The Next Steps: Synchronous Learning in High School

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Once educators and pupils have become comfortable with the application of online education into otherwise traditional instruction, they may begin to explore a bit more deeply into other very useful components. By utilizing instant messaging, video conferencing, chat rooms, and virtual classroom modules (to name a few possibilities), teachers would be tapping into the exciting and most promising arena of “live synchronous experiences”.

Although video conferencing is generally a service requiring a subscription or the payment of an hourly fee, it offers so much to the Blended Learning classroom. Classes could take virtual ‘trips’ anywhere – from an organic farm in their own community, to a business or playground in a distant one. Students could engage in ‘face-to-face’ interviews with experts in their area of study, or participate in important global events in any major city in the world. Rural area schools might find it useful to experience some facet of urban life unavailable to them, or vice versa. Art History students would not need to leave the comfort of their everyday classroom when taking one of many virtual field trips offered by the Albany Institute of History and Art. Here, in real time, students are able to closely study the pieces within the Institute alongside the experts, asking them questions and sharing in the experience as much as any in-person visitor might. By linking in to New York’s Holocaust Memorial and Educational Center, students of History may use video conferencing to speak with survivors of the holocaust. These are but a few examples of the educational possibilities afforded by online video conferencing. It should be noted that one drawback to this service is the significant amount of computer capacity (or, system resources) required by this live technology. It is not uncommon for the electronic systems found in many educational institutions to lack the necessary bandwidth for fluid communication (Godwin-Jones, 2003).

Synchronous learning activities also occur through technologies that most high school students are already very comfortable with – these include chat rooms, instant messaging, and discussion boards. By means of these electronic methods of communication, catching up on work, studying, peer tutoring, etc. begin to take place beyond the physical and temporal space of the school day. Learning, certainly, should never be bound by such arbitrary margins.

Furthering the reach of these highly accessible tools, communication is extended to cyber teams (working together on a problem or project) as well as to out-of-class dialogue between teacher and pupil (Eastman, et al, 2002). For those whose learning in the physical classroom is stunted by their shyness – in asking questions aloud, in approaching the teacher or a fellow student for help, etc. – the virtual meeting place removes these limitations. Since contributors to web messaging and discussion are given the responsibility of self-directed participation, motivation becomes equally self-governing. This is an empowering process, particularly crucial for the rapidly maturing brains of high schoolers. Additionally, synchronous learning aids in the development of communication and cooperation skills, and does so in a manner relevant and accessible to today’s youth.

The Next Steps: Asynchronous Learning in High School

Hundreds of thousands of people today use blogs to express their ideas on every topic imagineable – these can take a plethora of forms – from free verse personal journaling to formal periodical pages. The incredible popularity of these blogspots is no doubt attributable to its truly unique offerings; publishing at zero cost, an immediate and immense public forum, and the limitless possibilities of length, style and theme that cyberspace affords. It has been found to be true that when readership is implicit, writers tend to be more absorbed in their work, and consequently their writing is of increased profundity (Bull, 2003). The blog can be likened to a virtual meeting space of words and ideas between students sitting in various locations. Without the constraint of viewing a page simultaneously, students are free to read on their own time and respond to a blogger’s (usually displayed) email address with any comments whenever it suits them (Toto, 2004).

In the secondary school environment, blogging can be easily applied to Language Arts and Literature activities such as roundtable thematic discussions, journal responses, online debates, etc. It is very helpful for teaching grammar and revision strategies and is already being used successfully at many educational institutions (Bull, 2003).

General writing and compositional skills have also been significantly strengthened by making use of blogging. Educators who have employed this technology in their instruction have often been awed by the degree of improvement in students’ writing ability that results from the tacit ‘presence’ of an audience. The carelessness often visible in their first posts is greatly diminished the more they use the blogging forum; this arises from a fear of criticism from their peers. Since, as bloggers, students are among an enormous community of online writers, the need to keep their posts current, accurate, and appealing is high (Toto, 2004). It is evident that this asynchronous component of the Blended Learning classroom also serves to widen the ‘educational day’ to one without limiting hours. When used properly, blogs allow young adults the opportunity to express themselves from a position separate from their selves as ‘only’ high school students - a category which brings with it certain implicit expectations and assumptions. In this space, they are simply intelligent thinkers – and hence are emboldened in their depth of analysis and criticism (Oravec, 2002).

The Blended Learning approach can be easily organized, presented, and delivered by any number of high-quality course management systems. “Moodle” is one example of a system that makes ‘good economic sense’ for school boards in that it shirks user fees and presents other financial advantages not offered by commercial systems. Since Moodle has its foundations in socio-constructivism, it encourages instructor-pupil and peer-peer collaboration (Hilz et al., 2004). Instructors that make use of this program have the ability to transform their classroom into a virtual area without the aforementioned limitations of physical space and time (Brandl, 2005).

Such programs also allow for synchronous and asynchronous learning. It must be underscored that both these components of the Blended classroom demand active, engaged learning from students in a highly social - and indeed interactive – educational environment (Hilz et al., 2004).