Exploring the Effectiveness of Synchronous Activities in Online Higher Education Programs

Concurrent Session 7
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Brief Abstract

A survey and informal focus group of Wiley partner online program directors demonstrated that while the majority of online programs do not include synchronous components, those that do have found value in their use. A Q&A discussion will focus on perceived barriers to online synchronous learning, and potential solutions.


Molly Lowe is a Program Strategy Manager at Wiley Education Services. Her background is in higher education, training, public health, and virtual learning development across a variety of fields. In her current role at Wiley, Molly owns the consultation, development, and implementation of select University partners' academic strategy.

Extended Abstract

Wiley Education Services, an organization that partners closely with higher education institutions to develop tailored services and solutions, sponsors a Faculty Fellows initiative that provides a platform for faculty to disseminate innovative teaching and learning ideas and conduct research to advance the field of online learning. As part of this initiative, two Directors of Health Care Administration degrees at Wiley partner Universities developed a project with a goal to better understand what type and how much synchronous learning produces the greatest benefits when preparing online graduate degree-seeking students to excel in their required competencies. While some accreditors, including the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME), require a certain number of synchronous hours, little to no research has been conducted on the benefits of synchronous vs. asynchronous learning. For the purposes of this project, synchronous activities were defined using CAHME’s definition as “activities required for degree completion, not study groups or virtual office hours,” and that are “accomplished online or in a non-University setting, where students are synchronously learning course material under the supervision of and in learning sessions that are facilitated directly by program faculty.”

We conducted a literature review and developed a survey of online Program Directors as a first step in better understanding institutional use and benefits of synchronous activities in online higher education programs. We also conducted an informal, brief focus group of Wiley Faculty Fellows on the subject.

Han (2013) showed that the impact of video-casting in synchronous virtual classrooms assisted in improving students’ perceptions of instructor’s co-presence. There has also been other evidence of student benefits from synchronous activity such as stable means of communication, improving student on-task behavior,  more meaningful interactions with instructors, large sense of participation, , and better completion rates (Chen & You, 2007; Mabrito, 2006; Hrastinski, 2010). Real time personal touch in the convenience of one’s home has also been found to be a benefit with synchronous activities while some cons include technological problems and glitches and inability to observe student body language (Foronda, Lippincott, 2014; Evans et al 2014). Tips for successfully using synchronous activity include preparing for the lecture, using support staff to ensure communication, scheduling for technology downtime or trouble shooting, and setting classroom ground rules for engagement (New Practitioners Forum, Am J Health-Syst Pharm, 2008).

The goal of the survey was to gather information from Wiley partner institution Program Directors about use of synchronous components in online programs. The survey was conducted in March of 2018, with an anonymous survey link sent via email to approximately 225 fellow program directors at Wiley partner institutions via email on March 12th, 2018. Two reminders were sent over a two week period. Forty-two out of approximately 225 potential respondents completed the survey, resulting in a 19% response rate. Eighteen colleges and universities and 28 unique degree programs were represented in the response.

Less than half of the respondents (41%) indicated that the online degree offered in their programs included the synchronous component. Only 10% of the respondents said that their organization conducted some research to determine the value by synchronous activity. Half of these respondents already had existing synchronous learning activities in place and half did not. The synchronous activities were NOT mandated for the majority of the respondents (76%).  When asked about the reasons for including non-mandated synchronous activities in their online offerings, most of the respondents mentioned an opportunity for faculty and students to connect and to increase engagement in their courses. The number of hours of synchronous activities included in online degrees varied from less than 5 hours to more than 20 hours. All programs with mandated synchronous activities required more than 20 hours per program. Webinars/ lectures, class discussion sessions, group project collaboration and classroom discussions were used by most of the programs. Most of the respondents (75%) viewed these activities as “High” or “Very High” in adding value to their online degrees. Respondents felt that synchronous activities added the most value to competencies around relationship management, oral communication, and critical thinking.

A follow-up focus group discussion with Wiley Faculty Fellows yielded some additional interesting qualitative feedback. Specifically, while some Fellows felt that requiring synchronous activity in programs would add value for students while others thought it would deter prospective students, all Fellows were in agreement that it can be difficult to recruit instructors, particularly adjunct instructors, to teach online courses with required synchronous components. This is likely due to the additional time commitment required and at specific hours of the day, the need for instructors to attend all synchronous sessions even if students have their choice between different days/times, and the resulting conflict with full-time work schedules and other competing priorities for adjunct instructors.

Based on the survey results, a few preliminary conclusions can be drawn. Those Program Directors that responded and have utilized synchronous activities ultimately found value in specific instances of their implementation. While high satisfaction was reported with optional synchronous activities, this may be a result of faculty and student self-selecting to deliver and attend these sessions, respectively. In addition, while qualitative survey feedback suggests that those that do not utilize synchronous activities may see less of a value in it, this may also be a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Finally, synchronous activity may be more of a barrier to recruiting prospective instructors for online programs, particularly adjunct instructors, than it is for students.

There are several limitations in this study that must be noted. First, the sample for the survey was limited to Wiley partner institution Program Directors, and was optional. Similarly, the sample for the focus group was limited to Wiley Faculty Fellows. In addition, the survey was designed so that Program Directors provided feedback based on the courses throughout their program. Thus, it is possible that they may have reported incorrectly about whether or not synchronous components were included, depending on the degree of faculty autonomy in the program, the level of customization of individual courses and course sections, and the amount of communication between faculty and Program Directors. Finally, some synchronous activities may not have been captured in this survey if they deviated from CAHME’s definition of such, which was provided to survey respondents. Areas of potential future research include studying the difference in students’ participation and perceived value in being required to participate in synchronous activities vs. selectively opting in based on choice, availability, and/or preference, as well as perceived value of the type and intention of different synchronous activities.

We plan to present these findings, and then provide some qualitative prompts for audience reflection. Specifically, audience members will be asked to reflect on barriers to successful sychronous learning as presented in the presentation, and potential solutions to overcoming those barriers. We will then brainstorm, via Q&A, key questions raised by Wiley Faculty Fellows and Program Directors including: (1) What, if any, are examples of specific competencies that are better met with synchronous as opposed to asynchronous activity?; and (2) What are key considerations for overcoming barriers for both students and faculty in online programs with synchronous components?