education as compared to asynchronous communication, such as improved brainstorming and group decision-making skills (Branon & Essex, 2001), better understanding of students' learning attitudes (Hwang & Yang, 2008), and increased student satisfaction with Web-based courses (Cao et al., 2009).

Although many studies have examined the effect of different online communication tools on student learning and attitudes, relatively few studies (Botts & Ryan, 2007; Branon & Essex, 2001; Choi & Park, 2006; Murphy, Rodriguez-Manzanares, & Barbour, 2011; Yu & Brandenburg, 2006) have looked at instructor experiences and perceptions communicating with students online. With the increased popularity of distance education, instructors face the challenge of communicating with students effectively in an environment that requires different strategies and skills than communicating with students in face-to-face settings (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). Understanding instructors' experiences and perceptions is important because studies have shown that instructors' attitudes and acceptance of technology to a large degree determines how successful the use of technology is in teaching and learning (Kluever, Lam, & Hoffman, 1994; Koohang, 1989; Violato, Mariniz, & Hunter, 1989; Yuen & Ma, 2008).

The purpose of this study was to examine online instructors' experiences and perceptions of online teaching and their communication with students in an online environment. More specifically, the study focused on the questions regarding:

* instructors' general experiences and perceptions of online teaching;

* instructors' general experiences and perceptions of online communication;

* instructors' likes and dislikes about online synchronous and asynchronous communication;

* factors affecting instructors' adoption of synchronous communication mode;

* strategies that instructors used to facilitate online communication;

* instructors' perceptions of the impact of different communication mode on learning; and

* difficulties instructors have encountered for online teaching and communication.

By examining the current practices of teaching and communication in synchronous and asynchronous online environments from instructors' perspectives, it was hoped that this paper would provide insights and guidance for distance education.

METHOD

Participants

Sixteen instructors at a Midwest university participated in the study. A stratified purposeful sampling strategy was employed in order to obtain richer information regarding the research questions (Patton, 2002). Three levels of criteria were used to identify the potential participants. First, all participants needed to meet one common criterion: experience teaching at least one fully online class at the university level. Second, participants were selected so that they fell into one of the two categories: instructors who adopted both synchronous and asynchronous communication modes for online delivery of instruction, or instructors who relied solely on asynchronous communication mode. The third level of sampling strategy was maximum heterogeneity sampling: for each category mentioned above, we tried to identify instructors representing as many subject matter areas as possible. Based on the aforementioned criteria, we recruited 16 instructors from 13 departments in 5 colleges at the university, including 10 females and 6 males.

All participants used the university's Blackboard Course Management System 7.3 as the main platform to host their online courses. In each Blackboard course site, participants had the options to use Blackboard built-in tools such as Announcement, E-mail, Discussion Board, and Chat. Participants could also access third-party tools in Blackboard such as Tegrity, blog, wiki, podcast, and Elluminate Live! (now part of Blackboard known as Blackboard Collaborate). Eight instructors had integrated synchronous communication mode to their online courses, while the other eight instructors had not used any synchronous communication tool in their online courses. Table 1 includes summary information of the participants.

Data Sources

In-depth, semistructured one-on-one interviews were the primary data source for the study. A list of open-ended questions were generated to guide the interviews about participants' experiences and perceptions of online teaching and communication with students. All interviews were conducted by the two researchers face-to-face with each participant in a quiet conference room at the university with the exception of two cases where the interviews were conducted in instructors' offices. Each interview lasted for about 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours. Interview questions were designed based on the research questions. Participants were asked questions such as their experiences and perceptions of online teaching/communication in general, their likes and dislikes about online (a)synchronous communication, their strategies to facilitate online communication, their perceptions of the impact of communication mode on student learning, the difficulties they encountered for online communication, and reasons they would use or not to use (a)synchronous mode for future online course delivery (e.g., What comes to your mind first when you think of online communication? What do you like about communicating online with students (a)synchronously? What do you dislike about communicating online with students (a)synchronously?).

Data Analysis

The unit of analysis for the study was individual instructors. All interviews were recorded using a digital audio recorder, and the recordings were transcribed verbatim. Transcripts were analyzed following the constant comparative method (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The researchers coded the data into different categories, renaming the categories as necessary, until themes emerged from the data as related to the research questions.

RESULTS

Overall Perceptions of Online Teaching

Participants, in general, expressed positive attitudes toward online teaching. "Convenient," "flexible," "fun" and "enjoy" are mentioned several times each in response to this question. On the other hand, "a lot of work" was also mentioned by a couple of participants as one of the first things that came to their minds when thinking of online teaching.

