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Five Interactive Ways to Improve Synchronous e-Learning Delivery

by Marc Gamble

March 12, 2007


by Marc Gamble

March 12, 2007

"Synchronous technology gives you the tools of interactivity so your audience can flex this new-found freedom and become an integral part of your synchronous event. With well-designed interactivity your participants can feel much more a part of the program than they could in the classroom. One of the advantages of synchronous technology is the ability to get everyone involved at one time."

If you are producing synchronous e-Learning, or considering doing so, I have some good news and some bad news about your learners. Let me start with the bad news.

The bad news is, once you take the instruction out of the classroom, you lose a lot of the control that you may have had over your learners. Much of classroom instructional practice is concerned with, and designed around, this control. However, the news gets worse.

In a synchronous event, your learners have also gained a lot of freedom they did not have in the classroom. Unless you rethink and redesign your training for this new reality, it may be much more difficult for you to reach your learning and communication objectives.

What did you lose?

As we have lost control over the learners, they have gained freedom over their own education. In a synchronous event, no one is able to actually see the learners, so they have more choices about how they will spend their time. They can choose to give your synchronous event their full attention, or they can choose to give it some of their attention and give the rest to distractions such as e-mails, voice mails, and so on. Or, if learners become completely disengaged, they  have the choice to just leave your session. Remember, they can just drop out with a few clicks of the mouse.

I have seen a lot of efforts to reestablish control over the learner in synchronous events. There is plenty of advice to the effect that all we need do is to “train learners to learn online.” I disagree with this approach on a philosophical level. Why are we putting the onus on the learners to learn how to learn with this technology in this environment? Why aren’t we accepting the fact that we have lost some control over the learner?

Let’s look at some of the things you lose when you take instruction out of the classroom. (For a more detailed discussion of these factors, see my previous Learning Solutions article, “Using Radio Production Techniques to Improve Synchronous Communication,” published November 27, 2006.)

Eye contact

You lose all visual contact between the instructor or facilitator and the learners. Eye contact is a powerful force for an instructor, mainly to hold an audience’s attention. Of course, by seeing their audience, instructors can also determine how well the learners are comprehending information and instructions. In a synchronous environment, speakers lose this  particular form of feedback.

Visual non-verbal signals

The instructor in a synchronous environment also loses the use of all other visual non-verbal signals, such as facial expressions, body language, and hand gestures. These are important tools for emphasizing key points, sending “signals,” and directing the audience’s attention. Just as important, the learners can no longer use their own non-verbal behaviors to communicate understanding, confusion, or the need for a break. In a synchronous environment this important communication channel is gone.

Physical control

In a classroom, students have nowhere to go. They generally will not even stand up or move for fear of being rude to their instructor and peers. In a synchronous event, learners can move anywhere or do anything they want because no one is watching them. They can sleep, they can leave the room, or they can work on other projects. Unless the instructor does something to confirm their presence and engagement, she will never know that they have Left the Building.

Distraction-free environment

By design, classrooms have very few distractions. In a synchronous event, students are most likely at their desks on their own computers. Their desks and their computers are filled with personalized distractions such as e-mail, the report due before the end of the day, phone calls, voice mail, talkative cube mates, etc.

Well, as Joni Mitchell said, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Instructors never appreciate the advantages of the classroom until they lose them. We take the feedback and the control for granted. Going forward, we need to be conscious of their absence, and design to compensate for their loss in effective ways.

The good news

The answer is not to re-establish control. The answer is to design synchronous events that give the learners ways to meaningfully exercise their new freedom. In a majority of classrooms, and in most synchronous events, the learners are an audience: passive observers of the experience. Involve them in your session as active participants, and they will engage in your session. If they have opportunities to have input into your session, and you respond to that input, they will feel like they are part of your session and will not be checking their e-mails.

Fortunately, synchronous technology gives you the tools of interactivity so your audience can flex this new-found freedom and become an integral part of your synchronous event. With well-designed interactivity your participants can feel much more a part of the program than they could in the classroom. One of the advantages of synchronous technology is the ability to get everyone involved at one time. In the classroom, only one person can talk at a time. In the virtual learning space, it is possible to engage all of your users and to get everyone to contribute simultaneously.

Interactivity and audio

Before I address the five different purposes that interactivity can serve in synchronous communication, I’d like to review the role that audio plays in good interactivity. In my previous Learning Solutions article, I noted that the audio carries much of the information in any synchronous event. Audio from the instructor supports interactivity by explaining and analyzing the results of the audience’s input. Without this audio support, the point of interactive exercises may be lost.

I have seen potentially excellent interactive exercises in synchronous events that made me think and want to ask questions. This is what good interactivity should do for a learner. But then the learning opportunity is lost, because the instructor starts to lecture about his next slide and does not respond to the input from the interactivity. I find this frustrating. Good interactivity needs good explanation and discussion immediately afterwards to affirm what the learners were intended to gain from the interactive exercise.

