Everything you need to know about designing polysynchronous learning spaces

For awhile now, online learning has long been accepted in higher education as a tangible learning platform for students. The emergence of online resources such as virtual discussion boards, wikis and course management systems have paved the way for MOOCs, ultimately changing the way students interact and engage when learning.

But this asynchronous style of learning is being disrupted by new technologies and mobile devices, presenting new opportunities for face-to-face students to engage in new ways with teachers, peers and content during and after class.

The increased demand from students for flexibility in the ways in which they undertake learning, has resulted in the emergence of a new approach: poly synchronous learning.

So what exactly is polysynchronous learining? And what are factors that need to be considered when designing a polysynchronous learning space?

Ahead of New Generation Learning Space Design 2015, Barney Dalgarno, Co-Director uImagine Digital Learning Laboratory and Associate Dean, Faculty of Education at Charles Sturt University, explores everything you need to know about polysynchronous learning, and the benefits it can have for student experience and engagement.

What is polysynchronous learning?

“The term polysynchronous learning encompasses the new learning opportunities afforded by contemporary online learning technologies. It can be used to refer to learning situations which blend multiple channels of face-to-face asynchronous and synchronous online communication.

Polysynchronous learning is taking blended learning to a new level, because you’re blending the face-to-face and the online, but you’re also blending the synchronous and the asynchronous.”

What are the benefits?

“Co-participation by students in different locations is a key benefit of polysynchronous learning. It provides the ability for students unavailable at the time of class to participate through interaction with a recording and then follow-up discussions with other students.

This leads to increased engagement in interaction because of the concurrent learner-teacher, learner-learner and learner-content interactions.

There’s a much greater level of engagement compared to the typical face-to-face scenario where students might only have a minute of engaging with audio in an hour long class due to turn taking. Using polysynchronous learning means the whole class is engaged the whole time.”

The Design: Integrating the virtual with the physical

“The design of the physical space is really important to the success of polysynchronous learning and the benefits it can have for students. It’s important that the physical space is integrated with the virtual learning space seamlessly, but this is sometimes easier said than done.

There’s the challenge of having face-to-face students being able to interact seamlessly with remote students. Part of this revolves around the difficulty of making sure that they get the benefits of face-to-face communication with the students around hem, while still being able to interact with remote students virtually.

One way to solve this is giving every student in the face-to-face setting a device. For example you could give each of them their own microphone and headset. As a result you’re enabling all students to communicate in the same way, whether they’re face-to-face or remote.

The other approach is to use room-based microphones, large projection screens and speakers which allows face-to-face discussion to be easily captured so all students (remote and in class) can communicate on the same level.

This requires rooms to be designed in a way that facilitates these new types of technologies. So rather than a plain Vanilla classroom, polysynchronous spaces need to be open and designed to foster collaboration.”

The challenges

  1. Limited Technology Skill-set

“The technology skills of both the students and the teaching staff are a key issue. If people are not familiar with the software that they are using then it can cause constraint. It’s important to allow both staff and students to develop an understanding of how to use new software in online learning.

Teacher experience in designing learning experiences that capitalise on the affordances of polysynchronous  environments is also important. Even if a teacher has a good understanding of the software, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve grasped what kind of learning experiences can actually work in a blended learning context.”

  1. Increased cognitive load for teachers

“There’s an increased cognitive load in managing the interface of polysynchronous learning for teachers.
Interactions are coming from all angles – questions from students that need to be answered not only in the physical space face-to-face, but also via audio or replied to in written form in the online forum. The teacher needs to juggle all of these platforms in addition to delivering their content.”

How do we know it’s effective?

“It’s not always easy to connect learning outcomes to the learning process, but there are a range of factors that can be considered the impact polysynchronous environments can have on student learning.

If you’re trying to increase student engagement, one measurement is a questionnaire on engagement. Another option is monitoring what is actually occurring during the class via learning analytics. There are also questionnaires that can be used to measure cognitive load of both students and teachers. These can be used to examine whether the extra complexity of the polysynchronous environment is interfering with students’ abilities to actually engage with the content.”

This is an exceprt from the article Designing Polysynchronous Learning Spaces: Engaging students in virtual and physical environmentsDownload the full article by Barney here

For more information about New Generation Learning Space Design 2015 visit www.designforlearning.com.au or join in the conversation online @HigherEdIQ #NGL15 or follow Higher Ed IQ on LinkedIn

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