Table of Contents


For my teachers,
Mom and Dad

There is nothing new about synchronous learning. Arguably, huT mans have been learning in real time since they began to communicate with one another. Real-time instruction on the Internet, by comparison, is relatively new. Though many technologies are designed to remove the need for human involvement, synchronous tools turn the spotlight squarely on people and invite the participation of those willing, ready, and able to share, collaborate, and learn. Perhaps more than any other form of computer-mediated communication, real-time learning strips away barriers to reveal the natural give-and-take and subtleties of human dialogue that are the hallmark of in-person exchanges.
In the wake of an initial movement to seize the “anytime, anywhere” nature of the Web, bring courses online en masse, and scale enrollment, there is now a renewed focus in education on quality of instruction, student engagement, and retention. Real-time tools are playing a growing role in enhancing formal learning experiences and just-in-time interactions with instructors and peers who are increasingly connected not “anytime, anywhere” but “all the time, anywhere.” Personalized and caring student support services—such as tutoring, advising, help desk, or reference support—have also been expected to meet the needs of learners who want to succeed online and are benefiting from the meaningful relationship-building and immediacy possible in synchronous settings.
The growing use of real-time technologies holds great promise to re-invent collaboration and interactivity and “warm” the way we learn online—if we choose to try new things. Regrettably, for some, their only experience in this realm has been taking part in a one-sided synchronous lecture, leaving them to question the value of real-time tools and the purpose of gathering live online. You will see few references to “slides” and “lecturing” in this book. The main thrust of the chapters that follow is to provide learning professionals with the guidance and concrete strategies needed to know when and how to facilitate synchronous interactions that leave no one wondering why everyone needed to be there at the same time.
I do not envision a world in which all learning happens in a live virtual classroom, interactive Webcast, or instant messenger. Learning happens across a continuum that includes a wide array of planned and unplanned, asynchronous and synchronous communication, and it happens in groups, one-on-one, and alone. Well-conceived, on-demand approaches that summarily exclude live interaction—whether it be formal or informal—without considering the unique possibilities it offers may be unnecessarily limiting the ultimate potential of a learning experience.
This book does envision a future in which learning that takes place in synchronous spaces resembles and builds upon the very best of offline interaction, and it serves as a needed resource to help make that so.


This book will be of great value to anyone already involved in live online teaching or facilitation, or anyone considering a foray into that realm. Each chapter considers the academic context of faculty members looking to humanize and improve learning through real-time interaction. The book will also be a valuable resource to instructional designers, tutors, advising staff, librarians, and anyone involved in faculty development, course design, or the provision of student support services. Administrators—such as those in admission, alumni, or public relations departments—may also find the book a source of inspiration for the potential of live online outreach. The instructional strategies offered here have also been successfully applied in corporate training, online marketing, and other online learning and communication arenas, and professionals in these areas will also find this book to be an important and invaluable guide.


Intended as an accessible guidebook or desk reference, Learning in Real Time focuses on practical knowledge and strategies for designing and facilitating live online learning experiences. Although it draws on theoretical material, the book’s emphasis is on good practice and effective use of synchronous technologies in real-world, real-time scenarios. Chapter One explores the kinds of contexts that call for live online instruction. It offers the notion of a “synchronous compact”—an implicit agreement between instructors and learners in real-time environments to focus on that which requires their concurrent presence—and asks when live interaction should be considered over asynchronous alternatives. It also highlights learner skills that can be developed and assessed uniquely in real-time settings but that are often overlooked or not taught online. Chapter Two measures the potential of synchronous learning against commonly accepted principles of good practice in education and offers first-hand evidence from practitioners in the field.
The next two chapters take a closer look at synchronous technology itself. Chapter Three examines some of the most common tools available for text, audio, and visual interaction live online and then assembles these tools into synchronous venues, such as virtual classrooms, chat rooms, instant messengers, and interactive Webcast environments, and Chapter Four explores the kinds of instructional goals best served by each.
Chapter Five turns to facilitation skills for synchronous online settings and offers seven major techniques for ensuring that learning is happening live online and that instructors are connecting effectively with students. With confidence in our ability to proficiently facilitate live activities, we proceed in Chapter Six to a set of original, instructional approaches for fostering collaboration and learning, live online. Each activity constitutes a template that can be applied to virtually any subject matter and includes several examples, variations, and suggestions for embedding the live experiences into the overall learning continuum, including asynchronous coursework.
Finally, a series of additional resources assist in scheduling synchronous events, selecting real-time tools, and justifying their use in light of common misconceptions and available alternatives. Links to Web sites that use actual, live, online tools serve as a launching pad for continued exploration and hands-on practice with the techniques presented in this book, for only real-world experience can bring about the potential of learning in real time.


