Comparing Online and On-campus Learning Experiences in a Blended Synchronous Learning Environment

Concurrent Session 8
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Brief Abstract

Blended synchronous classroom gives students the flexibility to attend either in person or remotely. However, technical issues with this environment often create negative learning experiences. This study explores the use of a 360 degree intelligent conference camera and breakout sessions with mixed groupings to create a more authentic classroom experience.  

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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.

Additional Authors

JP Leong studied Electronic Media at the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music. He joined the eLearning team at UC's College of Education, Criminal Justice, Human Services, and Information Technology (CECH) in 2008 producing multimedia projects for the Early Childhood Learning Community, UC's oldest online program. He now serves all four schools within CECH as Multimedia Coordinator.

Extended Abstract

Students often prefer face-to-face classroom instruction because of immediate feedback from their teacher and social interactions with other students (Altiner, 2015). However, it is not always feasible for students to attend in-person classes.  One solution to this issue is to create a blended synchronous classroom environment which allows online and on-campus students to participate in class activities in real time (Bower, Lee, & Dalgarno, 2016). This innovative approach is gaining attention among higher education institutions due to its flexibility and increased accessibility (Bell, Sawaya, & Cain, 2014; Wang, Huang, & Quek, 2018). Blended synchronous learning provides an alternative for students who are unable to attend classes due to illnesses, bad weather conditions, or other personal challenges (Wang et al., 2018). For example, students with physical disabilities may not have equal opportunities to attend on-campus classes (Norberg, 2012). Blended synchronous learning environments may allow these students to attend classroom instruction even when they cannot physically make it to class (Wang, Quek, & Hu, 2017).

In recent classes at a midwestern university where we have been experimenting with blended synchronous learning, we have seen this benefit firsthand. For example, we have been able to conference into classes students who would otherwise have had to miss class for a variety of reasons, including illnesses, childcare issues, and temporary physical issues such as broken limbs. Although these students were grateful to not have to miss class, sometimes their experience participating was not optimal due to technology issues. For example, it was challenging for students who were not physically in the classroom to clearly hear and see what was happening because of audio or video issues. Remote students tend to face an uphill battle in terms of achieving full participation because nonverbal communication, which delivers more than half of the meaning in the course of human interaction is difficult to discern absent a good quality video (Betts, 2009).Hence lies the apparent paradox – the technology that was intended to assist students in overcoming barriers to participation also serves to restrict their ability to fully partake in the learning environment. 

One goal of blended synchronous designs is to attempt to provide all students (regardless of attendance mode) equivalent learning experiences (Wang et al., 2017). However, some technological designs end up improving the presence of one group at the sacrifice of the other. For example, having each online student displayed on an individual device has been found to help on-campus students feel more connected to the online students, but resulted in the online students feeling more disconnected from one another (Bell et al., 2014). Many designs can feel awkward to the on-campus students who need to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do in the classroom, such as move an iPad so the online student can see better (Bell et al., 2014; Cunningham, 2014) or speak directly into a microphone (Szeto & Cheng, 2016; Wang et al., 2017). In some instances, these extra tasks are met with reluctance or even resentment among on-campus students (Cunningham, 2014) or made the online students feel dependent or unwanted (Bell et al., 2014; Cunningham, 2014). Instructor effort to make sure that online students can see/hear each other can sometimes result in less attention being paid to the classroom instruction (Wang et al., 2017).

Given these mixed results, this goal of our study was to explore a technical setup that we hoped would create an authentic learning experience for both online and on-campus students. Our technical design included a 360-degree intelligent camera for whole group discussions along with the use of small breakout groups to connect online and on-campus students through a webcam and speakerphone situated directly in-front of the on-campus students. Our overarching research question was:

How do the learning experiences of on-campus and online students compare within a blended synchronous classroom that utilizes a 360 degree intelligent conference camera and small mixed breakout groups?


