Tips and tricks for synchronous sessions

Tips and tricks for synchronous and videoconferencing sessions

Hosting a videoconference or live session can feel daunting at first. Even if you are completely comfortable in front of a class, having to be on camera feels different for some people.


Before you start:

  • Have at least one test run with the technology. Synchronous tools like BlueJeans can feel intimidating because it’s an additional layer of technology. Try logging into an online room at least once before you try it live. If you can, invite a colleague, friend, or family member into the videoconference room so you can practice; they can help you feel more confident that your microphone is working slides are visible, and your camera is in a good spot.
  • Make sure your home studio is prepared. Have a microphone, make sure your camera is centered. Find a spot to minimized extraneous noises.
  • Have an agenda for your synchronous session and share it with the class. The addition of technology may feel like just one more thing to have to worry about. Take that pressure off by setting clear goals for the call, topics and approximate times for each. It will help you stay focused and students will stay more engaged. The best sessions are planned. 
  • Open your room at least 10 minutes ahead of time, if possible. Your students may be nervous about trying to access the space as well. Opening the conference room early allows them to test their own technology. You don’t have to have your camera on – share your screen with a slide that informs students of what is to come.


During the session:

  • Make sure you hit record! You will want to capture this session for students who were not able to attend.
  • Remind students of videoconferencing etiquette. Students should put themselves on mute, have a protocol for answering questions, understand how the chat will be used. 
  • Having students’ videos on can be great, but it also takes up a lot of bandwidth. Consider asking students to “mute” their video and audio until they have the floor in the session.
  • If you are giving a presentation and using notes, try to have them close to the camera. You want your eyes to be looking at the camera as much as possible, and looking down to read your notes may be distracting.
  • If taking questions via the chat window, it is a good practice to restate the question aloud, otherwise those viewing the recording may not know what question was asked.
  • If technology fails, don’t panic. It’s okay. 


After the session:

  • Post the recording of your videoconference for students to view later.

Setting up a home studio office

Setting up a home office for online learning

What you will be able to do after this section:

  • Translate appropriate studio preparations to your own home or space 
  • Recognize ways to strengthen telecommunication delivery

Just as you would set up your face-to-face classroom prior to the start of each class, it is equally important to do the same for you online class. Appearance, sound, and visual aspects of video correspondence significantly impact how information is delivered and received.


When preparing your home studio or office for online teaching, take the time to explore the ways in which sound carries in your space. A common issue that must be mitigated is reverberation, or echo. It is important to reduce reverberation as much as possible to ensure that your voice is clear to your students. One tactic for lessening the echo in your space is to use soft fabrics, such as towels or blankets. Since hard surfaces such as walls, floors, and windows enhance reverberation, consider covering them with heavy curtains, rugs, and quilts. These softer materials will absorb the sound and provide better acoustics for your space. 

Many computers and laptops are enabled with built-in microphones, though you may use a headset or lavalier microphone.  Consider where the microphone is placed and how it may impact your delivery. Best practice for microphone placement is at least 12” from the mouth and out of camera view. This position prevents the face from being blocked and avoids breath noise interference. Keep an eye out for unwanted noise such as keyboard sounds, rubbing the microphone cable, or banging on the desk area. If it’s possible, reduce outside noises such as HVAC or other mechanical sounds, as they create distractions from your video. Other distracting noises can be created by phones, fans, or house pets as well. Plan to test these variables prior to your official recording session.  

Lastly, there are several benefits to using headphones while you record. Your participants may be using headphones to listen in, so it is recommended that you review a sample recording as a sound check with them as well. Consider using headphones or earbuds throughout your session to ensure you can successfully hear what participants are saying. Remember that traditional computer speakers tend to ruin sound by bleeding noise into the microphone.


Have you ever taken a picture and it came out too dark or washed out? This is all due to light exposure! To prevent your face from showing up too dark on camera, avoid sitting with a bright light or window behind you. Since the backlight is typically brighter than your face, it can create shadows and reduce the appearance of light from the eyes. If you are interested in learning more technical tips on temperatures of light and production, check out “How to Shoot Professional Video Interviews”. 