Online Teaching is Convenient. First of all, when talking about online teaching, most participants thought it was "convenient" or "flexible," with no limitation of time or space, as expressed in the following comment:
   That [online teaching] is convenient. It is
   flexible. From my point of view, it is so good
   to me. It fits me, because I want to do anytime
   anywhere to communicate with my students,
   to post my instruction, learning
   materials, teaching materials, whatever I
   want to do I can do anytime even during mid
   night ... so it doesn't limit anything, the
   place, the time, and it is so good. It fits me
   well.


Online Teaching is Fun. For some participants, online teaching was not only convenient, but also fun and enjoyable for various reasons, such as the diversity of students, being able to overcome initial nervousness, and the use of technology for teaching and learning:
   I enjoy it quite a bit, actually, because I've
   been fortunate, I think, to have students
   enrolled from all over the world in my class,
   so that when we talked about current issues,
   it's fun to have different people to have different
   perspectives, and very different current
   issues going on.

   I think it's fun.... When I first was going to
   have to teach online totally ... I was a little
   nervous because I'm a pretty spontaneous
   teacher in the classroom, and I knew I had to
   be pretty organized ... I mean, you had to
   really set things up ahead of time ... but I
   found that I actually could be more spontaneous.

   When I think of online teaching, I think of the
   ways in which technology can be leveraged
   ... to make this learning experience more
   fun, not just for the students, but also for me,
   you know, because it can be ... Technology
   is so much a part of our lives.


Online Teaching Involves a Lot of Work. Although online teaching was perceived as convenient and fun, many participants mentioned that online teaching had a heavier workload as compared to face-to-face teaching. Part of the workload was related to the upfront preparation of online courses, as expressed in the following comment:
   A lot of work (laughing). A lot of work, I
   guess I should say, before the class even
   starts, a lot of preparation.


Another participant indicated that this upfront preparation seemed a more critical factor determining the success of an online course than a face-to-face course:
   The only way I found to keep things clear is
   put a lot of time into it, upfront, and before
   you even start because otherwise ... it's so
   difficult. You are doomed. You don't have
   everything in place. It's just gonna become
   chaotic ... so that takes a tremendous amount
   of work.


In addition, another instructor mentioned that the heavier workload was due partly to the nature of text-based communication:
   Teaching this way [online] ... is actually
   more labor-intensive than teaching on campus
   cause this sheer amount of typing that
   you deal with, you know, back and forth on
   papers rather than just sitting down and talking
   to a student, I mean it just takes so much
   time.


Miscommunication Due to Lack of Visual Cues. Another theme that emerged about participants' overall perceptions of online teaching was that miscommunication was more likely to occur due to the lack of visual cues in an online environment, as expressed in the following comments:
   I do notice that sometimes online communication,
   without the facial expression, body
   language, the tone, you don't have those
   cues, so sometimes miscommunication could
   happen.

   Sometimes when you communicate with students
   on a discussion board, and you say
   something to students, students might get
   offended or take it incorrectly ... take what
   you say incorrectly. And we had the experience
   last semester two students kind of got
   into a heated discussion because one student
   misinterpreted what one another student said
   and took it very personally ... so in a face-to-face
   communication, there would not have
   been so much time spent fixing the problem.


Overall Experiences and Perceptions of Online Communication

In general, the asynchronous communication tools commonly adopted by the participants included e-mail, discussion board, announcement, and other text-based communication forms such as documents uploaded in the course delivery platform. As far as synchronous communication is concerned, most adopted tools included chat and web conferencing tools such as Adobe Connect and Elluminate Live! (now Blackboard Collaborate). For each tool, we asked the participants what the typical tasks they had designed using the tool. Table 2 is a summary of the findings, with the indication of the potential type of online interaction with which the tasks associate, that is, learner-instructor, learner-learner, or learner-content (Moore, 1989, 1993).

Regarding instructors' overall perceptions of online communication, the following themes emerged from the interview data.

E-mail as Predominant Tool for Online Communication: Easy but can be Overwhelming. The majority of the instructors interviewed explicitly mentioned that there was a lot of e-mail communication between them and students in their online classes:
   A lot of e-mail ... I have attempted other
   forms, like a chat room, or online office hour,
   Blackboard Chat Room, and I just think students
   are used to e-mail, so they tend to email
   me (laughing), and so even when they
   should call me, probably they don't, they e
   mail me ... It's a lot of communicating
   through e-mail. That seems to be the students'
   main way of communicating.