A very flattering invitation from Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt to write this work is what finally turned a long-standing goal into the book you are holding now. I admire Rena and Keith and thank them for their support and inspiration and for recognizing the great value offered by well-conceived, real-time online learning experiences.
I offer deep gratitude to the members of and to each and every community on the LearningTimes Network. Your selflessness, willingness to share, and warm collegiality were on my mind while composing each and every page. I thank you for the life you breathe into learning online. To the Webheads in Action, your “experiment in world friendship” through online learning is always welcome to call LearningTimes home; your energy, enthusiasm, and love for teaching and learning is anything but virtual, even if our community is.
My work on this project and on so many others benefits from closeness to creative, brilliant, and kind people such as Paul Stacey, Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan, Lorraine Leo, Dan Balzer, Steve Gilbert, Deb Hutti, Dick Parsons, Farimah Schuerman, Amanda Majkowski, Larry Johnson, Michael Coghlan, and others. Many people call you their heroes; I am among them and am lucky to also call you my friends.
To David Brightman, my editor at Jossey-Bass, thank you and your colleagues for your confidence in me and for the opportunity to contribute to this important series of guide books.
This book would not exist were it not for my friends and colleagues at LearningTimes. In particular, I thank my friend John Walber, the consummate live producer: you are a role model, driving force, and entertaining partner in all of my work, and I cannot imagine making a living without you. And to Hope Kandel, I offer my deep respect and admiration for your talents and integrity, and your friendship. I also wish to recognize the support and guidance of Suzanne and Darrin Billig and my grandparents, all of whom I love very much.
No one bore the brunt of this project—nor deserves credit for its existence—more than Dhal Anglada. As an instructional designer and as a partner, Dhal’s input into this and every undertaking is unflagging and entirely irreplaceable.
I have been fortunate to have had many great teachers in my life, and this book reflects an important contribution from each of them. But no teachers are more loved and appreciated than the two I also call Mom and Dad. Thank you, for everything.
June, 2006
Jonathan Finkelstein New York, New York

About the Author
Jonathan Finkelstein is a pioneer in the design and use of synchronous teaching and learning tools. Few people have spent more time in real-time online learning environments facilitating and working with others to create effective learning experiences worthy of the live online medium. Jonathan created the first certification program exclusively designed for educators and trainers teaching live online. He also cofounded one of the industry’s first companies creating platforms for live teaching, learning, interaction, and collaboration over the Internet. Jonathan is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and serves on several editorial and advisory boards for journals and online communities of practice that serve education professionals.
Jonathan is the founder and executive producer of and the president of the LearningTimes Network. He has been designing and producing online learning conferences, communities, events, and collaborative technologies his entire professional life. Jonathan has worked closely with a wide range of learning-focused institutions—such as the New York City Department of Education, the University of Hawaii, Ohio Learning Network, Columbia Teachers College, the Smithsonian Institution, the World Bank, Intuit, MetLife, and the American Library Association— to grow and maintain online learning communities and foster human interaction live online. Many of his online programs and applications have been recognized with industry awards.
As the executive producer of , a free, worldwide community for education and training, Jonathan helps craft a variety of online forums, both live and asynchronous, in which education professionals collaborate and learn from peers and industry leaders. Jonathan has also led the formation and growth of the LearningTimes Network, a rapidly growing series of interconnected online learning communities, all of which feature opportunities for formal and impromptu live online interaction and collaboration. The LearningTimes Network connects education-minded organizations of all kinds, fostering partnerships among educational institutions, associations, corporate entities, museums, and other groups whose missions include reaching a global audience of learners.
The son of two New York City public school teachers, Jonathan is a Certified Synchronous Training Professional (CSTP) and received his A.B. degree cum laude from Harvard University.