Webcams and framing

Setting the scene is vital to a successful video. Body location and perspective can dramatically change how the video is received by the audience.  While you probably don’t want all your videos to be a talking head, we all want to look our best onscreen. Start by looking at the position of your computer’s camera. Being too close to the camera can feel like an invasion of personal space for viewers. If you are using a laptop, perhaps try propping the computer up on a couple of books to align the camera with your eyes. Take note of how much space is around your head as well. Extra space can make a person look very short, while cutting off part of the head can give the illusion of cramped space. One last step is determining a background. The goal of a great background is to give depth to the video without distracting from the speaker. Textures, shadows, and plants can all be used rather than flat backdrops. However, be careful of what types of objects you place behind you. Books, phones, art, and other detailed items will have the learners’ focus instead of the course content. 

Before you start video taping with a camera, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I centered on the screen?
  • Are my eyes level with the camera?
  • Do I notice any background distractions?
  • Am I too close or too far from the camera?

References and Resources


UM ITS: Using BlueJeans for videoconferencing

Epiphan Video: 5 steps to create the ultimate lecture recording studio


Mader, Cheryl, & Ming, Kavin. (2015). Videoconferencing: A new opportunity to facilitate learning. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 88(4), 109–116. Original Articles, Routledge.

Inclusive teaching in an online setting

Inclusive teaching in an online setting

 What you will be able to do after this section:

  • Participants will be able to define inclusive teaching
  • Participants will be able to apply inclusive practices to their teaching pedagogies

For many students, higher education has placed significant barriers and challenges to their academic achievement. Underrepresented students, particularly students of color, international students, students with physical disabilities, low income students, students of nontraditional age, and women and non-binary students, encounter inequities that can pose barriers to their learning in higher ed. Online teaching as a technology has the potential to increase access to higher education, but if it follows the dominant models of teaching in higher ed, could also reinforce those barriers. Inclusive teaching provides a framework to disrupt some of those inequities through teaching practices that act against them.

As an instructor, you have the responsibility to create spaces and experiences that give all learners an equal chance to learn. (Note: we are using “learners” and “participants” rather than “students” on these pages to help break us out of the mindset that our students should fit into a particular box. We tend to think of UM students as people ages 18 – 25, living on or near campus, committed to their studies full time. Of course this picture is limited, and our residential learners are significantly more diverse than that stereotype. In online learning spaces, the range of learners can be even more diverse, and so we’re choosing this language to expand our thinking.

Creating environments and experiences that gives everyone an equal chance to learn is not easy — but it is important. This module will help you think about how to do so in an online environment. Check out the video below to hear about how other professionals at the University of Michigan benefit from inclusive teaching practices.


What is Inclusive Teaching?

CRLT (Center for Research on Learning & Teaching at UM) defines inclusive teaching in this way:

Inclusive teaching involves deliberately cultivating a learning environment where all learners are treated equitably, have equal access to learning, and feel valued and supported in their learning. Such teaching attends to learner/participant identities and seeks to change the ways systemic inequities shape dynamics in teaching-learning spaces, affect individuals’ experiences of those spaces, and influence course and curriculum design.

There are a few things to note about this definition, so let’s unpack it. First of all, the first sentence points to the need for instructors to take deliberate steps to teach inclusively. Inclusive teaching doesn’t just happen; you have to think through what you’re doing and why to be inclusive. Second, that sentence also points out that learners should feel valued and supported, but not that they should always feel comfortable or go unchallenged. Learning can be uncomfortable and challenging! Your goal as an instructor can be to reduce the unproductive discomfort that gets in the way of learning — such as racist or sexist comments made during the course, unclear grading expectations or processes that learners have to navigate, or course discussions dominated by a few participants — so that people can put their energy toward the productive challenge of learning.

The second sentence of the definition helps us understand the stakes of inclusive teaching. We live in an unequal society, where people are often treated differently and have different experiences due to their social identities (race, gender, class, religion, nationality, disability status, etc.). These differences lead to patterns, which we call systemic inequities, that privilege people holding certain identities (in the US, white, male, cisgender, wealthier, able-bodied, etc.) and disadvantage or oppress others. These systemic inequities are everywhere — which means they are present in our learning spaces. To teach inclusively, we need to be aware of these systemic inequities and actively push back on them with the decisions that we make for our teaching.