Some instructors added that students' preference for e-mail as an online communication tool was perhaps related to their confidence or comfort level using the tool, as noted in the following comment:
   Students seem to really ... be very used to
   using e-mail ... I think that students like the
   fact that they can send an e-mail and they
   know that I'll get it, and I almost always get
   it. There've been a few cases, you know, but
   I think they feel a high level of confidence
   that they can send it and I'll get it. And then,
   I think they feel a high level of comfort with
   e-mail because people e-mail each other a lot.
   They have lot of experience with e-mail.


Although many participants thought that e-mail as a communication tool was "easy," "convenient," or had its "natural beauty," to some of them, the amount of e-mail communication could be overwhelming:
   Just a large number of e-mails, it's almost
   unmanageable at times.

   When students ask questions in class, if you
   don't understand the questions, you can ask
   them in a couple of words to clarify ... And
   you know, you can do a quick back-and-forth
   exchange a couple of times to figure out what
   they are really trying to ask you ... On online
   classes, it's much harder. Students will not
   ask very clear questions, and it takes sometimes
   two or three e-mails ... to get to figure
   out what it is they want to know ... Those
   kinds of things can be really time-consuming,
   and really frustrating.


Online Office was Underused. Consistent with the student preference of e-mail as one of the primary tools communicating with the instructors, several participants commented that their online office in the form of discussion board Q&A or Blackboard Chat was not well used, as expressed in the following comment:
   When it's Q and A online, they don't have
   the patience to read all of the answers just in
   case it might apply to them ... They rather
   just ... ask you directly [in e-mail] ... They
   want personal response.


Some participants mentioned that their students even never attended the Blackboard Chat Online Office despite the fact that this option was given throughout the semester.

Asynchronous Communication: Likes

Regarding the question of what instructors liked about asynchronous communication, the following themes emerged from participants' comments.

Equal Opportunity for Participation. One thing participants liked about online asynchronous communication was that it provided an equal opportunity for everyone to participate, which would be harder to achieve in face-to-face classes or online synchronous communications, as expressed in the following two comments:
   When I ask questions [in a face-to-face
   class], typically the more vocal ones, they
   will just jump in and answer the question;
   and for the online class, I think it's more
   equal opportunity. Students they are more
   likely to jump in, especially with the Discussion
   Board, then they are forced, kinda
   required to participate. I think that helps the
   participation. Whereas on campus, sometimes
   the more vocal students they pretty
   much dominate.

   I like the Discussion Board because ... they
   [students] get to express and ... I think they
   feel free to type it in, to say what they really
   think and then to get feedback from their
   peers ... I think they get a chance to ask
   themselves questions; everybody gets to
   comment about it instead of like in a classroom
   you get groups to comment about it.


Higher Quality Discussions. Another theme emerged from participant comments is that they liked the fact that online asynchronous discussions were often more thoughtful and richer, as expressed by the following participants:
   What I like about it is they [asynchronous
   online discussions] are often more thoughtful.
   Some students in the class environment
   are inhibited ... they are afraid to talk ...
   whatever ... and then they may not have a lot
   of information that they want to bring to
   there, but online they, obviously asynchronously
   ... the diligent students really take the
   time to create really thoughtful, you know,
   posts.

   They have to communicate with you in writing.
   They have to think through and develop
   their ideas into meaningful and interesting
   and coherent thoughts before they send them
   to you. And, they can see that, they can
   review that, they can reread their writing, and
   they can look at what they're saying and
   decide if they're happy about, you know,
   what they're expressing, and they can clearly
   see that they have to give certain lengths and
   certain level of development to their
   thoughts, and that means that they are going
   to give you more developed ideas that are
   more clearly thought through with a higher
   level of critical thinking than if they were just
   speaking in class.


Asynchronous Communication: Dislikes

Lack of Instructor-Student Connection. Lack of instructor-student connection is one main theme that emerged from participants' comments on what they disliked about asynchronous communication. This lack of connection could be directly related to the sense of physical separation, as expressed in the following comment:
   It is not in person. I tend to like it in person
   kind of thing which can never be.


Nevertheless, perhaps more importantly, the lack of connection was also presented as a psychological distance that was in part caused by the physical distance:
   I really feel disconnected from them ... like
   when they call me up or when they send me
   an e-mail with an excuse about why they
   missed an assignment or they needed an
   extension, I'm not as forgiving as I am with
   the students I see face-to-face ... I think I just
   don't feel like I have the same kind of personal
   relationship with them.


Later the instructor who made the above comment also added that the students had the same problem:
   They say the communication tools are very
   effective, but that they don't always feel like
   that they can connect with me. I think they
   have the same problem that I have ... I just
   feel we're disconnected.