Learning, Live Online
With mounting experience in the online environment, an increasing number of learning professionals are now ready to find ways to add life, and the magic of real-time interaction, back into the learning process. In the vast movement to transition campus-based experiences to the online realm, the immediacy and value of live interaction have often been sacrificed to a perception that the Web is no place for anything that is not “anytime, anywhere.” Though “anytime” or asynchronous modes of communication have been an empowering factor in allowing learners to transcend traditional limits of place and time, not every learning objective or need can be met in the absence of real-time human interaction.
Situations that call for proximity to others, even figuratively, are found all across the learning continuum from collaboration to skills development to community-building or just-in-time support. Learning environments that have shied away from any form of real-time interaction may be unnecessarily limiting the overall potential of what each student can learn, and what the institution can offer.
Rapid improvements in technology and Internet connectivity, coupled with increasing comfort levels and support in using basic online communication and learning tools, have impelled educators to tap back into the fostering of relationships with students in real time that have been the hallmark of their on-campus teaching experience. Most important, a renewed focus on the quality of instruction and student engagement that has followed the first wave of online learning (Palloff and Pratt, 2005) inevitably means a greater consideration of tools that humanize the learning experience, efficiently teach and gauge performance-based skills, and cultivate natural means for collaborating and learning in real time.


Perceived by many as merely a means to deliver formal instruction or lectures online, real-time or synchronous venues actually play a much broader role across the entire learning continuum. In physical settings, live conversations and real-time human interaction are the lifeblood of academic life and adult learning. Remove from the equation things such as
• Unplanned chats among peers over lunch
• Lively in-class discussions or debates
• Student-led presentations or performances
• Study group, team, or committee gatherings
• Hallway conversations with classmates or colleagues
• Impromptu exchanges between a student and instructor after class or during office hours
• Timely and personalized guidance from a reference librarian, advisor, or coach
• Serendipitous meetings on campus
and what remains are course materials, reading assignments, and isolated, independent study—none of which provide the kind of supportive, dynamic, and human environment that helps learners be engaged, motivated, or successful. If the first wave of moving courses online has taught us anything, it is that opportunities for interaction and collaboration are crucial elements of successful learning environments. Not considering opportunities to add human interaction—in any form—to online programs or courses summarily dismisses a vital form of communication for learning, skill development, support, and community-building.


Although consideration of synchronous interaction might first turn to instructor-led activities or lessons, real-time interaction and learning can take as many forms and happen in about as many different kinds of contexts online as it does in our physical learning settings. At least five major functions are served by real-time, online interaction within a learning environment:
• Instruction
• Collaboration
• Support
• Socialization and informal exchange
• Extended outreach
Instruction encompasses any of the kinds of learning that happen when faculty members, knowledge experts, or facilitators meet with learners, usually in a planned manner in a specific online venue, to guide them through the achievement of learning objectives. This is a very broad category, and there are at least as many methods and pedagogical approaches to engage in live online instruction as there are in any other setting, online or off. Nonetheless, this book places a greater emphasis on an active or constructivist (Piaget, 1969) approach to instruction within synchronous settings. People need not be present concurrently with an instructor to simply have information passed on to them, yet the active construction of knowledge by learners through a process of real-time give-and-take is well-served in a live online setting.
Collaboration is a key element to the success of an online learning environment (Conrad and Donaldson, 2004). It is also, as I discuss later, a skill that has become part of a global working environment. Although the presence of a facilitator can guide collaborative activities, these interactions tend to be more egalitarian in nature and can happen at any time, in both structured and informal settings, with two or more people present. Live online settings offer an immediacy that not only allows collaboration to begin instantaneously but also contracts the actual time spent on task.
Support is a crucial element for retaining and motivating learners, whether it is provided by just-in-time assistance from a peer, instructor, tutor, advisor, or librarian. No other form of online communication can give personalized human support faster or at the moment it is most needed than a live exchange with the right person.
Socialization and informal exchanges are activities whose contributions to the learning process are most difficult to quantify. Interactions in this realm often dispense with formality and can even be short of substance, yet without them a crucial foundation on which to build instructional activities is lacking. The proliferation of instant messengers, online chat rooms, and mobile messaging in social contexts (Shiu and Lenhart, 2004) alone affirms that live online venues are an increasingly common and comfortable form of live interaction. In learning environments, they help build community and create a friendly and safe environment in which people can feel like people.
Extended outreach is an important aspect of any institution’s connection to the world beyond its gates. Admission information sessions, alumni relations, online conferences, multicampus professional development, and lifelong education programs are among the many reasons for the use of synchronous online communication outside of the formal instructional arena.