Keeping this definition in mind, CRLT has synthesized a framework for inclusive teaching consisting of four principles that can guide instructors in their practice. This framework is grounded in decades of research on the relationship between social identity, systemic inequities, and student learning.

  1. A first principle to guide your teaching is critically engaging difference. Students are not brains with legs; they are people bringing a myriad of identities, backgrounds, and experiences to their learning. We can better facilitate learning when we acknowledge the differences among our students and leverage those differences for learning.
  2. Differences in identities and experiences among students (and people, generally) can lead to unequal dynamics, such as one student dominating a discussion, or an instructor giving the most time and attention to the most vocal students. These unequal dynamics often come up when instructors leave their learning spaces unstructured. A key principle to disrupt unequal classroom dynamics — which often follow the power dynamics of our broader society — is to structure interactions to make those interactions more equitable.
  3. There are several principles that can guide your thinking about how to structure interactions to be more equitable. One key way is to actively cultivate academic belonging among your students. This involves helping them feel connected to the course — for example, by learning and using their names, correctly pronounced and/or spelled.
  4. Another way is to use transparency in your course to make expectations, norms, and processes clear to all, such as clearly explaining how to want students to address you, the channels they should use to do so, and how quickly you will respond.

See “Practical Tips” for examples of specific teaching practices related to each of these principles.

Your Own Identities

We’ve focused on students above, but of course instructors bring their own identities to their teaching as well. And those identities can have a major impact on how learners perceive and respond to instructors, whether they readily accept an instructor’s authority, and how they describe their instructors on course evaluations. When preparing for your inclusive online classroom, it is important to reflect upon your own identities. Keep in mind that practices that work well for you may not work well for your colleagues, and vice versa, due in part to the different bodies that we inhabit. The diversity wheel below can help you consider your own identities and how they influence your teaching practices.

Reflect on your own identities and how they affect your experiences in learning spaces, as a student and an instructor

Keep in mind that we all have blind spots and be open to hearing different perspectives. Majority-identified people can struggle to recognize how their own experiences, which they may see as default or “normal” experiences, can be different from the experiences of people more likely to be marginalized.

Follow ADA laws and regulations

Bring transparency to course assignments, processes, and content

    • Explicitly communicate the purpose, task, and grading criteria for graded assignments.
    • Explain the learning purposes and goals of course activities (e.g., discussion posts, synchronous meetings, peer review, etc.)
    • Help students prioritize course tasks and allocate time strategically.
    • Share guidance on how students should communicate with you, including what kind of questions/topics are best for online course meetings, office hours, email, backchannels, etc.
    • Break down dense concepts and highlight big ideas to help your learners organize new knowledge

Academic belonging

    • Learn and use students’ names and pronouns
    • Build rapport in your course through encouraging students to introduce themselves and use one another’s names, work together on problem-solving with a range of classmates, etc.
    • Allow for productive trial and error (e.g., through low-stakes practice quizzes, drafting opportunities, modeling or discussion of interestingly productive wrong answers).
    • Highlight the contributions of scholars and researchers from underrepresented groups who have contributed to your discipline, and/or acknowledge a history of limited access to the field and current efforts to change it
    • Incorporate diverse content to course
      • Diversity of examples, sources, etc.

Structured interactions

    • Develop guidelines or community agreements about interactions during the course
    • In synchronous meetings, use strategies for including a range of voices: e.g., take a queue, ask to hear from those who have not spoken, wait until several hands are raised to call on anyone, or use paired or small group conversations to seed larger discussion.
    • Vary your methods for engaging students, e.g. solo work, small group work, whole group work

Critically engaging difference

    • Reflect upon and share the ways your own identities have shaped your relationship to your work/the discipline
    • Normalize the fact that students will have a range of background preparation, and find ways of highlighting those differences as assets for learning (e.g., learners who are new to material can often pose useful critical questions that help those familiar with the material identify gaps in their understanding or think about the material in new ways)
    • Design and explain class activities in ways that acknowledge a broad range of access needs

Facilitating asynchronous online discussions

Facilitating asynchronous online discussions

What you will be able to do after this section:

  • Describe four principles for productive online discussion board facilitation
  • Identify when the discussion needs instructor support

Group dynamics are a key part of facilitating meaningful discussions with students, both face to face and online. For this collaborative space to exist online, the instructor must know how to read the group using only written communication. Large and small group discussions are possible to conduct in distance education and they require a skilled facilitator.