Another participant made the similar comment that it was harder to build the instructor-student connection with text-based asynchronous communication:
   With the on-campus class, I see students, you
   know, every week. Even after a few semesters,
   after they have my class, I still see them,
   you know, I still recognize them, and some of
   them will walk up to you and then chat with
   you. With online classes, unless with the students
   who actually call me on a regular basis
   (laughing), we never see each other, even if
   they come on campus, you know, I don't
   know who they are, and they, even though
   they know who I am, still they may not feel
   comfortable walking up to me and chatting
   with me, so, the instructor-student rapport, I
   think it takes more effort to build those, the
   same level of the connection with the students.


Time-Consuming. Another thing that participants did not like about asynchronous communication was the fact that this mode of communication could take more time, as expressed in the following comments:
   The time consuming part ... because the
   interaction is tailored to the individuals,
   whereas the face-to-face, on-campus class,
   you can give a general response, and everybody
   gets it, whereas with online, e-mail, and
   then the discussion, you know, it's ... almost
   like individualized instruction times 25 or
   however many students in your class.

   It is really labor intensive. I mean really, to
   compare just the sheer amount of time that it
   will take to say, have a discussion about the
   assigned chapter, you know, you do in an
   hour and a quarter, you know, in a traditional
   class of 50 minutes, two 50 minutes or whatever.
   I mean, I can spend hours and hours and
   hours and just do one [online] discussion ...
   very labor intensive, so that is another thing
   that, you know, I don't love (laughing ...).
   You may spend hours and hours just typing.


Synchronous Communication: Likes

For participants who had experience communicating with students online synchronously, it seemed that their likes were related mainly to two-way Web conferencing.

Two-Way Web Conferencing: Establishing Instructor-Student Connection. One theme emerged from the interview data was that two-way Web synchronous communication made it easier to establish instructor-student connection than asynchronous text-based communication. Two instructors who used two-way web conferencing tools to interact with students on regular bases explicitly mentioned they liked how it helped them to connect to their students:
   I like we can connect ... I like that ... I can
   see faces and put into names and they can see
   my face and let them kind of trust me more,
   that I am there for them instead of just being
   in e-mail ... you know, a "face-to-face" connection.
   I think it is really important for students.

   Feel the personal connection, I think it's
   good, so, feel more close ... They [students]
   feel comfortable.


It is interesting to note that this finding is in contrast to that about asynchronous communication where participants felt disconnected with their students, as noted by one participant:
   If you have a video conference on a regular
   basis, and if it's two-way, where the professor
   and students can see each other, that may
   help [build rapport]. But, you know, just
   purely text based, more of one way, I think
   it's more difficult for the rapport to develop
   the same level of the connection with the students.


Two-Way Web Conferencing: Barrier. Participants also mentioned that two-way Web conferencing helped to reduce communication barrier between them and the students:
   It was great. Usually students are very happy
   because they can see what I want them to see.
   They can see their own mistakes, so easy. I
   mean communication is more straightforward.
   There is no barrier between myself and
   students.

   Because of instant communication, they can
   just like in the classroom, they can ... pretty
   much we can derive from the questions they
   have, so, maybe sometimes they have some
   "blind points," usually you can pinpoint to
   help them [with] the new process [i.e., Web
   conferencing].


Synchronous Communication: Dislikes

Not Everyone Can Participate. Regarding dislikes for synchronous communication, one main theme is that participants were disappointed that not everyone was able to participate at the same time due to the fact that students were in different time zones or had different schedules:
   There is a problem with the attendance when
   we do the online meetings ... a lot of people
   want to attend but they can't attend.

   The only part that I dislike is when I have a
   very few number of students ... I like more
   students. So it is when just a few students are
   there, I don't like to be picking on any one
   student, so I like to spread this around ... and
   I think that it makes at least for me a more
   enjoyable presentation when there are more
   students than when there are fewer ... I think
   they can learn from the recorded session, but
   I like to interact with them to see if they are
   getting it or not, and they don't do that.


Text-Based Chat not Much Helpful. Some participants mentioned that the text-based chat tool such as Blackboard Chat does not help much for their online communication with students, as noted in the following comments:
   The little chats that I use for synchronous
   [communication] ... I don't find anything
   particularly useful.

   It can be a little clunky about ... you know ...
   just the nuts and bolts of it. Before I hit return
   somebody might have preempted ... Everything
   I just typed is irrelevant now.


