Synchronous Online is About To Get Much, Much Better

Synchronous Online Sucks

Synchronous online — the twisted mess of chat-rooms, video-conferencing, and screen-sharing we use for real-time online education — has sucked for a while now. To be sure we have products: it’s rare for a university to not have *some* web video-conferencing solution in place. And from what I understand, these products, at the enterprise level, are not cheap. There is commitment to supporting *some* level of functionality here.

But almost all of these products are designed for “pass-the-mic” lecture style classrooms, or worse, are sales presentation software that has been “adapted” for the classroom. And hence, all the techniques to which professors normally have access in face-to-face discussion (see, for example, the excellent work of Stephen Brookfield on structured peer discussion) are not really possible with modern video conferencing software.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve talked before about ideas like Ed Roulette, which attempts to structure online video conferencing using a peer instruction paradigm. That’s the tip of the iceberg. In a conversation with Devlin Daley at Open Ed, we ran through the variety of structured discussion styles used in the modern classroom, from the “speed dating” peer-review exercises I have my students do to get reader feedback to the Circular Response-style discussions that remain a favorite way to stop students from talking past one another.

All of these techniques can revolutionize your classroom. None of them are available to you online.

…But This Will Change This Coming Year

Why don’t we have technical options that borrow from the structure of the above models? Options that not only provide an opportunity to talk to one another, but also help structure the discussion? Part of it is the lack of interest in the synchronous online environment as a market. As Amy Collier noted to me in a recent conversation, up until recently online has been seen as a low-quality solution for people who do not have the time flexibility for scheduled class meetings, and as such the synchronous element has lagged behind the asynchronous piece. Who chooses an online class based on the synchronous experience, right?

But perhaps an even greater barrier has been the cost of serving real-time video. It’s huge. It requires a large, stable infrastructure and a sizable investment to make it work. Got an idea you’d like to try with online video? Maybe you want integrate deliberative polling into a issues discussion? Maybe you want a product that sets up project groups and allows you as the teacher to drop into them, annotate them, or put them on a timer. Great! All you need to get started is a server farm and a T1T3 line. Go to it!

Both these issues have changed in the past couple of years. On the culture side, we are increasingly seeing online as an option for students who are on-campus, and can commit to scheduled online meetings.

On the technology side, peer-to-peer web video is about to change the world. Following up a tip from both Devlin and Tim Owens, I recently looked into the new WebRTC technology/spec that is built into newer browsers. This technology allows programs to negotiate a peer-to-peer video connection, without having to serve up the actually video. You write the programming, and the individual participant computers (and browsers) handle the streaming. A great example of this is, a service that lets you set up a custom video chatroom in one step. Try it out — I’ve found the quality to be amazing, superior to what I get with Skype or Google Hangouts.


With the introduction of peer-to-peer video capabilities in newer browsers, much of the previous bandwidth barriers to innovation are disappearing — the “software-plus-infrastructure” problem of video-based synchronous online is quickly becoming a software-only problem. The market for synchronous online experiences is likely to grow. It’s hard to see this as anything but a perfect storm for rethinking the gun-metal-gray boredom of those Adobe Connect sessions we keep pushing on students. Hopefully we can replace it with something that allows us to mimic some of the fluid structures of the face-to-face class; at the very least we can get past the outdated assumptions still present in most of this software.

20 thoughts on “Synchronous Online is About To Get Much, Much Better

  1. Here here! I was invited in few weeks back with someone trying and had a similar reaction, that there was something of big potential there. It could free the audience participation from webinar software where you are locked inside a chat box.

    But (as I think you aimed at), it calls for an entirely different approach to activity design, outside of the lecture/content delivery via video, to creating small group, maybe even impromptu synchronous activities. Are we ready for that?

    I’ve seen our ds106 group project teams (where they have to produce a radio show) do really well using Hangouts/gdocs, both among the UMW students and the open participants. A favorite was a group of UMW students in Fall 2012 where the one doing the audio editing was screen sharing his Audacity editor, and playing it back so others could hear and offer suggestions.

    Also (and yeah its based on hangouts), have you seen the MIT media lab’s Unhangout ( Ben Rimes sent me that link, a way o create a series of connected hangouts like a small community or breakout sessions.

    And BTW, you are showing your age– a T1 line is pretty slow these days!

    • That might be true, but you could imagine a hub and spoke strategy for media — a server for the broadcast parts of a lecture, followed by random pairings of individuals via WebRTC followed by a “meet up as a class again in 10 mins” sort of thing

  2. What I think is particularly empowering about WebRTC is that for the small scale stuff it’s entirely browser based. So if you’ve been keeping up with your codeacademy lessons and put a bit of HTML/Javascript up anywhere (including public folders on Dropbox/GDrive) you can create your own realtime experience (all made even easier with libraries like SimpleWebRTC That’s powerful!

  3. Yeah, let’s do this. My ongoing dissertation proposal and I would love to pitch in. Two examples that interest me and might provide grist for your thought-mill:

    One, Talkabout, an effort at creating synchronous study sections using Google Hangout. Huge fan of the premise.

    Two, let’s step back from video and ask ourselves, how can we fix forums? In addition to being asynchronous (not necessarily bad!) they’re unwieldy, isolating, and used by a small fraction of everybody. Here is the synchronous forum prompt that interests me:

    You ask every student two questions, one very structured one very unstructured.

    Structured: “Do you support a death penalty?” Answer yes or no or place yourself on a spectrum.

    Unstructured: “Why or why not? Under which circumstances?”

    We take the structured data and use it to create a network. Strongly Agrees get paired up with Strongly Disagrees. Yes gets paired up with No. Their unstructured data is displayed and the dialog begins.

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