In a face-to-face class, group discussions are frequently used to encourage students to encourage connection and critical thinking. Asynchronous discussions are used similarly in online courses. The goal of any discussion is for learners to engage in reflection, investigation, and application of core course concepts. Discussions are also an excellent way to build a classroom community through interaction with peers and you as the instructor. In addition, they act as a way to assess how well students are progressing in the content. Tools to host asynchronous discussions may include Canvas, Piazza, Annotate and more. If you aren’t familiar with the mechanics of a discussion board, we’d recommend you start with some technical resources.

Depending on how the course was designed, discussions can take different forms. Some courses have a single weekly discussion topic, or multiple topics. These discussions can be organized in forums for better management and to keep learners focused on a particular subject. If you are working in this course as a facilitator, it’s likely that your discussion prompts have already been designed prior to the course starting. If this is a new course for you, a great place to start is to familiarize yourself with the overall structure and cadence of how discussions may be used in the course. Discussions can be used for various instructional purposes and formats, such as:

  • Small, breakout discussions where students work together to answer a critical question as a group assignment.
  • Students posting their individual responses to a question, and in turn responding to two or three other students.
  • Using an annotation tool, students collaboratively read an article. They can then collaboratively comment on areas of the article.
  • You have created a thread in the discussion board where you answer frequently asked questions for the week.
  • There is a guest speaker this week! They join your discussion board to interact with the students in a Q&A format.
  • Each student has a private discussion thread that they use as a journal for the course.

Facilitating meaningful online discussions is rooted in creating a climate of respect, encouraging student exploration, and instructor presence. The four major principles below outline how to foster an online environment that is supportive of meaningful discussions.

Principles for Cultivating Successful Discussions

1. Create cultural norms (netiquette, rubrics, introductions)

In a face-to-face setting, you may use a combination of explicit techniques to create a climate in your classroom (statements in your syllabus, in-class verbal descriptions), but there are also implicit norms that are shaped through interpersonal interaction both between students and between student-instructor. Because the implicit norms are harder to capture in the beginning of an online course, it’s a good idea to find ways to make all expectations clear at the start of the course. Social norms can also be crowd-sourced with students – this can be a great way to build a community and help give participants a sense of ownership in the course. Model the type of behavior you want students to demonstrate – if you are looking for students to be reflective in their posts, demonstrate what that should look like in a post of your own.

General tips:

  • Be explicit about your expectations for the learning environment you are hoping to create. This includes formal and informal communications. What title should students use for you? How will you refer to students?
  • Specify spaces and forms for formal and informal communications. Create a discussion forum for off-topic conversations for (and with) students, and direct conversations there if necessary. Are personal reflections appropriate in discussion posts? If so, when and where?
  • Model the behavior you want students to exhibit

2. Encourage participation (constructive & positive, active, without interrupting the flow, inclusive)

An online discussion frequently benefits from frequent instructor participation – at first. However, over time, it is important to slowly ease back and allow the students to co-facilitate and broaden the conversations. For example, if you have students introduce themselves, try to comment on every learner’s post, even if it is a simple welcome message connecting yourself to the student in some way.

However, as students gain comfort with the medium and with the norms, it’s important to scaffold students to be communicating with each other, rather than dominating the conversation. Your role can become more of a guide particularly for times when a conversation requires intervention. Some research suggests that student participation actually decreases as faculty involvement increases after the first few discussions (Mazzolini & Maddison, 2003). The goal is to shift communication patterns from instructor-led to a free flowing conversation amongst students.

Discussion boards can become large time investments. It’s easy to get drawn into an engaging conversation with students. The best instructors create a strategy for facilitation, set clear expectations and review ways to make facilitating good discussions more efficient.

General tips:

  • While we frequently jump to critique when reading others’ writing, keep in mind that particularly in a discussion, critique alone can disrupt the flow of a conversation. In addition, discussion boards are public to all students. Save strong critiques for private correspondence
  • Use students’ names. It may seem like a small thing, but referring to a learner by name can help build community and establish your presence in a course.
  • While you find that you enjoy an active participation in a discussion thread, consider your role as a facilitator to connect students to each other, rather than you as the expert voice.

