Synchronous communication technology

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Synchronous communication technology

W. Jonathan Barnes, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Definitions and background

Synchronous communication is direct communication that occurs in real time (Mabrito, 2010; Wang, 2008). It is incorporated into distance education through instant messaging, chat rooms, and audio and video conferencing (Chui, Yang, Liang & Chen, 2010). Although audio and video conferencing are growing in popularity, text-based chat services still remain the most popular form of synchronous communication (Chui et al., 2010). Software such as Adobe Connect, Elluminate LiveTM and Horizon WimbaTM (now known as Blackboard CollaborateTM) are real-time communication software used to support real-time communication (Martin, Parker, & Eyarzun, 2013). These synchronous communication technologies (SCTs) include features such as shared applications and whiteboards, emoticons, hand raising, and a class-voting function (Murphy, Rodriguez-Manzanares & Barbour, 2008; Chui et al., 2010). Freeware versions of similar software include DimDimTM and WiziqTM (Martin, Parker, & Oyarzun, 2013).

Recent and rapid improvements in technology have made the use of SCT in distance education viable (Ng, 2007) and more widely used (Hrastinski, 2006). In the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, as much as 60% of distance instruction occurs synchronously (Murphy & Rodriguez-Manzanares, 2008b). This type of synchronous distance teaching is often referred to as a virtual classroom (Murphy & Coffin, 2003).


SCT allows users to communicate online in real time (Steel & Jones, 2013). This affordance provides immediacy to communication and strengthens collaboration in distance education (Groen, Tworek, & Soos-Gonczol, 2008). "Teachers and students may be located in rooms that are thousands of miles apart and yet still spontaneously communicate together as if they were physically co-present" (Murphy, Rodriguez-Manzanares & Barbour, 2011, p. 584), making it possible to collaborate with their peers without having to travel to campus (Martin et al., 2013). Using SCT software, students can collaborate in activities in breakout rooms where they can converse privately with teacher supervision (Martin, Parker, & Deale, 2012). Murphy and Ciszewska-Carr (2007) identified that students communicating in break-out rooms is an effective means of engaging students and encouraging group communication and collaboration.

SCT allows teachers to determine students' understanding of content and provide immediate feedback to students (Martin et al., 2013). It enables teachers to "ask students questions, test their understanding, test their ability, or get their opinion" (Murphy & Rodriguez Manzanares, 2008a, p. 52). It can also support providing individual feedback and guidance to students outside of regular class time by allowing teachers to be available to students via chat (Murphy & Rodriguez Manzanares, 2008a). University students reported benefiting from the immediate feedback provided through synchronous online classes (Martin et al., 2012) and the virtual office hours that teachers held (Steel & Jones, 2013).

SCT enables students in the virtual classroom to have a social presence similar to a traditional classroom (Stewart, Harlow, & DeBacco, 2011). It empowers students to interact socially, generate conversation in a real-time online environment (McBrien, Jones, & Cheng, 2009) and provides teachers and students the opportunity to get to know each other personally (Murphy & Rodriguez-Manzanares, 2008a). Chat features of SCT allow multiple students to contribute to group discussions, which may result in increased class participation and social presence (Bower, 2011; Murphy & Rodriguez-Manzanares, 2008a). Direct messaging creates a natural environment for students to conveniently and spontaneously express a range of emotions and socially interact (Murphy & Nippard, 2011), which may activate quieter students because they feel more confident socializing and expressing their own opinions (McBrien et al., 2009). Quiet students who rarely speak in a traditional class may consistently interact in the virtual classroom (Murphy & Rodriguez-Manzanares, 2008a).


SCT makes irrelevant the distance between teachers and students but time remains a constraint (Grant & Cheon, 2007) because users "are temporally dependent" (Murphy et al., 2011, p. 584) and need set times to meet (Steel & Jones, 2013). SCT is not afforded the flexibility of scheduling (Murphy, 2009), which can cause students to regularly miss online synchronous classes due to scheduling conflicts (Stewart et al., 2011). In distance education, students also often keep their own schedule and work at their own pace which makes teaching synchronously difficult because students are often at different places in courses (Murphy et al., 2011).

While using SCT, communication is not as spontaneous as live interactions because the technology delays the time in which students give their responses (Murphy & Coffin, 2003). With SC software, students have to select the talk button or wait for someone to finish closing their talk button in order to contribute to a discussion (Murphy & Coffin, 2003). In some cases, SCT audio features constrain the learning experience because only one to four people can speak at a time (Murphy & Rodriguez-Manzanares, 2008a). This lack of flexibility in communication can sometimes lead to a teacher-driven controlled environment that is not conducive to student learning (Murphy & Rodriguez-Manzanares, 2008b). The dialogue that results from this teacher-centered environment in the virtual classroom is usually very quick and the messages are very short in comparison to face-to-face interaction (Chui et al., 2010).