Strategies Facilitating Online Communication

Provide Clear Guidelines/Rubrics/Examples for Online Discussions. When asked what strategies worked for facilitating online communication, the majority of participants mentioned that guidelines and rubrics for online discussions were important:
   With the rubrics ... I ask them to respond to
   each other ... I ask them to respond to the
   posting ... I ask them to back up their
   responses from a creditable source ... I ask
   them to site the creditable source ... and
   that's typically I would give them for credits.
   The discussion board is not worth the huge
   amount of points, but I do want to use that to
   encourage them to talk to each other.


Some participants also mentioned that providing model examples for online discussions helped to improve discussion quality. For example, below is a participant's comment regarding her modeling for students to discuss about personal reactions to ethnographic case studies in her class:
   I discovered ... what I ought to do is I ought
   to post an initial entry on the blog, and I
   ought to say something about my personal
   feelings about that week's readings ... That
   kinda gave students permission to ... and a
   model for them ... so then they would start
   talking about the experiences of coming to
   the united states, or what was it like ... and
   then other students would kinda talk about
   that too ... so that becomes very interesting,
   and that's something that's been so interesting
   that I've been willing to devote more time
   ... to doing that.


Another instructor made similar comments on how examples helped:
   I have rubrics and examples of what's a good
   post and what's a bad post. And I just draw
   those from previous semesters. The first time
   I didn't have it ... I thought "no" ... (laughing).


Online Instructor Presence: Balancing. Another theme emerged regarding participants' responses to their strategies is related to online instructor presence. Many participants mentioned that they monitored student discussions regularly but only jumped in when necessary or when problem was detected so that they did not present themselves too much while making students stay on track, as expressed in the following comments:
   I'm always afraid that if I'm too present, then
   they won't feel honest. They won't feel like
   they can talk to each other openly. So I try to
   ... balance ... give them directions and feedback
   when necessary but not ... poke and
   prod too much.

   I wouldn't respond to everyone. I would just
   kinda check and see, well ... the difficulty ...
   how you try to replicate the organic feeling of
   an in-class discussion on the discussion
   board, on the posting situation. So I try to
   intervene particularly like if a student is
   responding in a really off base way or interpretation
   that is totally wrong, then I will
   immediately jump in, but if it is kind of interchange
   I will let it go for a while, but I do try
   to get in there if not every day then at least
   every other day or something.


On the other hand, some other instructors expressed their uncertainty about how much they should "present" themselves for online discussions, as put in the following comment:
   So if I get involved, then they may limit their
   conversation, the variety of things, so I wonder
   if it is good for them (laughing). They
   may not want to get me involved in that conversation,
   so still I'm hesitating.


Expanding Awareness of Strategies. Some instructors mentioned that although they had their own strategies in facilitating online communication, they were interested in sharing with others and becoming aware of other strategies that could be used in their online courses, as expressed in the following comments:
   I'm gonna keep saying, you know, I think
   that kind of thing would be ... really helpful
   in terms of expanding awareness and thinking
   about strategies, cause lots of times you
   learn, once in a while you learn about a tool,
   but the idea of comprehensive strategy ... is
   something a lot of times we don't get a
   chance to talk about, and we don't talk about
   it with anybody. You know ... just kind of in
   your office, you're working, devise your
   strategy, maybe you talk to a friend, but you
   are not organized around the people who are
   all using it or are interested in talking about
   it.

   I mean [if] students like it [technology], then
   I'd like to use it if I think that is meaningful.
   So I think that is why I need some more professional
   development, taking courses and
   understand some new technology options,
   and without encouragement people normally,
   like me, may not use new technology ... so it
   [professional development] is very important.


Impact of Communication Mode on Learning

Regarding instructors' perceptions of the impact of communication mode on student learning, the following themes emerged from participants' responses.

Asynchronous: Richer Reflections. First, participants thought that asynchronous communication mode allowed students to have more time for richer reflections:
   I think there's a real advantage to asynchronous
   communication because it really gives
   people time to reflect, and think through what
   they are going to say, and ... probably in
   some way speak more critically about what
   they are actually going to put on paper.

   I think that ... they are really able to see other
   points of view better; for example, last fall I
   taught this class face to face, and students
   would get into arguments over issues ... but
   they never got to a point where they could see
   the other point of view, but when it's typed
   up and written and they are reading it, and
   they have to wait for a response, it's like they
   have more time to digest ... the other ideas.