3. Be aware & able to intervene

Inevitably, there are going to be times where there are conversation lulls or one person dominates. While as the facilitator, you do not need to actively participate in every discussion thread, but rather monitor the discussion. You can use the conversations as a way to monitor student progress and learning, build community in the class, and encourage critical thinking.

It is helpful to be able to step into an online discussion to redirect conversations and/or connect students as necessary. It does not mean that you have to be reading and commenting on every post, but keeping in touch with the conversations as they are taking place.

4. Create interactions to encourage critical thought

Like a face-to-face discussion, the purpose of discussions are often to push students’ thinking deeper and more critically about a topic. As the facilitator of an online discussion, you will have access to every participating student’s written thoughts on a topic.

General tips:

  • Find ways to connect students in the forum. If you notice that two students had complementary or conflicting points, connect them to spark conversation. For example: “B, I noticed that your perspective on Vygotsky’s learning theory highlights a different area than W’s. How would you respond to W’s critique of the theory?”

Technical Concerns:

  • This could be a first-time online experience for many participants. Make sure that both you and your students are comfortable using the discussion board. It can be really helpful to have a practice post. An introductory post from students at the beginning of the course can help troubleshoot technical issues in a low-stakes format. [More on discussion board resources]

Set Expectations:

  • Be clear with students about how much interaction you as the instructor will provide each week. Responding to every student posting in every discussion is often times unrealistic. In a face-to-face class you wouldn’t be able to monitor every small group discussion. Instead, come up with a predictable strategy for participants. It may be to respond to one third of the class each week, or to engage with 2-3 small groups.
  • Create a rubric for students so they understand what you expect from their weekly posts. Rubrics and requirements help guide students’ work and give an outline for what best practices are. Are these posts formal and require a specific citation style? Are students allowed (and/or encouraged) to contribute their less formal thoughts as well? Include a rubric for student responses as well.

Time Management

  • Online discussions can involve a significant time investment. Since the nature of distance learning is to be ‘on’ 24/7, it is important to structure time dedicated to participating in the discussion board.
  • Save in a separate document common responses you might give – you can personalize them later, but will save you the time of re-writing common pieces of text.
  • If time constraints are great a particular week, use an emailed weekly summary or office hours to acknowledge and comment on the discussion more broadly.

Build community

  • In posts to participants, use their names and requested pronouns.
  • Create a discussion section for off-topic conversations. Encourage learners to talk about non-classroom topics or even post a weekly off-topic conversation to connect students.
  • In a weekly email or announcement, summarize highlights from the previous week’s discussion and preview what is coming up. You might even consider noting interesting threads to encourage students to visit
  • Be creative and personable in responses to students.


Alrushiedat, N., & Olfman, L. (2012). Anchored asynchronous online discussions: Facilitating participation and engagement in a blended environment. Proceedings of the Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.

Mazzolini, M., & Maddison, S. (2003). Sage, guide or ghost? the effect of instructor intervention on student participation in online discussion forums. Computers and Education, 40(3), 237–253.

Richardson, J. C., Caskurlu, S., & Ashby, I. (2018). Facilitating your own discussions [PDF file]. Retrieved from

Rovai, A. P. (2007). Facilitating online discussions effectively. Internet and Higher Education.

Return to online teaching resources

Introduction to asynchronous tools

Introduction to asychronous tools

What you will be able to do after this section:

  •  Identify asynchronous tools available to them for online instruction
  • Operate the most appropriate asynchronous tools for their courses

The nature of online learning is for education to be accessible and flexible for learners across any distance. With the use of asynchronous tools, participants can connect with one another without tuning in simultaneously.

What are asynchronous tools?

One of the greatest benefits of online learning is flexibility and accessibility in time and place. Students can engage in their learning materials at their own convenience–watching recorded lectures, playing simulations, and responding to discussion questions can happen even when class isn’t “in session”. Many classes use asynchronous communication tools to create a classroom experience that promotes a culture of learning and critical thinking, even when not everyone is online at the same time.

Asynchronous tools allow online participants to communicate with one another within a window of time. Interactions aren’t confined to instant responses and discussions can be accessed at times most convenient for both instructor and learner.  There are many different types of asynchronous communication tools – some of which you are probably familiar with.