Various Purposes, Various Venues

There are almost as many online tools and venues for synchronous interaction as there are activities that call for their use. With instant messengers, chat rooms, online reference desks, interactive Webcasting platforms, and virtual classrooms, offices, and meeting rooms there is no shortage of available options to meet and interact live online. The ultimate question is what we do in these spaces that helps us achieve communication and learning objectives not realized as ideally in any other manner.

Why Live?

When it comes to instruction, course content and communication can be channeled through many forums and formats. The online environment offers a vast array of permutations for interacting and sharing knowledge with students. E-mail, discussion threads, Web resources, blogs, online reading materials, and recorded audio or video are just a few of the more common means to reach learners online. With so many tools and media formats available, the choice to “go live” online should be a deliberate one based on what can uniquely be accomplished when people congregate in real time. A successful real-time, online learning experience begins with a clear and confident answer to the question: Why live?
A prerequisite to the effective use of synchronous tools is that the decision to use these tools was made to support a cause worthy of the live medium. If the purpose can better be achieved through the dissemination of a document, via a link to a recorded lecture, or by a simple e-mail to students, it should. Synchronous learning should be deployed when synchronous learning is uniquely suited. Not adhering to this basic principle can damage learners’ trust in an instructor’s instructional prerogatives and dampen learner motivation.


Live online experiences must start with an implicit or even explicit compact or agreement between an instructor or facilitator and participating learners. In this “synchronous compact,” learners agree to minimize the distractions they have around them and to make every effort to contribute meaningfully to the experience. The instructor’s half of this bargain is to remember at every moment of every live session that there is a group of people assembled in real time who have set aside the same precious hour out of their day and to make every effort to use the time together in a manner that takes advantage of the fact that all are present in real time.

Meeting the Threshold to Go Live

In deciding whether or not to call for a live online session, it is extremely instructional to ask one’s self: “Why am I asking my group to all login at, say, 3:00 P.M. on a Wednesday? Why is it important that they all stop what they are doing to take the same exact hour to be online together with me or with each other? In light of all my available options, why is this the right way to go?” The lack of an answer that is compelling to you or that would be to your learners should be an immediate indicator to reconsider the alternatives. The full potential of any learning experience cannot be achieved when learners are led to ponder, Tell me again, why am I here?