Asynchronous: Lack of Feedback From Students in the Form of Visual Cues. Some instructors commented that it was harder to get student feedback to see how they were doing due to the lack of visual cues in an asynchronous environment, as expressed by the following instructors:
   In a class, you can be talking in a class, and
   you can go around the class and you can look
   and you know it ... if they're getting it or not
   getting it, and so if you see some frowns
   going around ... especially if you see some
   frowns in your best students, then you are not
   going to leave that topics until you get some
   kind of nods "yeah, ok, I can see this" or not
   (laughing) and so ... that is the big difference
   you have. You are not seeing them.

   For on-campus class, you can always go back
   on ... I ask them a lot of questions, you know,
   if I get a sense of ... they're not getting the
   point from the body language, facial expression,
   you can add additional, you can supplement,
   you can find different ways to explain
   something, you can kinda tailor your instruction
   based on student response, but online
   environment, unless the students are really
   proactive, reach out to you and say "hey, I'm
   really having trouble understanding this" ...
   Some of the students they are just kinda, they
   are more passive, they don't reach out, and
   then, you only find out after they submit the
   assignment, and you are like "wow, this is
   totally not what I'm expecting," by then it
   may be a little bit too late.


Asynchronous: Lack of Spontaneity and Creativity. Participants also commented that asynchronous communication could negatively affect student learning in terms of spontaneity and creativity, as expressed in the following comments:
   There is spontaneity and kind of spark that is
   in the class you just cannot, you cannot replicate,
   and obviously it is going to be more pronounced
   with asynchronous [communication].

   The disadvantage that I really think in asynchronous
   communication is that people don't
   have the spontaneity of generating creative
   ideas or creative insights. That happens when
   you get a group of people together and
   they've all read the same material and they
   thought about it a little, and then they start
   talking and they hear in a very short span of
   time two or three people saying different
   things, and it really prepares them to try to
   put all those things together. There's a time
   pressure in synchronous communication that
   really forces people to push all those things
   together, and ... it really pushes creativity
   and insights, and I think that is what is lost in
   asynchronous online learning.


Synchronous: Bring People Closer. As far as synchronous communication is concerned, the main theme emerged regarding its perceived impact on learning was related to its capability to bring people closer:
   I think that is a very positive thing, so I mentioned
   that before ... without it, it cannot be
   very close to the traditional way like the
   classroom setting. Then through synchronous
   communication tool, we can be much closer
   to real, like classroom setting. Even though
   somebody far away from our area, they can
   feel they are in this area. So I think that is
   very important for students and instructors.

   I think it [synchronous communication] is
   definitely beneficial and I think it is essential
   to an online course ... I think it is essential to
   make students feel like they are part of the
   course and not on their own. It is essential for
   them to just connect.


Difficulties/Problems Encountered

When asked about the difficulties participants encountered in their online communication, most of them mentioned technology-related issues at the students' end, such as students losing the Internet connection in the middle of a quiz or Web browser compatibility issues to view course content. For example, one instructor made the comment that "technology really gets in the way" when she talked about dealing with student technical problems. Similarly, another instructor expressed frustration of communicating with students on fixing their technical problems:
   I am not competent, nor am I supposed to be
   competent at doing what the help desk does,
   and so communicating with the students
   about the technical problems ... and being
   able to help them "oh I couldn't send my files
   to you" ... I have no idea why you couldn't
   send your files to me. I don't know what you
   did, I don't know what you didn't do, you
   haven't described it very well to me ... And
   to them, everything is my responsibility to
   fix, and, to give them another chance.. And
   so all of these kinds of things, you know, I
   wasn't quite prepared for, and ... it's turned
   out that it's not like just one answer that you
   can group e-mail everybody one piece of
   advice and say "don't ever do this" and it will
   solve your problem, so it's like there are multiple
   things you can do wrong. So you spent
   really a ridiculous amount of time e-mailing
   back and forth trying to communicate with
   them about what went wrong ... So that's
   been a horrible communication problem.


Reasons not Adopting Synchronous Communication

During the interviews, we also asked the participants who communicated with students only asynchronously why they had not adopted synchronous communication tool(s) in their online classes. One main reason many participants mentioned was schedule conflicts:
   I think it [synchronous communication] will
   be a good idea because it will address many
   of my concerns but ... I think one factor will
   stop me from doing it, that is the advantages
   of distance delivery for students who have
   such different schedules, that's just it. And if
   that is the case that you cannot ... it's just
   unfair to require students to login at you
   know whatever time it is when they absolutely
   cannot ... Then I suppose that you can
   address it, like Ellluminate you can just
   record it and just say they can come in and
   run it up, but then that's depriving them of
   interacting ... So I don't know. It depends,
   but for the time being I guess that will be the
   major stumbling block.