Types of asynchronous communication tools:

By no means an exhaustive list, these are some of the types of asynchronous communication tools that you may use in your class:


Probably the most ubiquitous asynchronous tool, email is still an important tool to consider in the classroom. Email works great to get messages out large groups, like announcements or weekly updates. However, using email is more challenging for hosting discussions.

Discussion Boards:

If you’ve never used a discussion board before, they support “threaded” representation of a series of messages.  Similar to commenting on a web page, discussion boards help create organization out of lots of messages.

A discussion board encourages learners to engage in reflection, investigation, and application of core course concepts, as well as interaction with peers. They can be used as presentation space, gallery and reflection space, or group workspace.

Features vary based on the tool, but most learning management systems like Canvas and Coursera have a discussion board. There are also additional tools like Piazza and even Slack that can be used for discussions.

Annotation Tools:

Annotation tools support learners working together to comment on a single document. Learners can highlight and comment on journal articles, and much like a threaded discussion, comment on other comments. Examples of annotation tools include: Perusall,, A.nnotate and even Google Docs.

Asynchronous audio/video tools:

Asynchronous communication Is not just limited to text. There are also tools to incorporate visual and audio communication. Flipgrid is a great way to engage with students asynchronously while still feeling like a real person behind a keyboard. VoiceThread allows attaching audio files to documents as an alternative way to provide feedback to students.


Blogs and wikis are areas for learners to post and or collaborate on documents. Generally used in areas open to the entire internet, they can be used for learners to share with a larger audience.

Affordances and challenges with asynchronous tools:

Asynchronous communication tools can be used for many types of pedagogical applications. Some of the advantages of using asynchronous communication tools over other types of tools:

  • Facilitates contemplative discussion, reflection, higher-order thinking, and detailed exchange of ideas among students
  • Students have the opportunity to participate around their schedule
  • Allows for the instructor to monitor for communication flow and understanding

Some challenges with using asynchronous tools:

  • A lack of immediate feedback can be less than motivating
  • Students may feel isolated without feedback or interaction
  • Requires students to take more ownership and self-regulation of participation
  • Asynchronous tools are still primarily text-based, which can result in misunderstanding

(For a more general overview about the different types of communication tools, see Communication Tools)

Be aware of general asynchronous tool challenges and build structures to mitigate them as best as possible.

    • For example: to encourage participation and minimize isolation, set clear expectations and deadlines around student activity in asynchronous activities. See Facilitating asynchronous discussions and Setting Clear Expectations for more.
    • Model communication behavior and norms for students. Consider kicking off discussion postings with your own reflection on the topic.
    • Monitor asynchronous communication tools for disruptive situations.

Some tools, like a discussion board, can easily become overwhelming with information if you try to read every single message. Consider what your strategy will be for managing the facilitation of tools. See Time Management, Setting Clear Expectations and Efficient facilitation for more.

Create clear boundaries around tools. For example, you may specify that all academic discussions or questions should take place in a discussion board. For personal communications or questions about grade, use email. Limit the number of communication tools utilized to minimize confusion of information location.

University of Michigan

CRLT: Teaching and learning with Piazza

Other Resources

University of Florida: Netiquette Guide for Online Courses


Harman, K. & Koohang, A. (2005). Discussion board: A learning object. Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects, 1(1), 67-77. Informing Science Institute. Retrieved December 9, 2019 from

Kannan, J. (2017). Fostering a Community of Inquiry using the Flipgrid video response system – a Pedagogical Inquiry. 1–6.

Osborne, D. M., Byrne, J. H., Massey, D. L., & Johnston, A. N. B. (2018). Use of online asynchronous discussion boards to engage students, enhance critical thinking, and foster staff-student/student-student collaboration: A mixed method study. Nurse Education Today, 70, 40–46.

University of Miami. (2019). Asynchronous communication tools. Retrieved December 16, 2019, from

Introduction to synchronous tools

Introduction to synchronous tools

What you will be able to do after this section:

  • Identify the communication tools they will most likely be using in their online course
  • Integrate best practices into their synchronous tools use

Many faculty transitioning to online teaching are concerned with a disconnect between them and their students. With the help of synchronous tools, this issue can be mitigated to create an environment that fosters a healthy teaching-learning relationship.

