Synchronous Online Learning

Opportunities and Considerations

Positive classroom environment and instructor presence in an online course can significantly improve student-learning outcomes and retention. Strategically incorporating synchronous sessions in your online or blended course is one way to increase instructor presence and create a positive learning environment.

Remember that it is not the technology, but how the technology is used that makes it effective. What follows are some ideas for use, considerations to make when deciding if synchronous sessions are right for your course, and best practices for incorporating synchronous sessions.

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What is Synchronous Online Learning?


It is “real-time” or “live” instruction that requires the instructor and students to be online at the same time. Options to host synchronous online sessions include Microsoft Teams for videoconferencing and D2L Chat for text-only real-time interaction.


  • Increases student-to-student and instructor-to-student interaction.
  • Offers opportunities for real-time collaboration.
  • Enhances students’ motivation to engage, learn and persist in an online course by increasing instructor presence and fostering a sense of classroom community.
  • Increases instructor efficacy and lower workload by decreasing amount of asynchronous back and forth.
  • Allows for immediate feedback.


  • Students might not have the technology or working space to participate in the sessions. For example, students’ connection might be spotty, so the presenter sounds garbled or students may not have a quiet place in the house to engage in conversations without interruptions or distractions.
  • Students might be in different time zones and being present would be difficult.
  • It can be challenging to keep everyone engaged.
  • Accessibility limitations. For example, the absence of close captioning may limit students’ participation and opportunities to engage in meaningful ways.

Are synchronous sessions right for my students?

The first step is to think about the instructional goals that you want to achieve. Decide - based on the learning outcomes of the course, instructional needs, teaching preferences, and comfort-level with technology - if and how synchronous sessions could be a valuable tool for your course. Restrict synchronous meetings for well-designed interactive discussions.

If you’re lecturing, synchronous sessions may not be the best way to go. As you evaluate your activities consider:

  • Would your goals be achieved better through an asynchronous collaborative activity through D2L?
  • If you’re lecturing, recording your lecture in increments of 15 minutes or less, focusing on a specific topic may be better for students. This frees up time for the synchronous sessions to be interactive and students can watch the lectures before the sessions to be better prepared.

I want to host synchronous sessions. Where do I start?

  • Host synchronous sessions during the scheduled class time. If your class does not have a scheduled meeting time through Checkmarq, sessions should be optional since students may have other responsibilities that prevent them from joining the sessions.
  • Breakout rooms allow students to interact in smaller groups during a session. Set up the breakout rooms in advance if students will be completing tasks in small groups.
    • Plan to have a practice session with your students during the first week of class. This will provide students an opportunity to get familiar with the breakout rooms in a low-stakes situation, without the pressure of having to complete a course-related task within a limited time.
  • Practice recording sessions and posting them in D2L with closed captioning
  • Provide the “rules of engagement” for interacting during the sessions. You may have students contribute to these rules as part of a class activity at the beginning of the semester.
  • Include in your syllabus a description of the sessions. What are your expectations for participating, attendance, etc. and why are you hosting synchronous sessions (i.e., purpose of the sessions).
  • Provide a schedule of the synchronous sessions to help students plan for the sessions. Include the topic and goals for each session.
  • Plan how you will provide opportunities for students to interact with one another (e.g., collaborate on a practice problem or peer review).
  • Consider if you will be taking attendance during the sessions. Tracking attendance will help you identify students who might not be participating in class so that you can reach out to them.
  • As you plan your sessions, account for time to socialize and ask off topic questions at the beginning of the class.

What strategies can I use prior to my synchronous session in Microsoft Teams?

  • Post a reminder of the upcoming synchronous session in the course announcement, email, etc. Be sure to set the expectation of how you expect the students to participate as this is critical for students needing to make accommodations. Provide handouts in advance so that students can read it prior to the meeting as it is difficult to read closed captions and read a handout during the discussion.
  • Request questions from students prior to session. This will help you organize the session and it will also allow for you to answer questions from students who cannot attend.
  • At the start of each session, remind students that you will be recording the session to post it in D2L.

Am I being inclusive? Strategies that you can use during and after the synchronous session.

