Wednesday, October 1st, 2008...9:23 pm

How long is too long for synchronous sessions?

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An interesting post on Clive on learning:  Synchronous e-learning myths #1: An hour’s enough for anyone

The accepted wisdom is that webinars need to be short and sharp, but my experience so far on delivering our online masters in photojournalism and documentary photography at the LCC suggests otherwise.

Clive notes 2 presentations at an elearning network seminar Thinking Synch, where several of the presentations discussed how they were working with much longer sessions live, up to 4 hours in one case. both presentations seemed to focus on how concentrated webinars with engaging content can be delivered in a way that maximises benefits in the most concentrated way.

I teach both a f2f and online mode of the same course, with essentially the same content and assignments etc, just delivered in college over one year or entirely online part time over 2. On the online mode,  most of the teaching is done live in real time using synchronous web conferencing – we use the Wimba live classroom. Our sessions are typically 2 hours long for lecturers, seminars and tutorials. In my opinion, if the experience is engaging enough, and uses good visuals and materials, then a live web conference can be sustained over a long period of time – in fact our group usually want to go on longer!!


I think that one reason is the intensity of the experience, and another is that it is easier for them to schedule one long session once a week than several shorter ones – they are mostly working professional freelancers – and it is easier to block out one longer slot a week than several shorter ones. Also I feel that the energy generated in a 2 hour session is just right – we typically have 2 ‘lecturers’ on different topics, with group discussions etc, and then a general informational session where we cover course admin, assignments etc.


I even think that webinars offer several advantages over a traditional classroom environment. Once you are over that strange feeling of talking to the ether that soon passes, I feel like the intimacy and intensity generated by having the headphones on and the work right in front of me on screen, filling most of my field of vision, creates a performative space where i get energised and excited just as much as in a f2f lecture. in fact the fact that i cant see my audience in a way enhances this, because I don’t get upset if someone looks like they are dropping off! From the feedback we are getting from the participants (there are 16 on the course each year), they feel a similar sense of engagement. One proof of this is that although the sessions are all archived, our attendance levels for the live sessions are typically around 75-805 which isn’t bad for a traditional lecture, never mind one that crosses transatlantic time zones and freelance work patterns.

Another major advantage  I think is that they are all archived and stored with an easy to navigate timecoded system that makes going straight to a particular part of a talk or session very easy.

But the real killer app is the range of feedback options that the participants have. They can put in chat/text messages, either to the whole room or privately, and in a good session this amounts to a running commentary on the presentation, with approvals (and disagreements!); questions that can then be rolled into the talk; and even a whole team of ‘researchers’ who can quickly google a reference when its mentioned in a presenation and post the url to the group.

Wimba has various emoticons and yes/no tick boxes, an they too add to the sense of involvement, its easy to ask ‘is everyone following this’ and thne get a series of green ticks if they are, or red crosses if they are not.

And there’s nothing quite like a round of virtual applause emoticons at the end of a great session!!

Wimba themselves have a long running series of online lectures that typically run for an hour each with up to 200 participants at a time, they have done over 500 of these and again the problem is running out of time not going on too long.


And the ability to annotate and draw onto images as in the example above is invaluable in dissecting how and why a particular photography works – or doesn’t. 

Certainly I don’t feel that synchronous has to be short…nor does it have to be technical


BTW here’s a great list of myth busters about live online teaching from Jennifer Hofmann, president of InSync Training (,


And Clive has just added another post that confirms my experiences even more, especially this


Further evidence came from Matthew James and Dr Kathy Seddon from NCSL who presented on ‘multi-layered synchronous learning’. They made the point that web conferencing encourages multiple dialogues among participants. Online you can be viewing a slide and listening to a speaker while simultaneously interacting with peers through text chat. In other words, online learners have excess capacity for interaction that the formal aspect of the event will not always utilise; online that capacity can be used to the full. And, this additional channel is not superficial or frivolous – the speakers reported that many participants asked if the session could continue after the facilitator had left, so they could continue their discussions. This dynamic of what the speakers called ‘co-construction’ is not typically evident in a face-to-face environment.’




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