What is the purpose of interactivity?

So what are learners intended to get out of interactive exercises? When creating interactivity, one must first decide on the purpose of the interactivity. Good interactivity helps the learners, the instructor, and sometimes the hosting organization, to gain information or know-how. If the interactivity does not have a valid purpose, learners will see it as unnecessary busy work that wastes time and breaks up the flow of the presentation. We have all heard the rule of thumb for interactivity that advises, “Have interactivity every three to five minutes.” Be careful. Having a quick, meaningful, interactive exercise every three to five minutes is not a bad thing, but mistaking this guideline for a rule can result in interactivity for its own sake. So it is important when designing interactivity that you ask what purpose it will have.

High-level purposes for interactivity

In my opinion, there are five high-level purposes for interactivity in a synchronous event.

  1. To check up on understanding
  2. To evaluate learner reaction
  3. To gain information from learners
  4. To provide an educational challenge
  5. To enhance the learning experience through Edutainment

These are purposes of interactivity, not types. A single interaction can serve two or more of these purposes. In addition, you can accomplish any of these purposes with any type of interaction, including polls, Q&A in Chat, or getting your participants to display an icon or emoticon: thumbs up or down, a “smiley,” etc.

“Check-up” interactivity

Just as the name implies, the intention of check-up interactivity is to test whether learners are paying attention. Because you lose feedback when you lose eye contact with your audience, you have no way to tell whether your learners are getting the message or not, or if they are even paying attention.

If you are uncertain of the interest and motivation of the learners, you will need to check up on them frequently. At the least, this will keep them on their toes and paying attention. If you have mandatory training, where learners are not self-motivated to take part in the event, you need check-up interactivity to make sure participants stay in the session. A good example of this is diversity training. Everyone has to take it, even though only a small percentage of your audience may value the reason for it. And that small percentage probably doesn’t think they personally need it either, so you have 100% of your audience thinking they shouldn’t be required to attend.

Check-up exercises are normally quick questions thrown to the participants to make sure they are paying attention. Typically, participants respond by selecting an icon, such as a “raised hand,” a “green check,” or a “red X.” The instructor can see who is responding and, more importantly, who is not responding and thus is potentially not engaged. Depending on how sure you are of your audience, you may need to ask one of these check-up questions more or less often, even once every three to five minutes as the oft-quoted rule of thumb advises. It’s important to be careful with check-up interactivity. Learners who are self-motivated to receive the training will find constant check-up interactivity to be annoying, unnecessary interruptions. These learners need and expect to get something from the interactivity.

Learner reaction interactivity

Learner reaction interactivity is a simple, powerful tool to keep learners engaged in the session. When you share a concept or graphic with the participants, ask them to think about the content in the context of their jobs or their organization. Ask them a specific open-ended question (one without a simple “yes or no” answer) to engage them in the content and to get their reaction to it. Here are few example questions.

  • Where do you or your organization fit on this model?
  • How could you use this in your projects?
  • Where does your organization fall in this range?
  • What has your experience with this been?

If your concept or graphic is meaningful to the learners, they will want to share their opinions with the rest of the audience. To complete the interactive exercise, always have the instructor acknowledge and address the input from these interactions, even if it is simply an affirmation of the learners’ experience, or an honest acknowledgement that, “That is what I expected.”

Interactivity to gain information

Another purpose for interactivity is to collect information from your learners. Here are three examples of interactivity to gain information.


The more you know about your learners, clients, vendors, customers, staff, etc., the better you can serve them. Use synchronous events as opportunities to collect information about participants so you are able to meet their needs during and after the synchronous session, or to aid your organization’s own marketing efforts.

Continuous improvement

Use every appropriate opportunity to gather information in order to continuously improve this and future synchronous events. Remember, once you lose eye contact you must find another way to gauge how well participants comprehend the content. Are they getting your message? You can collect the users’ opinions and preferences to find out what they understand, and how they perceive your presentation in general.

Use available interactivity features to find the answers to the following questions:

  • How is the pace of the presentation? Too fast? Too slow?
  • Did you understand that point or do you want me to review it again?
  • Do you want less detail or more detail?
  • Is this the content that you need? If not what do you need?
  • What can we do better to serve you in the presentation?
  • I am prepared to discuss the following three topics, but I only have time for one. Which one would you like me to cover?


This is a powerful way to serve your participants better, and to modify a presentation on the fly so that it delivers more of what they need.

However, don’t ask these questions if you are not prepared to give the learners what they are asking for. For instance, in several synchronous events where I have been a participant, the speakers conducted interactive exercises to gauge the experience of the audience with synchronous tools. What didn’t happen afterward was any effort to adjust the presentations to the input from the audience. Even if the vast majority of the audience said they were experienced with the technology, the instructor still went through the interface and tools available in detail. It is fine to give the minority who were unfamiliar with the interface a tutorial. But why ask a question if you do not intend to do anything with the answer?

