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Using web conferencing to teach constructivist, discussion-rich seminars: can it work?


Teachers of discussion-rich seminar classes tend to be hesitant about teaching their courses in a distance education format, particularly out of fears that much will be "lost in translation" (e.g., sense of community, social presence, spontaneity, energy, mutually constructed meanings, etc.). Synchronous online teaching technologies (e.g., web conferencing through Adobe Connect, Elluminate, etc.) offer a potential palliative to such concerns. While much research exists on asynchronous modes of online teaching, and some research exists on hybrid synchronous/asynchronous modes, studies of fully synchronous online teaching are sparse. This case study seeks to address this paucity by providing a rich discussion of the experiences of the professor and students involved in a fully synchronous (Adobe Connect) seminar course.


Synchronous online courses mean that members are "meeting" in real time. Students and teacher could all be at separate locations, each in front of a computer and connected through the Internet via various media. The literature on synchronous online teaching acknowledged that this mode has positives, but there were also frequent warnings of the pitfalls inherent in such teaching and learning.


Researchers admired the multitude of available options for synchronous online teaching (e.g., 3D programs, web conferencing programs, broadband distance-site connections, internet-chat, and learning management systems) (Anderson et al., 2006; Davidson-Shivers, Muilenburg, & Tanner, 2001; Dickey, 2003; Duemer et al., 2002; Freitas, Myers, & Avtgis 1998; Grant & Cheon, 2007; Johnson, 2006; Knipe & Lee, 2002; Ligorio, Talamo, & Simons, 2002; MacIntosh, 2001; Ng, 2007; Rockinson-Szapkiw & Walker, 2009; Schwier & Balbar, 2002; Smyth, 2005; Spencer & Hiltz, 2003; Wang, 2008; Wilkinson & Hamby, 2000). Second Life and Second Life-type programs allow students to manipulate things in a 3D-like space online. Interwise, Elluminate, Adobe Connect, and similar web conferencing systems allow classes to have synchronous verbal or written chats, use a common whiteboard space, pull in and display files, and put students into private breakout groups for small group work. Internet-chat and conference tools allow large numbers of students to engage in real-time conversations across wide distances, and broadband-based distributed sites with live audio and video features allow for the teacher to demonstrate and display things in real time.

Researchers favorably compared synchronous online teaching with asynchronous online teaching in regards to the social/community building potential (however, please note that synchronous online teaching did not favorably compare on this element with conventional face-to-face teaching). For example, students in synchronous classes felt closer to their instructor and fellow classmates and more engaged, enthusiastic, and energized about the exchanges than when in asynchronous-only classes (Davidson-Shivers et al., 2001; Dickey, 2003; Frietas et al., 1998; Kowch & Schwier, 1997; MacIntosh, 2001; Motterdam, 2001; Murphy & Collins, 1997; Ng, 2007; Park & Bonk, 2007; Schwier & Balbar, 2002; Smyth, 2005; Spencer & Hiltz, 2003; Vonderwell, 2003).


The literature identified three main negatives to synchronous online teaching. The first was the issue of acclimation/training on the medium, for both the instructor (Anderson et al., 2006; Freeman, 1998; Grant & Cheon, 2007) and the students (Boehle, 2000; Davidson-Shivers et al., 2001; Lobel, Neubauer, & Swedburg, 2002; MacIntosh, 2001; Murphy & Collins, 1997; Ng, 2007; Schwier & Balbar, 2002; Taran, 2004). The second problem high-lighted was technological glitches (e.g., weak internet connections, being "bumped" out of the "classroom," malfunctioning microphones, echo or delay in the audio, file upload problems, etc.) (Freeman, 1998; Frietas et al., 1998; Grant & Cheon, 2007; Knipe & Lee, 2002; Park & Bonk, 2007; Schwier & Balbar, 2002). And the third problem mentioned frequently was how the technological medium limited the potential development of interpersonal relationships between participants. Synchronous online courses flattened interpersonal interactions due to lack of visual cues and social time to interact, such as in breaks (Boehle, 2000; DiPietro, Ferdig, Black, & Preston, 2008; Frietas et al., 1998; Knipe & Lee, 2002; Lobel et al., 2002; MacIntosh, 2001; Motteram, 2001; Murphy & Collins, 1997; Palloff & Pratt, 2007; Park & Bonk, 2007; Schwier & Balbar, 2002; Smyth, 2005; Taran, 2004; Vonderwell, 2003; Wilkinson & Hemby, 2000).

Purpose Statement and Research Questions

While the literature provided some clear positives and negatives of synchronous online teaching, what it did not offer were ways to fully visualize bringing discussion-rich seminar-style courses (with both small- and whole group activities) to the synchronous online environment. The research question for this evaluative case study (Merriam, 1998) was: can Adobe Connect be used to create a highly interactive synchronous course--rich in linear discussion, small-group activities, and a strong sense of community?


The author maintained a field notes journal, reflecting on each class in two separate semes ters of teaching an online section of Educational Foundations to 15-18 graduate students in each class. The author also administered an anonymous online survey to her students at the end of each of the course offerings, inquiring such things as "If you prefer online courses over face-to-face courses, please list the reasons why below;" "If you had a choice of doing this class synchronously (like we did) or asynchronously, the whole semester, which would you prefer and why?"; "Did you find yourself more or less PRESENT in class with the online, synchronous format (as compared to conventional F2F classes or compared to asynchronous online classes)?"


