Texas Tech University

For Faculty

Multi-uses of Synchronous Web-based Collaboration Tools

By Stephanie Jones, Professor, Program Coordinator, Higher Education

Asynchronous and synchronous communication tools are common in online courses these days, as well as some faculty supplement their face-to-face courses with them. Asynchronous tools are those that enable us to communicate at different times, normally through text. An example of an asynchronous tool that we commonly see in online courses is discussion boards. Synchronous tools enable us to interact in real time and provide a way for more immediate communication than asynchronous tools. They are good alternatives to face-to-face instruction, especially for distance students who need flexibility but who benefit from synchronous instruction and engagement. The integration of synchronous sessions within online courses have shown to help students stay on task better, create an opportunity for a more engaged environment, are a stable means of communication and help with improved course completion rates.

Some examples of synchronous web-based collaboration tools are Blackboard Collaborate, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, Adobe Connect, Zoom, WebEx, among others. I want to focus specifically on Blackboard Collaborate Ultra as it is a tool that is available to TTU faculty and has better accessibility support than Blackboard Collaborate. Blackboard Collaborate Ultra is browser based, is fairly simple to use and is convenient to use as it is integrated within the Blackboard Learn learning management system, which is the system we have at TTU. It has a chat feature that can be disabled; real time annotations and text editing; as well as file sharing for PDF and PowerPoint files, which allows content to be revised as needed; the ability to share a screen or app with others; recording of sessions in a mobile-friendly format for flipped classroom use; as well as an interactive whiteboard that allows the display of PowerPoint or OpenOffice slides. The application is also universally accessibility and allows for live captioning, which helps to ensure that those students who are hearing impaired can fully participate and feel a part of live synchronous classes. Finally, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra also has mobile features. Students and faculty can join live sessions from their mobile devices and are able to interact via the chat feature that is text-based or through two-way audio. In addition, a mobile app feature is the capability to view whiteboard content and shared applications, as well as the ability to use emoticons, hand raising, polls, and breakout rooms.

Uses for Synchronous Tools

When we think about synchronous collaboration tools we often think about a virtual classroom where faculty and students can participate in real-time learning. In Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, faculty can set up web-based class sessions and a link is generated to send to students or is available once they click on the Blackboard Collaborate Ultra link in their Blackboard course. There is also a teleconferencing number that is available in case participants are unable to access a computer or mobile device at the time of the session. Class sessions can be recorded and can also be closed captioned.

Outside of the virtual classroom, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra can be used as meeting space. This works well for meetings with distance students as well as others. The software offers a valuable feature, which is the ability to record the meeting and the link to the recording can be shared. The recording includes any PowerPoint presentation displayed, information shared on the whiteboard, or documents shared between the participants.

An additional use of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra is as a platform to develop content that can be reused. Examples of how this is used in my program are for new student orientations and semester meetings for groups of students. Blackboard Collaborate Ultra can be used to deliver the content and to record these sessions for students who may be unable to attend. The link to the recording can then be sent to those who missed the session so that they have the needed information.

Another example of how Blackboard Collaborate Ultra can be used is for online tutoring. Individual sessions can be set up with students or a set session can be set up and students can drop into tutoring sessions at various times. In addition, tutors can develop content and present it through the tool while recording it for future use.

Blackboard Collaborate Ultra is also a good tool to use to connect students from different locations for team projects, as well as to connect with experts out in the field, or even to offer virtual field trips. There are many examples of how this can work, including connecting with students at other institutions within the U.S. as well as globally, or connecting with an industry expert who can talk with students from his or her location. These uses of the tool help diminish the boundaries of the classroom and provides many opportunities for faculty to incorporate experts and events into their instruction, as well as expose students to external content that would traditionally be unavailable in the classroom.

Another way that Blackboard Collaborate Ultra can be utilized and one that I use it for, is virtual office hours. As a professor who teaches predominantly online courses, I spend a lot of time in meetings with distance students. Blackboard Collaborate Ultra can be used to hold a session and record it, which then provides a record of the meeting and the points that were discussed. A link to the recorded meeting can be provided to the student. A webcam can be used, which adds opportunities to provide a more engaged and personalized session.

A final potential use of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra is to offer professional development to faculty and staff. As college and universities continue to be challenged with funding and the need to decrease expenditures, the ability to provide professional development in a more economical manner can help ensure that institutions continue to offer this much needed exposure to training for their employees. Hosting the training through Blackboard Collaborate Ultra eliminates the need for employees at different campuses within an institution to travel to a specific campus for training. In addition, the professional development session can be recorded and made available on demand.

As presented above, synchronous collaborative tools can be used for many purposes. As more and more students take online courses and are enrolled in fully online programs, the ability to hold real-time class sessions as well as other interactions with students will be important to ensure their success. Going synchronous does lead to concerns with flexibility, as all participants need to be able to interact at a specific time, as well as at times, the technology may not work as planned. As with any technology-based tool, it will be important for us to continue to follow the research and conversations on synchronous collaboration tools and the contributions that they can make to the learning environment, as we make decisions on what to incorporate into our courses and programs.

Components of this article were originally published in Jones, S. J. (2016). Technology Review: Multi-purposing Synchronous Web-based Collaboration Tools. Community College Enterprise, 22(2), 55‑59.