The current study used a case study approach as described by Yin (2003). The unit of analysis for this case was a graduate level, on-campus course with several blended synchronous sessions that students could attend in person or virtually via Zoom.  The participants included nine students who alternated in their mode of attendance during these sessions.  The nine students were broken into three groups for small class discussions.  The classroom set up included a Meeting Owl, a 360-degree intelligent camera, situated in the middle of the room to pick up on all classroom activity during whole class discussions.  Around the outside edge of the room were small table groupings that each included a computer attached to a speakerphone and a webcam. Each group computer was assigned a breakout group within Zoom’s web conferencing breakout sessions and remained in the breakout group during the whole class period. This enabled the classroom speakerphones to be left on the whole time without the concern for audio interference. When it was time for the breakout sessions to begin, the instructor moved the online students into their respective groups within Zoom and on-campus students simply turned their chairs to face the small table groupings, making a seamless transition. 

The data collection consisted of multiple qualitative data collection methods, including a survey, classroom observations, and instructional notes after each session.  Using multiple data sources allows for triangulation of the findings, which minimizes validity issues of using a single method (Maxwell, 2013).  These data sources were designed to collectively assess the core element of learner experience, which is whether learner needs are being met (Huang, Spector, & Yang, 2019). For example, open-ended questions asked learners about their perceived successes, challenges as well as suggestions for improvement. The observations documented how students worked within the environment in real time and recorded the number and quality of interactions between the students using a seating chart observation protocol(Tatum, Schwartz, Schimmoeller & Perry, 2016).  And, the notes recorded the instructor’s perceptions of what went well and how the experience could be improved.  

Expected Results and Early Findings

To date, we have completed two blended synchronous sessions with this setup. On-campus students expressed initial excitement when they came into the classroom and first saw the technology. When asked at the end of the session to debrief their experience, one on-campus student noted: “I liked it; I thought it was pretty interesting. I thought at first that it would be really difficult to break into small groups, but once you got started talking, it felt like we were in a small group and not overwhelmed with what everyone else was doing.” One online student commented “I feel like I was there.”  However, the online experience was not without complication. For example, one online student noted “It was a challenge for us. We have to stay really, really focused and listen really hard to everyone. For the part where everyone is kind of free talking and we were muted, it was a little bit challenging because we have to wait our turn or raise our hand.”  In the debrief of the session, the classroom observer noted that that online participants did not participate as much as the on-campus students during the whole class discussion, likely for this reason. However, during the small breakout sessions, there was a more even participation between online and on-campus students.  In the second blended synchronous session, the instructor added a norm for online students to feel free to jump into the discussion either through voice or chat and this seemed to resolve the issue of uneven participation during whole class discussion.  

Demonstration and Potential Value for Attendees

The purpose of this presentation is to share insights from our research on how to implement blended synchronous learning. During the conference session, the presenter will enable participants to experience a simulated blended learning environment using the Meeting Owl technology and small breakout group functionality. We will demonstrate both the in-person as well as the remote views of the Meeting Owl technology.  During the reflection time, participants can come up to the front where a breakout session with remote presenters will be set up so that participants can try out the breakout functionality. 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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Betts, K. (2009). Lost in translation: Importance of effective communication in online education. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration12(2), 1–13.

Bower, M., Lee, M., & Dalgarno, B. (2016). Collaborative learning across physical and virtual worlds: Factors supporting and constraining learners in a blended reality environment. British Journal of Educational Technology48(2), 407–430.

Cunningham, U. (2014). Teaching the disembodied: Othering and activity systems in a blended synchronous learning situation. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning15(6), 33-51. doi: 10.19173/irrodl.v15i6.1793

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Tatum, H., Schwartz,B.,  Schimmoeller, P.A., & Perry, N. (2013.) Classroom participation and student-faculty interactions: Does gender matter?, The Journal of Higher Education, 84:6, 745-768, DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2013.11777309

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