What are synchronous tools?

Synchronous communication in the online setting can be achieved through several tools. To create a ‘synchronous’ space, tools such as live streaming video, audio, or text can allow for instantaneous feedback among participants. With the use of the types listed below, distance education can be enhanced to promote a more interactive classroom.

Types of synchronous tools

Live Chat: 

Similar to e-mail or text messaging, live chats allow participants to engage in a written conversation at the same time. Chats are found on a variety of platforms such as Slack or Google Chat. Some of these tools are considered to be semi-synchronous, because it is possible to send others an instant message even when they are not online.

Web Conferencing:

Also known as video chatting or calling, web conferencing allows you to activate your computer’s microphone and camera. With the help of Blue Jeans, Zoom, or Canvas telephone/video, you can connect your device with others via internet connection.  You can also broadcast media, presentations, or content using a videoconferencing system.

Online White-boarding:

If you are someone who enjoys writing on the whiteboard/chalkboard during class, this is a great tool to utilize. Online white-boarding tools provide an online version of a whiteboard that participants can write on, post images, or draw graphics to support your course content. This tool is interactive and when accessed synchronously, can promote classroom engagement.


As with any tool, there are benefits and disadvantages to using synchronous mediums in your online classroom. The most desirable aspects of synchronous sessions are the reduced lag time for communication and that it gives the familiar sense of a traditional classroom. From a pedagogical perspective, synchronous tools support instantaneous feedback and interactions. Watts (2016) found that students reported feeling more engaged and more connected to their peers through synchronous sessions. Further, synchronous tools can be particularly helpful in courses that rely on verbal communication and facial responses, like foreign language or counseling.

One of the primary challenges with synchronous tools. Since online learning is designed to reach students in different locations, Since online learners require increased flexibility and accessibility, synchronous tasks can be stressful to plan. Even if participants are able to gather synchronously, issues with technology can undermine the activity. Marbrito (2006) even found that discussions become more surface-level and student interactions are less focused.

(For more about the different types of communication tools, see Communication Tools)

Make sure you record sessions. 

Inevitably not all students will be able to be in the same place at the same time. If you choose to use a synchronous tool, make sure you record the session so it can be shared with those that were not able to participate. Recorded sessions can then be uploaded into your learning management system.

Don’t be afraid to use time for some social purposes

Set aside 5-10 minutes in a large group session to engage with students in an informal way. if you feel comfortable, share something about your week and give them the opportunity to do the same. Synchronous sessions are great alleviating anxiety and isolation.

Consider using synchronous sessions for small group check-ins 

Break up large group synchronous sessions with slotted small groups. Have small groups sign up for a time and then meet with you. Students have the personal interaction they may need, but it is not so overwhelming with time.

Create an agenda for synchronous sessions

Think about creating an agenda before embarking on synchronous sessions, at least at first. While you may be familiar with time and classroom management in a face-to-face class, a large videoconference may feel different. Creating an agenda to share with students helps them stay on task as well.

Become proficient with technology

Prior to using any of the synchronous tools, be sure to explore them fully. Practice with someone else. It helps to not be trying to learn the technology while teaching a class.

University of Michigan 

ITS: Comparison of different videoconferencing tools

ITS: Blue Jeans help and documentation

ITS: Videoconferencing best practices

Other resources


Clark, C., Strudler, N., & Grove, K. (2015). Comparing asynchronous and synchronous video vs. Text based discussions in an online teacher education course. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, 19(3), 48–69.

Hartsell, T., & Yuen, S. (2006). Video streaming in online learning. AACE Journal, 14(1), 31-43.

Isaacson, K. (2013). An investigation into the affordances of Google Hangouts for possible use in synchronous online learning environments. Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2013, (1978), 2461–2465. Retrieved from

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Mabrito, M. (2006). A study of synchronous versus asynchronous collaboration in an online business writing class. The American Journal of Distance Education, 20(2), 93–107.

Sabin, J., & Olive, A. (2018). Slack: Adopting social-networking platforms for active learning. PS, Political Science & Politics, 51(1), 183-189. doi:

Sutterlin, Jane. (2018). Learning is social with zoom video conferencing in your classroom. eLearn, 2018(12). ACM.