   I am not sure that I can get everybody on the
   other end to join in. And if I only get half of
   the people to join in on the other end, I feel I
   am cheating the other half. They cannot for
   whatever reason ... You know to me online
   delivery is online delivery that I am dealing
   with adult learners. I am more inclined to use
   asynchronous communication than synchronous
   communication.


In addition, two participants were concerned about the quality of online synchronous communication and mentioned that they would not adopt this mode of communication unless they had heard or seen successful examples using this mode of communication:
   I like to know more about its benefits and I
   like to hear more about successful examples.
   I like to hear [from] some people who are taking
   professional development.

   Seeing something actually demonstrated, and
   kind of seeing how it can be optimally used,
   that I think is what makes you consider
   adopting it, rather than just hearing about it.


CONCLUSIONS AND DISCUSSION

This qualitative study was conducted to explore instructors' experiences and perceptions teaching and communicating with students in synchronous and asynchronous online environments. The findings indicated that, on the positive side, instructors enjoyed online teaching because of its convenience, flexibility, and a more diverse student population that could make discussions more interesting. On the other hand, online teaching was perceived as having a heavier workload than face-to-face classes, and miscommunication was more likely to occur online, especially in asynchronous text-based environments. Part of the workload was related to the upfront preparation for online classes, which would, however, definitely be paid off later once the classes start; part of the workload was related to the nature of asynchronous text-based communication which involved lots of reading and typing. Workload in this respect may be alleviated through the use of audio/video synchronous communication or recorded audio/video messages depending on the online activities involved. In so doing, it may also address to a certain degree the problem of misinterpretation in text-based communication.

As far as asynchronous communication is concerned, instructors liked that it provided an equal opportunity for students to participate as compared to synchronous communication or face-to-face classes where a few students would tend to dominate the class discussions. The findings also indicated that instructors liked asynchronous communication because it allowed for higher quality discussions as students would have more time to think and refine their answers than they would have in real-time discussions.

However, asynchronous communication was perceived as more time-consuming and creating disconnection or "distance" between instructor and students. This distance could be caused by the lack of nonverbal behaviors such as smiling and gesturing (Andersen, 1979; Mehrabian, 1981) or delayed and fragmented feedback (LaRose & Whitten, 2000) in asynchronous text-based environments. The perceived distance is also consistent with Moore's concept of transactional distance, "a psychological space" that could potentially lead to misunderstandings between instructors and students (Moore & Kearsley, 1996, p. 200). It is interesting to note that contrary to the perceived distance in a fully asynchronous-based online environment, synchronous Web conferencing seemed to be able to effectively bridge the gap and help establish instructor-student connection. This finding is consistent with Moore's (1991) proposal that interactive electronic media allows for more dynamic dialogues and therefore are "less distant." The closure of instructor-student distance was also reflected in the finding that two-way synchronous Web conferencing was perceived as providing "straightforward" communication to effectively reduce communication barrier.

The findings also indicated that e-mail was still a predominant tool for online student-instructor communication. Students often preferred using e-mail to ask instructors course-related questions. The ease of use of e-mail could be a factor contributing to its popularity as a communication tool, but in a class with a larger size, students' relying on e-mails for communication seemed overwhelming for instructors. Some instructors set up Online Office in order to reduce e-mail communication. However, text-based Online Office in the form of discussion board or Chat was not sufficiently used as compared to e-mail. Students tended to ignore Online Office in those forms unless instructors "forced" the use of it. In several instances, students were completely absent in attending chat online office over the semester. This is consistent with previous studies (Kitsantas & Chow, 2007; Li, Finley, Pitts, & Guo, 2010) which found that students preferred to seek help from instructors primarily through e-mail rather than other means; especially, students were reluctant to use chat to seek help from instructors. In addition, instructors who had adopted text-based chat tools to communicate with students did not find it effective in facilitating communication in an online learning environment. Interestingly, Online Office in the form of two-way Web conferencing was perceived to be more frequently used by students. Instructors who adopted this form liked this way of communication because they could talk real-time and share documents, whiteboard, or computer screen at the same time with students to more effectively address their questions.

It is also interesting to note that some online instructors mentioned that they missed the face-to-face interactions with students, and most of instructors in this group relied solely on asynchronous communication tools which tend to lack immediacy, spontaneity, and visual cues. Two-way synchronous web communication tools may have the potential to address the issue to a certain degree. However, in contrast to perceived "equal opportunity" for asynchronous communication, "not everyone can participate" due mostly to schedule conflicts has been a concern for instructors adopting synchronous communication mode. Although many instructors acknowledged the potential of synchronous communication in online teaching and learning, the difficulty of bring everyone together at the same time has deterred some instructors from adopting this communication mode.

