Synchronous and asynchronous communication in an online environment: faculty experiences and perceptions.
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.
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.
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?).
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.
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.
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
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: email@example.com
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|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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