Watts, L. (2016). Synchronous and asynchronous communication in distance learning: A Review of the Literature. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 17(1), 23.

Introduction to Communication Tools

Online Now: Introduction to communication tools

What you will be able to do after this section:

  • Differentiate the uses and purposes of synchronous and asynchronous tools.
  • Identify the benefits and limitations of each communication method.

Within all disciplines, we develop and utilize tools that can make our lives easier. Some tools can allow tasks to be completed more efficiently, while others may assist in fostering meaningful conversation. The online classroom is just as well-equipped for these needs. There are a variety of tools available that can enhance the learning and teaching processes, so it is important to explore what the learning platform has to offer.

While you may think about what you are going to say in a classroom, you may not take into consideration the length of time it will take for the class to process it.. In a face-to-face classroom, a lot of our communication with students happens at the same time, in the same place. You may be accustomed to holding  full class discussions, where the students can participate all together in real-time.. In contrast, if you were to record a lecture, learners might watch the video at a time that is most convenient for each individual student. Therefore, it is imperative to consider how communication time frames shift in the online classroom.

Much of the process of learning is rooted in communication. As the instructor, you communicate to students, either in a lecture or facilitation. You also have less formal communications, perhaps through one-on-one interaction with students, answering questions in office hours, emails, or perhaps announcements in a learning management system.

In an online environment, communication can feel more complex due to the many possible tools and functions of communication technology available in the online space. Generally, when we talk about interaction in online environments, we talk about whether those communications are synchronous (everyone is on and participating at the same time) or asynchronous (participation is generally bounded by time, but not necessarily at the same time).

Which is the right tool for me?

Neither asynchronous communication or synchronous communication is the “right” tool for learning. The tool itself does not directly impact learning, rather it is the design of the learning experience and method of instruction that really matters. Remember, the point of communication is to bridge the gap from learner to the classroom community. Some tools are more adept at certain tasks than others, so it is important to weigh the advantages and challenges of both synchronous and asynchronous communication tools.

Synchronous tools:

Good for: quickly building community, answering questions quickly, small group work, students who are all in the same time zone, continuity of a “typical” class.

Challeges: Learners with time constraints or different time zones can’t always participate, learners who depend on extra time for writing/reflection struggle with the syncronous nature, need to build social etiquette.

Types of tools: Instant messenger/chat (Google hangouts), Video conferencing (Zoom, Blue Jeans), Slack

Asynchronous tools:

Good for: Developing more thoughtful and reflective answers, students who may not be comfortable speaking, geographically dispersed populations or adult learners who may struggle to be able to be online at the same time

Challenges: Students lack immediate feedback, careful moderation is needed to make sure all students participate, tends to be a lot of text which can be overwhelming

Tools used: Email, discussion boards (Canvas, Coursera, Piazza), Slack, annotation tools (Perusall), blogs, wikis.

  • Think strategically about your course goals and learning objectives before choosing communication tools, particularly your first time teaching or designing a course. Sometimes more tools for communication only breeds confusion, so try to limit your choices to a select couple tools
  • Help students understand the logic behind which communication tools you are planning to use. For example:
        • Email will be used for personal communication with the instructor, as well as weekly updates about the class
        • The discussion tool will be used for weekly topic discussions
        • The web conferencing tool Zoom will be used for learner’s bi-weekly small group synch chats, and for office hours.
  • Become familiar with the technologies that you plan to use. There will most likely be instances in which students need troubleshooting advice or things do not go according to plan. Deeply explore your tools and become proficient in their usage.

University of Michigan

CRLT: Teaching and learning with Piazza

Other Resources

University of Florida: Netiquette Guide for Online Courses


Harman, K. & Koohang, A. (2005). Discussion board: A learning object. Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects, 1(1), 67-77. Informing Science Institute. Retrieved December 9, 2019 from

Kannan, J. (2017). Fostering a Community of Inquiry using the Flipgrid video response system – a Pedagogical Inquiry. 1–6.

Osborne, D. M., Byrne, J. H., Massey, D. L., & Johnston, A. N. B. (2018). Use of online asynchronous discussion boards to engage students, enhance critical thinking, and foster staff-student/student-student collaboration: A mixed method study. Nurse Education Today, 70, 40–46.