Creating an Opportunity for Online Students Who Miss the Social Community of In-Person Class Experiences

Concurrent Session 1

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This session will share insights from a research project on blended synchronous learning. This innovative approach brings together online and on-campus students to work on activities in real time. Through an iterative process, several principles emerged for designing solutions that may mitigate the feeling of isolation experienced by online students. 

Sponsored By


Dr. Janet Mannheimer Zydney received her Ph.D. in Educational Communciation and Technology from New York University. Prior to coming to the University of Cincinnati, Dr.Zydney completed her post-doctoral fellowship in special education technology at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Zydney's research is on the use of technology-based scaffolding in online environments, multimedia programs, and digital games to improve students’ problem solving and critical thinking. She teaches classes in design-based research, learning sciences and technology, universal design for learning, and teaching with technology. She has received awards for her excellence in teaching with technology in innovative ways. She is the author or co-author of numerous refereed publications on the use of technology to improve students’ learning. She is co-author of a book about online learning– Going Online with Protocols: New Tools for Teaching and Learning (Teachers College Press, 2012). She has presented at regional, national, and international conferences and given invited talks on her research.

Extended Abstract

The purpose of this presentation is to share insights from a research project that implemented blended synchronous learning sessions in two graduate courses. Blended synchronous sessions allow online and on-campus students to participate in class activities together in real time (Bower, Lee, and Dalgarno, 2016). This approach goes beyond simply adding online activities to an on-campus class; rather, it enables students to participate in classes in a mode that best suits their needs. This innovative approach is quickly gaining attention among higher education institutions due to its flexibility and the increased accessibility it provides students (Bell, Sawaya & Cain, 2014).  The inclusion of live, in-person sessions may finally offer a much-needed solution for students who miss the social experience of traditional courses offered on campus (Bower, Dalgarno, Kennedy, Lee, & Kenney, 2015).  Furthermore, this benefit may not be limited just to students attending in-person, as Park and Bonk (2007) reported that online students in their study who initially expressed feelings of isolation felt the blended synchronous sessions increased their sense of connectivity.

However, many questions still remain regarding how best to design blended synchronous instruction in a way that leads to quality learning experiences. For example, multiple studies indicate that technology can become a hindrance for teachers and students if not utilized properly (Bower et. al., 2015; Park & Bonk, 2007), and Hastie, Chung, Chen, and Kinshuk (2010) suggest many teachers will need to develop additional skills and digital pedagogies in order to be successful.  These obstacles may deter educators from pursuing blended synchronous instruction unless specific guidelines for implementing these live sessions are provided.  In order to address this need, the study iteratively designed, implemented, and assessed blended synchronous sessions within two graduate courses with the intention  of developing a set of design principles for putting blended synchronous learning into practice.

The methodology used in this study was design-based research (DBR), which is defined as “a systematic but flexible methodology aimed to improve educational practices through iterative analysis, design, development, and implementation, based on collaboration among researchers and practitioners in real-world settings, and leading to contextually-sensitive design principles and theories” (Wang & Hannafin, 2005, p. 6-7). DBR studies consist of a series of iterations, referred to as a cycle or phase. This DBR study included two cycles, each consisting of four iterations of blended synchronous learning sessions, in two different graduate courses. In both courses, about half of the students participated in these sessions online and the other half participated on campus. The overarching research question was:

  • How do students' and instructor's experiences in the blended synchronous learning environment influence its design?

The blended synchronous sessions within the course connected online students with on-campus students through a web conference tool. The sessions consisted of whole group discussions, small breakout groups, and a final debrief. The breakout groups were structured using a protocol which specified the purpose of the discussion, everyone’s role within the discussion, the timeframe, and the speaking order (McDonald, Zydney, Dichter, & McDonald, 2012).  This structure was designed to help mitigate the problem of students speaking over one another or awkward pauses in the discussion. After each session, students were given an opportunity to provide their feedback on the sessions.  Based on their feedback and classroom observations, the design of the session was enhanced for the next iteration.  For example, one technical improvement that was made in the second cycle was a change in the web conferencing tool from WebEx to Zoom. WebEx didn’t allow for the use of video within its breakout functionality and Zoom provided this functionality which allowed students to see one another for the entire class duration.   

The research team employed the use of multiple qualitative data collection methods, including surveys, classroom observations, interviews, and focus groups. The use of multiple methods in qualitative research allows researchers to triangulate findings, which guards against the potential threats to validity of any one method (Creswell, 2013). The data collected was analyzed using an interpretive methodology as described by Erickson (1986). The researchers reviewed the data, generating assertions in a quasi-grounded theoretical approach (Charmaz, 2006).  The researchers came together multiple times. Each researcher combed the data for warrants and disconfirming evidence to either substantiate or disprove the assertions and came together again to review and agree upon those warrants and disconfirming evidence.  The assertions that were substantiated from this interpretive process were then used to inform the design principles. 

For example, one assertion that was generated from the data was the importance of the visual element in blended synchronous learning environments. The desire for the visual was strong and provides evidence that, in an increasingly virtual world, the need for the physical or a better simulation of the physical creates a more seamless blended synchronous experience.  This desire for visual varied along with the design changes to the visual element. In the earlier iterations, several students discussed their desire to see students more. For example, one anonymous student mentioned that it was a challenge that, “most did not use video” during the whole class discussions, and another cited the problem of “not being able to have video during breakouts.” These issues were resolved in later iterations by encouraging more online students to use their webcams during whole class discussions and using Zoom, which enabled video for the breakout discussions.  A design principle that emerged from this finding was the need to provide visual connections in order to create a sense of co-presence, the sense of being together (Bulu, 2012). Without being able to see one another during small group discussions, students did not feel like part of a cohesive group. Adding this visual element enabled stronger connections, as one student commented in the second cycle: “The integrated approach – both technical and face-to-face was helpful and made connections with people I have never seen.” This finding relates to results from similar studies which make a case that richer media that enables cues like facial presence, gaze, and posture, allow for increased social presence (Cunningham, 2014). This presentation will highlight additional themes, resulting in design principles recommended for blended synchronous learning environments.

The presentation itself will be delivered in a blended synchronous format to engage participants in the approach. By modeling this approach, participants will learn firsthand what it is like to experience this approach.  Those who participate in this session will leave with the knowledge needed to implement their own blended synchronous sessions, and, in doing so, will continue to actualize the potential for teaching and learning that these new technologies and instructional methods provide. 


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