Learning in Real Time:
Synchronous Teaching and Learning Online
by Jonathan E. Finkelstein
San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006
Synchronous technology allows for communication in online education to take place in real time. Finkelstein’s book is a timely contribution for educators who now recognize that the synchronous delivery of curriculum through the Web and other audio/video outlets, if designed effectively, can be as useful as face-to-face interaction between student and teacher. The book delineates the specific contexts that are appropriate for live online education (as opposed to asynchronous interaction). For example, the need for dialogue or debate, the presence of information that is fast-changing, and the requirement for learning that involves rehearsal or demonstrations may all be indicators of suitable venues for synchronous instruction. Finkelstein effectively frames his guidelines for real-time online learning around established principles for good practice in college education. These principles include giving prompt feedback, encouraging active learning, communicating high expectations, and developing reciprocity and cooperation among students. The key here is for educators to maintain these types of best practices (which were established well before the Internet’s revolutionary impact on education) even while they experiment with new synchronous technologies.
Finkelstein provides a thorough explanation of the different types of tools that can be used during real-time education. He categorizes these tools according to whether they involve live text, live audio, or live video. For example, text-based tools include chat logs and instant messaging, live audio tools include ‘voice over IP’ and half duplex or full duplex technologies, and live video tools include split screen technology and virtual whiteboards. An extremely useful section of the book focuses on different real-time learning venues. Classrooms on a physical campus are designed according to students’ needs. In the same way, synchronous venues should be aligned with the specific requirements of the courses being taught. Finkelstein provides a tour of the different features associated with multiple online venues. These venues include chat rooms, multi-user virtual environments (MUVE), virtual reference desks, virtual offices/meeting rooms, virtual classrooms, interactive webcasting, broadcasting, and in-class online aids.
Perhaps the most interesting and useful part of the book is the chapter that presents real-time online learning activities. Finkelstein focuses on how instructors can choose appropriate approaches for a given situation, while maintaining the responsibility to make the best use of students’ time together, live online. In this chapter, nine different activities are presented along with their specific uses and purposes. Finkelstein outlines suitable venues for these activities and describes the specific tools (technologies) that are required. He also offers informative examples and key tips for implementing the activities successfully. One of these activities is called ‘Solo Fishbowls.’ In this activity, students are given a portion of a shared workspace or virtual whiteboard, “where they work independently to respond to a problem or complete a task while in the virtual presence of a small group of peers.” Other activities include: Magnetic Brainstorms; Stone Soup; Paired Dyads; Cracker Barrels; Live Blogging and Cclogging; Expeditions and Virtual Training Labs; and, Multiple Venue Presentations.
Finally, Finkelstein provides instructors with some practical strategies for facilitating synchronous online learning activities. Simple guidelines such as being a good host, using virtual ‘body language,’ and being prepared to manage crises in the online environment, will help instructors effectively manage their online classrooms. Learning in Real Time is an invaluable resource for instructors who want to take advantage of synchronous technologies in their online courses. The book provides guidance for how educators can embrace the latest online technologies while still maintaining sound principles of classroom instruction.
Bryan S. Schaffer