Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Community Heartbeats - when synchronous interactions matter (Communities of Practice series)

Online community learning is great in that it provides us the opportunity to learn anytime, anywhere we have connectivity. But that is a pretty rosy view when we consider the competition a course has against everything else going on in our lives. Often "oh, I can do this anytime so I'll do it later" leaves a course to be done in the wee hours of the night or on weekends when we really might like or need to be doing something else. A learner who stays away too long may begin to feel they have fallen too far behind, or isolated from their community. That's where synchronous events can help. They can keep the heartbeat of a learning community going strong. For some, they create a sense of community, relationship and "realness" -- voices and not just words on a screen.

What are synchronous events?

Synchronous online events are when some or all of the learners are online at the same time and interacting using tools such as Voice over IP (VoIP), telephone bridge lines, chat rooms, web meetings and instant messengers. They can be discussion based, or can be a presentation by a guest or tutor with time for questions and answers. They can be large group or small group breakouts from the larger community. Some examples include:
  • Weekly online tutor "office hours." Learners can log on and ask questions, get support and just check in. These could be mandatory or voluntary. I find that if you do one first that is "all hands" people can get a sense of the value of the office hours, then are more likely to participate in the future.

  • Presentations and guest speakers & lecturers. First of all, if you aren't planning any interaction with the learners around lectures or presentations, don't make them synchronous. Provide them as web content. But if you can bring in a special guest, that is worth a fixed meeting time and it makes it -- well - SPECIAL. But this is not about pushing powerpoints. A good online presentation will mix presentation with interative activities - a good mix is 7 minutes of content, 7-10 of interaction. An hour is good, and 90 minutes should be the maximum. Include audio, text and visual elements. Some of us are not so good at just listening!

  • Small group meetings. Is there small group work? Encourage learners to set a time to meet each week. This builds full participation and helps reduce procrastination. They can meet in a web meeting room or even just on an instant messenger or Skype.
How often are they useful?

How often are they useful?
For new learners, it is helpful to have regular synchronous events until they have figured out their learning and participation rhythms. Virtual team expert Martha Maznevski likens it to the heartbeat of a runner. New runners' hearts are still weak so they beat fast early on in their runs. But trained runners hearts beat slower. So experienced learning communities may not need to meet as often, unless meetings are their preferred mode of interaction.

How do we bridge between the synchronous and the asynchronous?

How do we bridge between the synchronous and the asynchronous?

Synchronous meetings don't work for everyone due to schedules, internet access and personal learning preferences. So we need to have strategies that bridge between the synchronous and asynchronous.

  • Post recordings, notes and artifacts of synchronous meetings. Make sure your learners know where they are and how to access them.

  • Follow up on synchronous action items in the asynchronous interaction spaces. Notes taken "live" in a web meeting can be shared right afterwards, with action items highlighted. If additional conversation is needed, continue in a discussion thread, blog or wiki area.

  • Prepare for upcoming synchronous meetings by involving the group in planning, again using the asynchronous tools you have at hand. You can even use scheduling tools like to pick a meeting time!

Finally, check in with the group as to how the "heartbeat" is going. Ask for feedback and use that to improve the meetings and the timing of the meetings. Each group is different and we can use iterative planning to make the most of that diversity, rather than stifle it with set plans.

Synchronous telephone conference tips
Designing and Facilitating meetings:

Image Credits on Flickr/Creative Commons:

This is part of the Community of Practice series of blogs with Nancy White

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