The answer to the research questions was a qualified yes; Adobe Connect can be used to create a highly interactive synchronous course, rich in linear discussion and small-group activities and a sense of community, but there are obstacles, some of which can be overcome with time and effort, others of which cannot be overcome, thus diminishing constructivist and community-building aspects that are more easily present in a F2F course.

The Tools Are There, But They Take a Long Time to Master and Use

Adobe Connect is capable of having a variety of "room" setups and the instructor or meeting "host" can bring in files for the group members to see on their screens. There is also a whiteboard function where the instructor and students can post words or create visuals; there are chat "pods" which allow an instant chat between participants; there are note "pods" where the host can post instructions; participants and hosts can use the camera and microphone functions, so the class can see and hear at least one person at a time; the teacher can split the class into breakout groups where the students can work in small groups on a task and the teacher can go in and out to the groups, checking in on progress, adding comments, etc. It took the author a great deal of time to learn about all these features, translate her face-to-face class activities (e.g., small group activities especially) to these features, structure a given day's lesson with various different activities interspersed, and migrate non-digitized resources to a digital format. During this learning process, minimal support was offered by her university.

Not only do the features of the Adobe Connect program take a good while to master, they also take longer to actually use than their F2F course equivalents. The author experienced longer transitions times needed between activities due to the technological medium, longer times needed to communicate instructions and respond to questions, longer times needed for students to manipulate controls to create visual items, and longer wait times for students when the teacher had to help troubleshoot student technology problems.

The Tools Exist to Create Effective Synchronous Classes, But They Sometimes Don't Work

While Adobe Connect has the tools to create highly interactive synchronous courses, sometimes these tools do not work properly. Just as the literature review presaged, technical difficulties abounded for the author. Students sometimes had difficulties signing into and staying in the classroom, and experienced various audio and visual problems. One could not anticipate the technical difficulties, and often what fixed a problem one time would not fix it the same way the next time it happened. The university did not offer any consistent realtime technical support for teachers of online courses.

Adobe Connect's Synchronous Classes Are Not as Effective for Seminar Courses as Face-to-Face Classes

Yes, Adobe Connect can help create a highly interactive synchronous online course, rich in constructivist elements, but it isn't as effective as a face-to-face course. Linear discussions are more difficult than in face-to-face, as is establishing a strong sense of community. Many students seemed reluctant to speak. In the postclass survey, students responded that they sometimes felt less articulate than those students who were more comfortable speaking, or simply felt they did not "know" their classmates well enough to speak out. They also cited lack of seeing visual or nonverbal conversation cues as reasons for their reticence. While students did feel more comfortable typing their comments and questions, this frequently resulted in non-linear discussions (for as one person is typing, others are as well). This lack of physical presence also took away from the author's enjoyment of and feelings of efficacy in the class. She noted in her field journal that
   I believe that a constructivist classroom is
   symbiotic--that just as students need one
   another and need to aid in the construction of
   knowledge, I also very much need the feedback
   of students to gauge their understanding, mood,
   etc. And the online medium just did not
   provide it in the same way as an F2F class does.

The author also struggled more with trust issues than in her face-to-face classes. She worried that students were easily distracted by other things in their environs and there was no way to hold the students accountable or to verify if her worries were warranted or not.

Student Perspectives of the Course

The surveys administered to the students at the end of each course revealed perceptions quite similar to the author's in terms of how most preferred a synchronous online course to an asynchronous one because of the former's community building and interactivity potential, but they found the technical and interpersonal limitations/difficulties to be detractors. And most responded that, were convenience (e.g., driving time and distance) not a factor, they would prefer a face-to-face class to a synchronous online one.


There are tremendous implications here for both businesses and institutions of education. The importance of the human factor that comes with physical presence cannot be denied even though it is largely intangible. Should convenience really trump quality of human interactions? More research needs to be done in this regard.

Both institutions of education and businesses need to recognize the effort that goes into mastering these web conferencing programs and fairly compensate those employees who undertake using them. These organizations also need to provide extensive training and support to these individuals.

While literature comparing learning experiences of students in synchronous courses versus asynchronous online courses exist, there needs to be more of it, as well as much more research comparing synchronous courses to face-to-face, highly interactive/constructivist courses.


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Vonderwell, S. (2003). An examination of asynchronous communication experiences and perspectives of students in an online course: A case study. Internet and Higher Education, 6, 77-90.

Wang, S. K. (2008). The effects of a synchronous communication tool (Yahoo Messenger) on online learners' sense of community and their multimedia authoring skills. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 7(1), 59-74.

Wilkinson, K. L., & Hemby, K. V. (2000). An examination of perceptions of the use of virtual conferences in organizations: The Organiza tional Systems Research Association (OSRA) and the Association for Business Communication (ABC) members speak out. Information Technology, Learning, and Performance Journal, 18(2), 13-23.

Kristan A. Morrison

Radford University

* Kristan A. Morrison, Associate Professor, School of Teacher Education and Leadership, Radford University, P.O. Box 6959, Radford, VA 24142. Telephone: (540) 831-7120. E-mail:

Kristan Morrison is an associate professor in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at Radford University in Radford, VA. She earned her PhD in the cultural foundations of education at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Her research interests include democratic schools and pedagogies.
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Author:Morrison, Kristan A.
Publication:Quarterly Review of Distance Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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