New Opportunities

In addressing these questions and moving instructional experiences online, exciting new opportunities exist to rethink and improve upon old paradigms. One such tradition, for example, is the live lecture, which has been “baked” into the academic structure of most institutions for centuries. Taking a course—or aspects of a course—online need not be seen as requiring a direct translation of the thrice-weekly lecture to the online realm. The evolution of instructional design to include the use of synchronous online tools offers a great impetus to reinvent how instructors spend time with learners.
Using a real-time environment to lecture learners can be an expedient use of a virtual classroom environment, but it neglects some of the most creative possibilities of a tool that essentially “wires” all learners to the instructor and to each other. Such “connected” learning—the combined use of real-time polling, drawing, annotation, text chat, Web exploration, rich media, and visual, voice, and video tools with two or more people online—can open the door to new and unique ways to achieve learning objectives.
The synchronous realm of learning offers a variety of unique attributes, such as
• Immediate and just-in-time access to peers, instructors, and knowledge experts
• The ability for multiple people to interact and share ideas with one another concurrently
• Hands-on tools through which learners can react to presented concepts or apply knowledge in real time
• Direct connections to real-world situations and primary resources
• The means to demonstrate and assess real-time skills and analytical thinking
• The ability to include a more diverse learner population in real-time discussions
• The capacity to bridge guest expertise into the learning environment
The unique potential of synchronous instruction and real-time communication online must be recognized if the tools are going to be used effectively and truly make a difference in learner outcomes. Despite the growing use of synchronous tools in instruction, many years of experience suggest that the tools are still seen primarily as a means to replicate traditional, campus-based instructional activities—for good or bad—rather than to explore new avenues of improving student learning. An uninspired slide lecture delivered on campus will be at least as unappealing in the online environment, where the learner’s opportunities for distraction are greater.
Real-time, online instructional tools hold great promise. At their core is the potential to expose online learners, even at great distances, to the impassioned understanding and the contagious appreciation that instructors, and often peers, bring to the subject at hand.
The presence of a live instructor, combined with the use of the human voice and a rich set of facilitation and collaboration possibilities, opens up a new world for those who love to teach and who know that fostering moments of epiphany often requires the presence and real-time give-and-take of a guide present at one’s side. The use of synchronous tools among peers for both informal and formal instructional activities personalizes learning and provides a needed support framework. It is also closer in many ways to the mode of interaction through which many learners will need to apply their education in their professional lives, where demonstrating knowledge will often happen on the fly and via effective communication that will not always be asynchronous. I will discuss the role played by real-time environments in developing these kinds of learner skills in the next chapter.


What are some of the indicators that a live online interaction may be the preferred means for communicating with learners online?
Lessons are best learned from group discussion or collaboration. For an instructor, few things are as rewarding as watching the exploration of a topic take flight as learners discuss, collaborate, construct knowledge, and work together to solve problems. Many live online environments are well suited for this kind of learning experience and often offer greater efficiency than asynchronous alternatives. There are times when a real-time dialogue that unfolds over a five-minute period might take five days in an asynchronous format. Shades of meaning that are misinterpreted in asynchronous interactions and send groups on unnecessary tangents are resolved quickly in real time, and more relevant ground is covered.
Sparking deeper appreciation for and understanding of the subject matter is desired. A good instructor not only teaches but also inspires. In offline settings, that inspiration is often conveyed through the conviction of the human voice, spirited explanations, and impassioned gestures. Spontaneity, humor, and direct invitations to engage learners in the here and now of discussion are all ingredients for the kind of contagious enthusiasm that arouses a learner’s deeper understanding and appreciation for the subject matter at hand. Real-time learning tools help expedite the generation of these sparks.
A safe environment for exploration and sharing and a sense of community are vital to achieving learning objectives. The proper exploration of some topics relies on candid dialogue and sharing among learners. Ethics, counseling, politics, and nursing are but a few disciplines in which learners are often asked to share their personal opinions, biases, and feelings. A sense of community—where members of a group trust each other and their facilitator and feel willing and comfortable enough to contribute—can help expedite sharing activities. Live online settings can be safe places to quickly and efficiently build that sense of community and cooperation.
Learning involves the rehearsal, demonstration, and assessment of particular skills. Whether it be oral communication, analytical thinking, real-time problem solving, software proficiency, information literacy, or any number of performance-based skills, real-time venues afford opportunities to provide instruction and assess learner aptitudes in ways that are highly impractical, if not impossible, in an asynchronous manner.
Information is complex and guidance is necessary. A knowledgeable instructor can walk learners through material that is difficult to absorb independently and teach them methods for deciphering complex information they may encounter later on their own.
There is a need to adjust the level or complexity of material on-the-fly based on learner feedback. Learners can come to the table with an uneven understanding of the material before them. Even when official course prerequisites have been satisfied, good instructors often gauge the comfort level of their learners with the level of the material being taught and then adjust their lesson and approaches accordingly. The efficiency with which this kind of adaptation can happen in a real-time environment often exceeds what can be done in any other online format.
Comprehension must be ensured before learning proceeds.
Questions and trouble spots cannot necessarily be predicted.
Information is fast-changing.
Ensuring participation and improving learner retention is paramount.
A guest expert is available to interact with learners for a limited time.
Dialogue or debate among learners is required.
Distance-based learners and campus-based learners need access to the same experts.
The situation calls for personal, real-time attention.