The findings also indicated that providing rubrics and guidelines and trying to establish an appropriate level of instructor presence seemed to be the main common strategies participants used when facilitating online communication with the students. Instructors also mentioned the need to expand the awareness of effective strategies for online communication through professional development workshops or sharing experiences with other online instructors.

Lastly, technical problems experienced by the students could be frustrating for instructors and interfere with both student-instructor communication and content delivery. It is important to provide online tutorials if necessary as well as institutional support information to students in order to minimize the problems so more time can be spent on content rather than fixing problems.

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Xiaoxia "Silvie" Huang

Indiana State University

E-Ling Hsiao

Valdosta State University

* Xiaoxia "Silvie" Huang, Instructional Design Specialist, Center for Instruction, Research, and Technology, Indiana State University, 101E Normal Hall, Terre Haute, IN 47809. Telephone: (812) 237-7941. E-mail: silvie.huang@indstate.edu
TABLE 1

Participant Information

                        Number of    Number
                         Online     of Years     Average
                         Courses    of Online   Number of
Participants   Gender    Taught     Teaching    Students    Level *

A                F          2           2         10-20        U

B                M          6          10         10-30        U

C                F          3           7         25-30      U & G

D                F          6           9         20-35      U & G

E                F          6           6          25          U

F                M          2           2         20-30        U

G                M          1           1          20          U

H                M          4          2.5        11-25      U & G

I                F          1           5         16-27        U

J                F          1           1          15          U

K                F          3          7-8         35          U

l                F          1           1         25-30        U

M                M          2           4         20-35        U
                                                  70-95

N                F          1           3         20-25        U

O                F          1           2         15-30        G

P                M          4           2         20-30        U

                                               Online
                                            Communication
                                                Mode

Participants   Gender        College        Synchronous

A                F      Arts & Sciences       [check]

B                M      Business              [check]

C                F      Nursing, Health,      [check]
                        and Human
                        Services

D                F      Nursing, Health,      [check]
                        and Human
                        Services

E                F      Business              [check]

F                M      Nursing, Health,      [check]
                        and Human
                        Services

G                M      Arts & Sciences       [check]

H                M      Education             [check]

I                F      Business

J                F      Arts & Sciences

K                F      Arts & Sciences

l                F      Arts and Sciences

M                M      Arts & Sciences

N                F      Nursing, Health,
                        and Human
                        Services

O                F      Nursing, Health,
                        and Human
                        Services

P                M      Business

                           Online
                        Communication
                            Mode

Participants   Gender   Asynchronous

A                F        [check]

B                M        [check]

C                F        [check]

D                F        [check]

E                F        [check]

F                M        [check]

G                M        [check]

H                M        [check]

I                F        [check]

J                F        [check]

K                F        [check]

l                F        [check]

M                M        [check]

N                F        [check]

O                F        [check]

P                M        [check]

Note: * U = Undergraduate, G = Graduate. All instructors used
Blackboard 7.3 as the course delivery platform.

TABLE 2

Typical Tasks Designed Using Different Communication Tools

                                                      Online
                                                    Interaction

Communication                                        Learner-
Mode            Tools          Typical Tasks        Instructor

Asynchronous    E-mail         Student questions;     [check]
                               course related
                               issues and
                               reminders.

                Discussion     Discussions on         [check]
                board          assigned readings;
                               Q & A (online
                               office); self-
                               introduction.

                Announcement   Course related         [check]
                               issues and
                               reminders

                Blog           Discussions on         [check]
                               assigned readings;
                               self-introduction.

                Wiki           Student group
                               projects

                Streaming      Content delivery       [check]
                audio/video

                Blackboard     Content delivery
                documents

Synchronous     Chat           Online office          [check]
                               hours

                Web-           Online office          [check]
                conferencing   hours; student
                               presentations;
                               content review;
                               discussions on
                               assigned topics;
                               student group
                               communication

                               Online Interaction

Communication                  Learner-   Learner-
Mode            Tools          Learner    Content

Asynchronous    E-mail         [check]    [check]

                Discussion     [check]    [check]
                board

                Announcement              [check]

                Blog           [check]    [check]

                Wiki           [check]    [check]

                Streaming                 [check]
                audio/video

                Blackboard                [check]
                documents

Synchronous     Chat                      [check]

                Web-           [check]    [check]
                conferencing
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Author:Huang, Xiaoxia "Silvie"; Hsiao, E-Ling
Publication:Quarterly Review of Distance Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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