E-learning, and if you follow this blog you probably already know that, has many advantages over traditional classroom based learning. Those advantages range from reduced operation costs and the ability to address huge audiences, to quantifiable insights on students’ progress and quick deployment.
Of course the first and foremost advantage of e-learning is freeing students from being tied to a particular place and time ― the ability to take courses at your own pace, on your own chosen time, and from your own premises (even in your pajamas!).
Sometimes, though, a specific course or a specific lesson requires real-time or even face to face communication, and e-learning, thanks to the capabilities of modern networks and communications technologies can adapt to that too. This type of e-learning, in which students and teachers interact at the same time, is called “synchronous” in the relevant jargon. Ιn this blog post we’ll describe some essential LMS features to support synchronous learning.
1) Calendaring / Bulletin Board
When working with synchronous e-learning you need to keep your students “on the same page”, as the saying goes. That is, you need a way to inform your students of class schedules, dates of online exams and such.
Your LMS is the obvious shared resource capable of centralizing and broadcasting this kind of information to all users. The way this happens can vary in form, from a calendar-like widget, with cells for each day/hour, a bulletin board type of page with listings for upcoming classes and important dates, or even some dedicated dashboard in your users’ homepage.
If you need to replicate traditional classroom based lectures on an e-learning environment, a webcast is the ideal solution. You can setup one with minimal equipment (a webcam/mike, a network connection and the relevant software), and have your teachers broadcast their lectures to hundreds or even thousands of students at the same time.
On the student end, all it takes is the ability to display streaming web video, which all modern web browsers have. This can be either built-in to the browser through HTML5 technologies, or through the Adobe Flash plugin.
Advanced LMS platforms provide this capability built-in, to others you can add it through an add-on, or even use an external, third-party tool.
3) Tele-conference (audio / video)
The next step from simple webcasts is the ability to have tele-conference between teacher and student (or even multiple students).
This is particularly fit for oral-exam type situations, or hands on lessons, that need face-to-face coordination between student and teacher.
This needs the student to be able to record video/audio and broadcast it too, something which is either built-in in most modern laptops, or can be added for a relatively cheap cost (all it takes is a cheap webcam and headset).
As for the software side, if your LMS doesn’t provide such a capability, you can take advantage of third-party services like Skype or Google Hangouts, for a simple but effective tele-conference setup.
Chat might be less impressive than tele-conference, but it can be equally or even more important in an e-learning setting.
For one, it requires no extra peripherals and setup, and is very easy to provide through an LMS platform.
Second it adds a little of the asynchronous back (in the sense it allows students and teachers to take their time to think, check some reference source, etc, and provide their answers a little later, compared to the “real time” nature of tele-conference), while remaining a synchronous medium.
Chat also allows for the accurate and easy communication of textual answers and things such as urls, which would be difficult to communicate through an audio/video conference.
5) Shared whiteboard
Another great tool for synchronous e-learning is a shared whiteboard. This is a virtual (usually web based) area for the students and teachers to write and draw equations, answers, diagrams etc, akin to a traditional classroom’s whiteboards.
One advantage (some) virtual whiteboards have is that they can be shared between multiple students in an e-learning scenario, and their ability to can keep a history of edits, so that students can refer back to what was written during a class without having to copy it down.
6) Time-limited tests / Scheduled exams
Testing is, of course, a basic ingredient of almost all courses, e-learning based or not.
Besides take-at-your-own-pace tests, an LMS platform can also provide scheduled, time limited exams. With these, the questions are provided to all students taking the exam at a specific time, and they have a limited time (e.g. 2 hours) to finish them.
A nice boon is that, unlike the norm in traditional classroom based exams, an LMS platform can make student grading automatic and instant, so they get their results as soon as they finish the test.
Last, but not least, a notifications system can be very useful in keeping your students “at the same page”, and informing them of any upcoming real-time events.
Notifications can complement a calendar page or events dashboard, providing custom notifications for exams, results, classes, tele-conference sessions and more, to your students’ mobile phones and email, so they have no excuses for missing any course related event.