Is Synchronous Distance Learning Worth the Trouble?

Roxanne’s post on the Face Time article in THE Journal reminded me that I wanted to blog about it. The article covers collaborative videoconferences such as Read Around the Planet and Monster Match, as well as the new Collaborations Around the Planet site. Overall it’s a great article, and you should read it.

I, however, wanted to express my angst on how the article ended. It closed with this from an e-learning vendor (emphasis mine):

Real-time communication technologies like videoconferencing, Ericson points out, require synchronous interactions, which rob users of one of the most valuable qualities of web-based networking: the ability to time shift—to interact with others whether or not they’re online with you at the same time. E-mail, blogs, and wikis all allow for time-shifted interactions; online chat rooms and virtual communities such as Second Life require you be there at the same time as those with whom you are communicating.

“One of the big advantages of virtual education and learning,” Ericson says, “is that you can do things on demand, when you want to. We do believe that chatting and videoconferencing have a place. But in our model, it’s not as valuable as allowing students to participate in the community on their own terms, whenever and wherever they are. The idea of forcing a synchronous model, where everyone is on at the same time, well, that’s what a classroom is for.”


First of all, you should know that not only am I crazy about VC, I also have taught nine different online classes several times each since 1999. I am taking two online classes right now, and will start teaching two next week. I love the reflection and thoughtfulness in online classes.

But, I don’t think it’s fair to compare synchronous vs. asynchronous distance learning and say one is “more valuable” than another. I also think it is definitely not fair to have a vendor with a vested interest in asynchronous distance learning critique the synchronous medium.

So, here’s the question for you. Is synchronous distance learning like videoconferencing worth the trouble? Is it worth staying up in the evening to connect to places half way around the world?

I can think of a few benefits to real-time – besides the learning that goes on – think of these:

  • motivation
  • enthusiasm
  • engagement levels (think of the posture when kids watch a video vs. participate in an interactive VC)
  • accents & dress differences (can’t see that in a discussion board)
  • body language & face time
  • the feeling of being together and connecting (they are the same as us!)

When I read Roxanne’s list of Read Around the Planet ideas I was encouraged. I’m deep in the challenges of dealing with the RAP leftovers. The ideas reminded me of the kids’ enthusiasm in these events. When you’re tired and stressed with too many videoconferences to suppport, think of the kids. When you get all your matches next week and have a ton of RAP test calls to do, think of the kids. When you’re frustrated with the pain of scheduling, think of the kids. Imagine the faces of the kids in the last VC you did.

What do YOU think? Please comment. Is synchronous distance learning worth the trouble? Why?

11 replies on “Is Synchronous Distance Learning Worth the Trouble?”

  1. I have found that, all too often, the value of the synchronous system is in the eyes of the beholder.
    Yes, it can be a great tool, but the difficulties are worth the effort only when the material being
    taught is not appropriate for an asynchronous environment. My problem is that I found less and less material that seems to fit that definition. Free asynchronous solutions, such as those at
    will eliminate so many of the issues that it really magnifies the difficulties of synchronous learning.

  2. Well, distance learning is about making time and space irrelevant. Asynchronous learning eliminates both those considerations. IVC eliminates only the latter.

    But then again, isn’t Ericson somewhat biased since he sells asynchronous solutions?

    Another point in favor of IVC is for events that are time dependent. There is something to be said for experiencing concerts, special guests or even space launches contemporaneously. And it’s not just a matter of what’s happening on the screen but also what’s happening in the audience.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Jason.

    And, think about it. Would Kasey be as exciting if she was just on a video tape? I don’t think so! 🙂 It’s the interaction of Mote Marine’s programs that make them so great. Real time face to face interaction!

  4. That part of the article bothered me too. Like Janine said, saying asynchronous learning is more valuable that synchronous learning really isn’t right. It would all depend on the activity the students were participating in. For example, you could interview an author online through a discussion board or some other type of asynchronous tool, but doing it synchronously through videoconferencing is so much more powerful due to simple things like the inflections placed in the questions and responses as well as the body language of the participants.

  5. I am a graduate of Pepperdine’s OMET program (USDLA Platinum winner last year) and it was way back in 2000 (pre blogs, pre wikis, pre RSS feeds). It was around the time of the beginnings of CMS/LMS systems.

    Our program was a blend of face-to-face and online. The online portion was a blend of synchronous chat, asynch newsgroups, asynch/sync groupwork. We did not have Skype or any videoconference possibilities. It was an amazing experience based on social constructivist learning theory and I learned more than I have in any other “formal” learning environment before or since.

    That is a lot to say that the most effective educational environments are ones that are learner-based and not one-size fits all. I am thankful that there are so many of us dedicated to synchronous experiences that are worth the effort. That is our challenge to ensure that we use the correct medium to fit the learning objectives and subject matter.

    I am glad that those comments were at the end of the article. It makes us deepen our understanding of our practice. One other key in addition to what Ken commented is that live interactive videoconferencing challenges students to listen, pay attention, articulate well, and think on their feet!

  6. First of all I am skeptical of all vendor quotes. I am also getting increasingly frustrated by the either/or…”better” debate. Seems to me a talented and creative educator blends available tools towards their educational goals. I for one am excited by the potential of both delivery methods either in isolation or in blended ways, rather than choosing sides in some pointless turf battle.

  7. I teach Sr. High Second Languages to remote endpoints… but when I describe my position, I far prefer using the term “blended technologies” delivery over videoconferencing delivery. Semantics? Possibly. VC offers personal communication that is so valuable, and yet used by itself, VC may be somewhat limiting as a sole delivery method for the synchronous environment. We need to spice it up:)

    I find that my challenge is to engage my students without always leading the class… Using other synchronous devices for the students to interact with each other during the class (Elluminate, Bridgit, chat rooms, etc) adds depth and an authenticity to the DE game.

    Using VC in addition to relevant asynchronous CMCs (moodles, Desire2Learn, etc), and the students get a far more rounded experience.

    And as far as the “that’s what a classroom is for” argument originally delivered, this simply doesn’t represent realities in so much of rural Alberta. Students, no matter where they live, deserve secondary specialist teachers. Secondary specialist teachers (especially physics, second languages, etc) are few and far between… and those willing to move to remote locations are even fewer! VC, in conjunction with other blended technologies, offers the opportunity for one teacher to facilitate a course for a dozen or more students synchronously across a distance of hundreds of kilometers without the inconvenience of the teacher leaving his/her community.

  8. […] Blog to get you Thinking about WHY LEARNERS NEED TO BE CONNECTED Videoconferencing Out on a Lim Janine Lim is an inspiring VC evangelist. If there’s a resource out there that will help you connect your classroom with an expert, another class halfway around the world, or just go on a virtual field trip, Janine has found it. She talks tech, instruction, and the why it’s so important to stay focused on the kids when connecting classes around the world to …. […]

  9. I thought that you and your audience might like to know that National Distance Learning Week is coming up this November 10. I just interviewed the National Director, Dr. Ken Hartman. You can hear the interview and learn more at

    Rodney B. Murray, Ph.D.

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