When students avail of chat or audio features of SC they do not benefit from body language or other social cues that they may be used to with face-to-face interactions (Mabrito, 2006). SC often lacks sufficient perceptual clues such as tone, hand gestures, and facial expressions that are important aspects of communication and social experiences (Chui et al., 2010). Students’ lack of visual presence and social cues in the virtual classroom is a constraint that is not easily overcome (Murphy & Coffin, 2003).

The affordances of SCT enable a new range of pedagogical strategies to be applied in teaching and learning (Bower, 2011), but also impose several constraints that need to be minimized by teachers through the effective use of teaching strategies, activities, and SCT (Murphy & Coffin, 2003).


Asynchronous E-Learning Vs. Synchronous E-Learning
Overview of Synchronous Online Learning
Synchronous Online Course Best Practices
Synchronous Online Learning
The 'Dos and Don'ts' of Synchronous Online Learning

Works Cited

Bower, M. (2011). Synchronous collaboration competencies in web‐conferencing environments – their impact on the learning process. Distance Education, 32(1), 63-83. doi: 10.1080/01587919.2011.565502

Chiu, C., Yang, H., Liang, H., & Chen, H. (2010). Elementary students' participation style in synchronous online communication and collaboration. Behaviour & Information Technology, 29(6), 571-586. doi: 10.1080/01449291003686195

Grant, M., & Cheon, J. (2007). The value of using synchronous conferencing for instruction and students. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6(3), 211-226. Retrieved from:

Groen, J., Tworek, J., & Soos-Gonczol, M. (2008). The effective use of synchronous classes within an online graduate program: Building upon an interdependent system. International Journal of E-Learning, 7(2), 245-263. Retrieved from:

Hrastinski, S. (2006). Introducing an informal synchronous medium in a distance learning course: How is participation affected?. Internet and Higher Education, 9, 117–131. doi: 10.1016/j.iheduc.2006.03.006

Mabrito, M. (2006). A study of synchronous versus asynchronous collaboration in an online business writing class. American Journal of Distance Education, 20(2), 93-107. doi: 10.1207/s15389286ajde2002_4

Martin, F., Parker, M., & Deale, D. (2012). Examining interactivity in synchronous virtual classrooms. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(3), 227-261. Retrieved from:

Martin, F., Parker, M., & Oyarzun, B. (2013). A case study on the adoption and use of synchronous virtual classrooms. The Electronic Journal of E-Learning, 11(2), 123-138. Retrieved from:

McBrien, J., Jones, P., & Cheng, R. (2009). Virtual spaces: Employing a synchronous online classroom to facilitate student engagement in online learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3), 1-17. Retrieved from:

Murphy, E. (2009). Online synchronous communication in the second-language classroom. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 35(3). Retrieved from:

Murphy, E., & Ciszewska-Carr, J. (2007). Instructors' experiences of web-based synchronous communication using two way audio and direct messaging. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 23(1), 68-86. Retrieved from:

Murphy, E., & Coffin, G. (2003). Synchronous communication in a web-based senior high school course: Maximizing affordances and minimizing constraints of the tool. The American Journal of Distance Education, 17(4), 235-246. doi: 10.1207/s15389286ajde1704_4

Murphy, E., & Nippard, E. (2007). Social presence in the web-based synchronous secondary classroom. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 33(1). Retrieved from:

Murphy, E., Rodriguez-Manzanares, M., & Barbour, M. (2011). Asynchronous and synchronous online teaching: Perspectives of Canadian high school distance education teachers. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42(4), 583–591. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2010.01112.x

Murphy, E., & Rodriguez-Manzanares, M. (2008a). Instant messaging in a context of virtual schooling: balancing the affordances and challenges. Educational Media International, 45(1), 47-58. doi: 10.1080/09523980701847180

Murphy, E., & Rodriguez-Manzanares, M. (2008b). Revisiting transactional distance theory in a context of web-based high-school distance education. Journal of Distance Education, 22(2), 1-14. Retrieved from:

Ng, K. (2007). Replacing face-to-face tutorials by synchronous online technologies: Challenges and pedagogical implications. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 8(1), 1-15. Retrieved from:

Steel, G., & Jones, S. (2013). Using virtual environments for synchronous online courses. Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology, 2(1), 56-61. Retrieved from:

Stewart, A., Harlow, D., & DeBacco, K. (2011). Students’ experience of synchronous learning in distributed environments. Distance Education, 32(3), 357-381. doi: 10.1080/01587919.2011.610289

Wang, S. (2008). The effects of a synchronous communication tool (Yahoo Messenger) on online learners’ sense of community and their multimedia authoring skills. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 7(1), 59-74. Retrieved from: