A model for sync sessions in the online classroom

Over the years, I’ve tried a few different models for sync sessions in my online classrooms. Originally, I started with guest speakers – I brought various guests into the classroom to answer my students questions. This was a great way for them to learn about different aspects of instructional design, but as an instructor, it became difficult to manage – especially after doing it for a few years, I felt like to was asking the same people over and over and I don’t want to burden anyone. I was also getting tired of that model (it is a good one, just that I wanted to try something new).

I’ve tried virtual office hours, but that hasn’t been a huge success. Students don’t seem to want to drop in and I despise sitting on a Zoom session alone. It is a waste of time and resources. If more students chose to attend then it would be valuable, but in my case that just isn’t happening. Too many of my students are busy with families and work, so the sync session needs to have specific value.

A model that I use for community building in another context is the use of breakout rooms for small group discussions. This is something I’m going to try more this semester, as it has been successful in the past. The basic framework for a one hour class goes like this:

  1. Introduction/welcome to the session topic.
  2. 10-minute breakout in small groups.
  3. Presentation / Q&A.
  4. 15-minute breakout into small groups.
  5. Debrief small group activity, close.

For the different breakouts, the key is to ask a question and give students an opportunity to discuss and reflect. Breakout groups should be 4-5 people so there is enough cross pollination of ideas. If the class doesn’t know each other yet, both breakouts should use the same people so they get to know each other better. If the class does know each other, then you can change up who is in each of the groups for more cross pollination of ideas.

Another key element is that presentations should never be more than 20 minutes, and if you can keep them to about 10 minutes then students are more likely to absorb the information. If you present too much, then students will disengage – as presentations on a computer are better done asychronously when students can watch them when they have time to focus on the content.

With all the physical distancing happening, students are more likely to be craving interactivity with their colleagues. As an instructor, I have the ability to help facilitate and jump start the interactivity – hoping that students then take the initiative to set up their own conversations with their colleagues.

What’s your model for online sync sessions?

I'd love to hear your thoughts

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