Case study: Highly synchronous online course


At risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m going to write again about my first significant online course design and facilitation experience: the online restorative justice class at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP), which ran this past spring (and will run again this coming spring). It was what I would characterize as a highly synchronous online course[1].

Rather than storytelling and reflection, though, I’m going to lay out below “right brain”/”left brain” representations of how this course was conceived, structured, and conducted. By doing this, I hope to communicate succinctly why this course continues to inspire my thinking and work – but more importantly to inspire other faculty to take tidbits from this experience into their own online teaching.

Right brain: Visualizing virtual classroom space

Hand-drawn visualization of our online classroom, matching technologies with familiar objects. (Click for full-size.)

Important bits to notice above are the four main technology platforms we used and their real-world equivalents in the classroom sketch:

  • Adobe Connect[2] (for synchronous large group gatherings) -> Desks pushed up against the wall
  • Google+ Hangouts (for synchronous small groups) -> Comfy pillows on the floor for discussion
  • Blogs (asynchronous platform for small group writing) -> Cork board on the wall for all to see/read
  • Moodle (asynchronous platform for posting course materials) -> Library shelf against the wall, and the chalk board with lesson plans posted

Other endearing bits of this sketch include the broken roll blind – which illustrates the limits of the web and how nothing with such a high-tech course ever works out perfectly without any glitches – and also the bell outside the window, indicating the highly synchronous nature of this course. There’s always a guest seat beside the teachers’ chairs, since at each large-group gathering we had a restorative justice practitioner join us to present on their work and have discussion with students (a huge benefit these technologies afford). That brings us to the less-artistic course flow diagram…

Left brain: The synch/asynch three-step

In the standard 15-week semester, we had a Week A/Week B cycle. (Click for full-size.)

Here you can see how we structured the flow of the course, noting particularly the Week A/Week B format, which followed a large group/small group meeting cycle. Each small group was formed near the beginning of the semester, based on areas of focus within RJ. Once formed, these groups stayed together for the rest of the semester. Each group would be responsible for meeting at the scheduled time in Week B, then posting to their respective blogs before the start of the next cycle. One person from each group would also be responsible for helping interview the special guest each week as well as leading facilitated discussion time.

One thing you don’t see in this diagram but did see in the sketch before it is Moodle. While course documents, articles, chat transcripts, grades, etc. were posted to Moodle, the LMS wasn’t used at all for a place of interaction. All student engagement and activity happened outside Moodle, with the exception of class-wide e-mails sent from instructors.

The “closing circle” is worth mentioning here, as circle processes are a trademark “CJP thing,” and finding a virtual equivalent was high on our to-do list in the design process. At the end of each full-class gathering in Adobe Connect, we would take a full 30 minutes to do a closing circle, which can be thought of as a “check-in” time for each person in the class, including instructors and me, the tech facilitator. Here is an illustration of what this looked like inside Adobe Connect[3]:

Everyone’s photo visible in the content area, each individuals video enabled in the top-right.[4]

Taking the time to go around the circle and check in on the course raised the relational dimension considerably. It allowed everyone to not only see and hear from the person, but also get just a little bit of a feel for where they were coming from. A few of our students came from outside the U.S., so we had a student in Germany who was up in the middle of the night for the course and another in Australia up in the wee hours of the morning. I’ve sometimes heard that these time zone and scheduling difficulties are why it’s better, or at least more convenient, to run an exclusively asynchronous course, and that’s right to a degree – but if you have students willing to make these kinds of sacrifices, it really adds to the relational experience.

Conclusion: It wasn’t easy…

One potential hurdle for widespread adoption of such an approach is that it was very labor intensive. In addition to two instructors team-teaching the course, I served as a tech facilitator for each large group session, for the first few weeks checked in on small group hangouts, and acted as on-call tech support throughout the course due to the number of software platforms we were using. We also had a “community organizer,” a CJP student/grad assistant, helping keep students on track and making their way through the course. She was also present for each large group session and checked in on small hangouts, and regularly e-mailed students information and reminders. Finally, we took nine months to design this course! Granted, it was the first online course CJP ever ran, and we were doing course design mostly from scratch. When this course runs again in the spring, there won’t be nearly the amount of design time sunk into the process, but the labor required for running the course will still likely be significant.

Here’s how this course lights up on the Ed-Tech Ecosystem diagram [PDF] that I’ve been developing over the past few months…


In closing, while I’m not prescribing this model to everyone in all circumstances, I do offer it here as an inspirational model, because there was some pretty innovative stuff going on in this course. Perhaps there are bits and pieces that can be scavenged and re-arranged for other courses. And who knows? Maybe when the course runs again in the spring it will be quite different! That’s the fun of this work, though – creativity and intentionality are rewarded richly with somewhat irreducibly unique experiences…much like the craft of teaching and learning.


  1. “Synchronous” indicating a mode of online engagement that requires students and faculty in the same (virtual) place at the same time. (Contra asynchronous, which does not require this level of “in-timeness.”) Proviso: As I’ve continued to champion the virtues of synchronous online delivery, one thing I’ve heard from some faculty who have taught asynchronously online for some time is, “So…you’re telling me that asynchronous is bad, and synchronous is good?” By no means! The two are merely different, and require different approaches for design and engagement. Both can be done well and both can be done poorly. I advocate the both/and, multi-modal approach and try to help faculty think about how to do each well.
  2. EMU has since standardized on WebEx Meeting Center for synchronous large group gatherings (up to 25 participants).
  3. This screen layout, though, is common to most web conferencing platforms, including our EMU standard platform, WebEx.
  4. Credit for people icons:

2 Responses to “Case study: Highly synchronous online course”

  1. Robb Davis

    Brian – Very helpful primer both in terms of how the various technologies/tools can be effectively used, and as an example of how a course is actually laid out using these tools. The “circle process” using Adobe looks particularly promising.

    I have insisted (up until now) in any teaching I have done that has a virtual element that it must also include a face to face portion (not online–together). Given my concern about the amount of travel that requires to bring students and teachers together I am rethinking this. I would love to be able to work with Adobe Connect some time.

    One other point, I think the different modes of interaction could also be explained in terms of their value for different kinds of learners (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, interpersonal, etc.). Thanks for the images. I hear you on how labor intensive it can be to actually pull off a course like this. Of course, the “logistics” of pulling off traditional classroom learning is also large (buildings, travel, housing, meals, etc.). We are just used to this kind of way of being. Perhaps in the future you can provide the tech support from Iowa, I can lead a discussion from California, with a guest lecturer from Ontario (or England) and students scattered across 5 or 6 time zones. That would obviate the need for brick and mortar (mostly) and all the logistical stuff that it requires.


    • Brian R. Gumm

      Ah, so glad you commented here, Robb! Yes, the learning styles bit is another helpful way to talk about the relative strengths of each – asynchronous and synchronous.

      And another big yes – I’m your guy if you want help facilitating stuff like this for future work! One of the things I love about helping facilitate tech in these courses is sitting in on the classes and picking up some of the content, too! :) As an RJ student of Howard’s playing tech facilitator, it was always fun in this particular course to chime in every once in a while with some of my own comments…