  • In addition to turning on the recording, you will turn on Live Captioning, being certain that you pause and let closed captioning catch up. This allows students the opportunity read and respond to the topic before changing topics.
    Did you know - Closed captioning is a universal-design concept that benefits all students. Think about the student working from home who has a lot of background noise, or an international student who is still refining their English.
  • Make sure you provide equal access to information and learning for students who cannot attend sessions via and recorded sessions. When recording and posting sessions, you also allow all students the opportunity to go back and review the discussion.
  • Allow students to post questions during the session. This is especially important for clarity of something that was not closed captioned correctly. Remember the accuracy of automated closed caption is less than 70%, even less for technical/medical terms or for people who do not speak slowly or clearly.
  • Post a link to the session recording in the week’s module in D2L.
  • Some students may not be able to find a quiet space at home without interruptions. When communicating expectations early in the semester, include language reflecting an understanding that, while those interruptions should be avoided, you understand that sometimes interruptions may occur.
  • While it’s preferable for participants to have their camera on during a session, be sensitive to students who may not feel comfortable turning it on or may not be able to turn it on due to limited bandwidth.
  • Consider the accessibility of the content that will be shared in the synchronous session. If the students are required to see and read the content quickly, consider sending the content in advance. Or, you can narrate, being explicit in your descriptions of the content, for those students who may not be able to see your content. Learn more about accessibility and Microsoft Teams.
  • Review the accuracy of the automated close caption on your session recording. You can share the recording with students via posting the recording within the appropriate Module in D2L.
  • If using a whiteboard feature, be sure to orally describe what you are drawing.
  • If using visual images, be sure to add verbal detailed information about the image.
  • Consider time zones involved and the variety of domains students are managing at the same time.

More strategies for managing questions and interactions with students during your synchronous sessions in Microsoft Teams.

  • When needed, you can mute everyone to manage distractions and interruptions.
  • Talk slowly and stop every few minutes to check in.
  • Acknowledge questions (e.g., I see a few questions in the chat and will address them when I finish discussing this topic).
  • Keep an eye on students raising their hands. Remember that you cannot see people raising their hands when you share your screen. Therefore, let students know when you will take questions. You may also ask students to post questions in the chat, which you can review in the order they were posted.
  • When using Microsoft Teams individually as well as following along with the ITS Teams tutorials, it is important to note how the interface may change based on how your screen is zoomed in. If you typically zoom in your screen for better visibility, please note that certain Teams functions and options may change location to adjust to the screen.
  • Learn more about Microsoft Teams.

Examples of activities for required synchronous sessions in an online or blended course:

  1. Guest Speaker(s):
    • a. Have a relevant guest speaker attend one or more synchronous session(s)
  2. Demonstrations:
    • a. instructor or students demonstrate a skill or process.
  3. Student presentations
  4. Peer-to-peer collaboration
  5. Discussions, debates, role-plays

Examples of Optional Synchronous Sessions

If you’re having optional review sessions, group discussions, etc., poll your students to determine what days/times most of them are available to meet. Following are some examples of optional synchronous sessions to foster communication and create social presence in your online or blended course. These strategies also help foster communication and engagement. 

  1. Weekly Online Virtual Office Hours:
    • Mimics purpose/format of face-to-face on-campus office hours; however, there is potential for more than one student at a time.
    • You may offer these in groups, based on common topics.
    • Offered each week either on same day time or alternating day/time.
    • Offer students the option to schedule a meeting by appointment.  If you are scheduling specific days/times only, some students may not be able to meet at those times.
    • Alternative titles for this type of “online office hours”: Consultations, Design Studio, Conference Room, Open Space, etc.
  2. Open Online Virtual Social Hour:
    • Create a poll to identify what times of day work best for students (and you)
    • Feels less formal than online office hours and may help students feel more comfortable asking questions among peers.
    • Strategically scheduled – does not need to be every week. For example, schedule live sessions prior to major deliverables or exams.
    • Alternative titles for less formal “online office hours”: Social Hour, Coffee Breaks, Afternoon Tea, Bat Cave, Around the Campfire, etc.
  3. 1:1 Virtual Meeting:
    • Offer to meet for individual student-instructor conversation.
    • Different than the other examples because you are meeting with one student at a time in a private virtual meeting space.
  4. Any Combination of the Above Examples and/or Other Formats.

Videos, Tutorials, and Guides



Goodson, L. A., & Nilson, L. B. (2018). Online teaching at its best Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. San Fransico, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ko, S. and Rossen, S. (2017). Teaching Online: A Practical Guide. (4th ed.). NY and London: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.

Lowenthal, P.R.; Dunlap, J. C. & Snelson C. (2017). Live synchronous web meetings in asynchronous online courses: Reconceptualizing virtual office hours. Online Learning 21(4), 177-194. Doi: 10.24059/olj.v21i4.1285

McCracken, E. Fawn; Olson, S. Joann (2015). Is it worth the effort? The impact of incorporating synchronous lectures into an online course. Online Learning Journal, 19(2).