3 thoughts on “Synchronous online teaching as a component of a fully online course

  1. I am now teaching my first fully online hybrid courses, and having a great time with them. The courses are World Regional Geography and the Geography of Asia. I am writing this post from Bangkok, where I taught a class this morning; last week I was in Luang Prabang, Laos, next week I will be in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, my base in SE Asia. Most of my students join the class from their homes in Virginia, some are on campus at the University of Mary Washington for other summer classes, and one is in South Africa, where her parents live.

    I came to online education as a result of the subject matter I teach. I began teaching courses on foreign regions two decades ago, and initially relied heavily on textbooks and other published sources for the content of my classes. Over the years I have managed to travel quite a lot, and during these travels I took a photographs, accumulated anecdotes, and gained a wealth of first-hand knowledge that I then included in my classes. I soon found that students were much more interested and engaged when I was talking about my own experiences than they were in any other parts of the course. The fact that I had been to place, taken photographs, and talked to people gave the subject matter of the course a greater sense of immediacy than before, and I suppose the fact that I was talking about places I had visited gave me added credibility.

    It was then that it dawned on me that perhaps if I talked in class about foreign places from those places, I might be able to engage students even more. My first opportunity to test this idea was as I sat in a friend’s apartment in Guangzhou in 2008, talking to my students in their usual classroom in Fredericksburg, Virginia via Skype. Actually, I didn’t do most of the talking. I invited three Chinese college students join me, and to answer questions from my students about their lives, and once the discussion got started, all I had to do was watch and listen. The experiment was a huge success, students loved it, and they learned a whole lot more than they probably realized.

    Over the next few years, I did more and more of this kind of teaching, usually for a week or two in the middle of the semester. Instead of using Skype I began to use various web conferencing applications, which made it possible for students to join the class from their homes or dorm rooms. I taught classes from China, Southeast Asia, and South Africa, trying in each case to use my location and the input of local people to enhance the classes.

    The general idea of teaching from abroad worked well, and my students certainly enjoyed and benefited. The biggest problems I had were technical; the free or cheap web conferencing applications I used simply weren’t up to the task. Things went wrong – often – and when they did I would get flustered, students would get irritated, and we would sometimes have to give up on a class meeting. All of this changed, though, when my university agreed to invest in license for me to use Adobe Connect. It has worked very well; I had to call off only one of the thirty or so classes I have taught this summer for technical reasons (an unreliable hotel wireless connection.)

    Teaching an entire course online has given me the opportunity to dream up and try out a number of different ways of making my location part of the course. Last week, for example, I gave students the task of doing some research on Lao People’s Democratic Republic in general, and the town of Luang Prabang in particular. They then had to come up with assignments and questions for me while I was there, and I would go out to investigate. On student, for example, asked about how intensively and for what purposes the Mekong River is used in this part of Laos. So I headed down to the river, hired a small boat and took a two hour ride upstream. I posted my photographs online and my response to the student’s question on the course blog. This was a great hit.

    In short, I am using synchronous online classes as a way of enhancing my courses that deal with the geography of foreign regions, and although I still have many improvements to make, it seems to be working very well.

    In the Fall, my grand experiment will be to teach world regional geography and an upper level seminar from ten different locations around the world, starting in London and ending in Guangzhou; an exciting but daunting prospect! I’ll let you know how it goes.

  2. Nice job, Helen! I knew some of this story from when you agreed to be interviewed for an article I wrote on student engagement. But I see that you have now taken it several steps farther. Very interesting!

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