Take advantage of participants’ knowledge capital

The design of many presentations reflects a pedagogy in which all the knowledge comes from the instructor and the learners are only receivers of the knowledge. For advanced groups, this doesn’t make sense. The participants collectively have plenty of knowledge capital in their heads and you should try to take advantage of it by getting them to share this knowledge in your synchronous event.

One way to get the participants to share is to give them questions so they can benchmark themselves against the entire group. If you have a group of sales managers from around the country, let them state what their margins are, or what incentive they find most useful to motivate their sales force. This could be as valuable to them as anything you could say in your presentation.

Remember, you are gaining information from the audience, so it is important to treat them with respect. I recommend following three guidelines that will help you avoid being rude to your audience.

  • Explain — Tell your participants that you are about to collect information from them, what information you want and why. If you do not explain what you are doing, it just seems like you are questioning them for the sake of questioning them.
  • Share — Share the results of your interactivity. If you ask someone a question and they take the time to answer it, most likely they will be curious about the responses of others.
  • Discuss — Discuss the results of the interactivity. If the participants give you information, it seems rude if the speaker or facilitator does not address the results.


These three guidelines sound pretty logical, but you would be surprised how often instructors ignore them. I was recently in a Webinar where a speaker asked the audience members what industry they worked in, and then gave the audience a survey with eight options. After the poll, the speaker moved on to the next topic and never showed or discussed the results of the poll. I found this disrespectful to the audience. By asking that question, the speaker got me curious about who else was online and what industries they represented. I am still curious, and a little frustrated, that I did not get an answer. When you want your audience to volunteer information, the least you could do is to share and analyze the responses.

Educational challenge interactivity

Audio conveys much of the details, and therefore much of the content, in any synchronous event. What audio cannot do well is to challenge the users to assess their own knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions. Sometimes the best way to teach someone is to help them see what they do not know or that what they know is wrong. If you do not expose and address the learners’ naïve misconceptions, they will often revert to them later no matter how well trained they are.

This concept of unlearning is important. As Alvin Toffler wrote in The Third Wave, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who can not learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

John Seely Brown, computer scientist and former director of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, says:

The curious thing is that with these exponential changes, so much of what we currently know is just getting to be wrong. So many of our assumptions are getting to be wrong. And so, as we move forward, not only is it going to be a question of learning but it is also going to be a question of unlearning. In fact, a lot of us who are struggling in large corporations know first hand that the hardest task is to get the corporate mind to start to unlearn some of the gospels that have made them successful in the past, and that no longer will actually work in the future.

To get individuals to start to unlearn, they need to analyze their own knowledge. You can try to do this with a question or challenge, by asking them to think about what they know and don’t know. But it is better to have the learners commit to an answer — right or wrong — and then give them feedback about their answers.

Interactivity makes your learners commit. In a well designed interactive exercise, a wrong answer will point out gaps in the learner’s knowledge. This is something that is much easier to do online than in the classroom. Once a learner realizes that she has a gap in her knowledge, she is ready and motivated to receive the correct answer. This is where the audio best-practice comes in. Good educational challenge inter-activity, followed by the instructor analyzing and explaining the group’s results, will close the gap in the learners’ knowledge.

Edutainment interactivity

With synchronous technology, you can create activities that will entertain your audience while they learn. You can hold contests and get everyone in your event involved at one time. So that you do not have to take the time to create and explain the rules for a complex activity, emulate something that everyone is familiar with. TV game shows are a good model to use when creating interactive edutainment activities. Family Feud works particularly well. Like Family Feud you have the ability to “poll the audience” for your survey “answers.” Just pick out individuals from your online group to be contestants. The Family Feud is also an excellent and fun way to get learners to benchmark information from each other.

This is a fun break for learners, especially if they have been online in your session for more than two hours. However, you do need time for these types of activities. They take time to set up and to run. So edutainment is not the most efficient use of time if you only have your audience for less than two hours.


To create an effective synchronous event, you need to engage your audience well. To do this, first admit that you have lost some control over your learners (the bad news), but know that you can overcome this by providing experiences where users can exercise their new freedom with interactive activities (the good news). Creating meaningful interactions for your users means creating exercises where they are getting something out of the interactivity, or using it to contribute to the presentation.

Remember, good interactivity is designed with a purpose to entice your learners to participate, think, ask questions, and to trigger good explanations by the instructor. This follow-up is important. Most interactivity cannot stand-alone. Good interactivity needs the instructor to step in to explain and analyze the results of the interactivity. If the speaker or instructor has a lot to say about the results of the interactivity, it means that the interactivity made an impact. Also, you can tell if an interactive exercise worked if it created audience “buzz” in the chat room.

If your goal is to create more powerful and engaging synchronous events, then find creative ways to use interactivity to indulge your audience’s new freedom.

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