The use of (a)synchronous communication tools in e-learning

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

21 Pages, Grade: 2



1 Introduction

2 Modes of communication
2.1 Synchronous communication
2.2 Asynchronous communication

3 Communication tools
3.1 Synchronous communication tools
3.1.1 The telephone and internet telephony
3.1.2 Chat (IRC) / voice chat
3.1.3 Instant messaging
3.1.4 Video broadcast and conferencing
3.1.5 Application sharing (Audiographics) / shared whiteboard
3.1.6 Virtual worlds / MUDs
3.2 Asynchronous communication tools
3.2.1 Mail and fax
3.2.2 E-mail
3.2.3 Discussion forums / Message boards

4 The use of synchronous communication tools in E-Learning
4.1 Advantages
4.2 Disadvantages
4.3 Summary

5 The use of asynchronous communication tools in E-Learning
5.1 Advantages
5.2 Disadvantages
5.3 Summary

6 Social Factors

7 Requirements / Recommendations
7.1 Teacher requirements / recommendations
7.2 Student requirements / recommendations
7.3 Technical requirements / recommendations
7.4 Summary

8 Conclusion

9 References

1 Introduction

This work tries to give a survey of the main communication tools, both synchronous and asynchronous that are (or have been) used in e-learning. After evaluating the respective advantages and disadvantages that are exhibited by the different modes of communication, a brief look will be taken at the social factors that may influence online communication. Concluding, several suggestions and recommendations can be made as to facilitate the use of (a) synchronous communication tools in e-learning.

Communicating with teachers and co-learners is an important factor for the conventionalisation of newly acquired knowledge (Schulmeister 2003:159), so some care should be taken to enable both students and tutors to make optimal use of the facilities for communication they are provided with, as well as to take care to offer the needed diversity in communication tools.

2 Modes of communication

Different means of communication can generally be grouped into synchronous and asynchronous modes of communication. This is true, regardless of whether communication is conducted by means of electronic devices or not.

Both modes of communication can either be point-to-point, with one sender and one receiver or point-to-several which can have a large number of receivers. The third variant, several-to-several communication, is often limited in the number of participants, as a large number of people communicating simultaneously can generate a high volume of information.

2.1 Synchronous communication

Synchronous communication is characterised by the fact that any information immediately reaches all communicators who then can immediately react. This requires all participants to be active simultaneously. An example of this would be a dialogue between two people.

2.2 Asynchronous communication

Asynchronous communication is communication that is conducted by means of any technology that is capable of storing information to be received and reacted upon at a later date. An example would be an exchange of letters. Asynchronous communication typically allows messages and information to be kept which is of great importance as the possibility to access learning materials as long as possible and in the same manner is highly supportive of the learning process (Glowalla, Grob, Thome 2000:71).

3 Communication tools

Both modes of communication can be realised by means of a wide range of different tools, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages.

3.1 Synchronous communication tools

A typical feature of synchronous communication tools is that communication is linear, i.e. one utterance is followed by the next one, threading or grouping of messages is not possible. To keep communication from becoming incomprehensible separate ‘channels’ or ‘rooms’ can be set up for each topic. Usually only one user can ‘speak’ at a time, thus resulting in users having to compete for participation.

There are several tools to conduct synchronous communication, the most important of which are:

3.1.1 The telephone and internet telephony

The telephone still remains the most widely used tool for synchronous communication. It is both cost-effective and easy to use and most people have attained a high degree of familiarity with using it. Usually, only point-to-point communication is possible and, no record of the communication is kept, making it difficult to refer to or to review what was said.

A new development is the use of computers to conduct telephone-like communication over the internet.

3.1.2 Chat (IRC) / voice chat

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a protocol that allows a group of users to communicate simultaneously. Communication is text based and linear. Usually a transcript of the chat can be kept and distributed to its participants, making it possible to review the communication later on.

In order to keep the amount of data at a manageable level, especially with large groups of participants, a moderator is often present to manage users’ permission to ‘speak’.

Voice chat and broadcasts allows users, by means of microphone and speakers, to communicate via spoken language.

3.1.3 Instant messaging

Instant messaging resembles chat in that it is text-based and linear, but it is usually limited to only two people communicating. Most instant messaging programs allow files to be transmitted and keep a history of all messages sent and received.

3.1.4 Video broadcast and conferencing

Video transmissions are becoming more and more feasible due to increasing bandwidth capacities and falling prices for the hardware necessary. Video broadcasts allow the image of one user to be received by large numbers of users, while video conferences with all users sending and receiving are limited in their group size by both technical and practical reasons.

A video broadcast may also be kept accessible for download, thus enabling users to review it at a later date.

Grading, one of the recurring problems of e-learning, may be facilitated through the use of video images to verify the identity of students sitting an online exam.

3.1.5 Application sharing (Audiographics) / shared whiteboard

By means of software a group of users can use applications simultaneously, or create sketches and notes on a shared workspace, often called shared whiteboard. Audiographics programs are usually combined with some feature for (audio) chat. They lend themselves ideally to the teaching of software that involves a lot of visual information, as demonstrations can be made with the whole class watching and repeating them.

3.1.6 Virtual worlds / MUDs

Virtual Worlds, often called Multi-User-Domains (MUD) are text based environment where large groups of users can interact with each other or the virtual world in various ways.

3.2 Asynchronous communication tools

Hülsmann makes the case that due to the instantaneous transmission of messages, “real time responsiveness is technically possible in asynchronous conferencing”, and that “responsiveness is not determined technically, but negotiated socially” (Hülsmann, 2003: 86).

There are several tools to conduct asynchronous communication, the most important of them are:

3.2.1 Mail and fax

Although they have to a large extent been replaced by email, mail and fax are still used for a umber of purposes. The mailing of CDs or DVDs for example allows for the transmission of large amounts of data, for which digital transmission would be impractical. An obvious drawback is the delay between sender and receiver. Faxes are a quick way to transmit data that would be impractical to digitalise.

3.2.2 E-mail

Kearsley calls e-mail the “foundation for all forms of online learning and teaching” and claims that an online course would be possible, and indeed productive, without using any other form of communication (Kearsley 2000:28). E-mail is certainly the most basic form of online communication as no special hard- or software is required (apart from a connection to the internet), the sending and receiving of messages is free, and their delivery almost instantaneous.

E-mail supports the delivery of any sort of information in addition to plain text, from audio file to video messages, by means of attaching a file to the actual message. The practicability of sending data is restricted by the size of the files, bulkier data is usually transmitted via ftp. Messages can be sent to any number of recipients, thus allowing for the quick dissemination of information.

Mailing lists can be set up, with e-mail messages being sent to the group address forwarded to the list’s members, thus allowing members of a group to be contacted more easily.

Regardless of whether students actually do so, the possibility to contact tutors and other students is an important psychological factor (Kearsley 2000:28).

3.2.3 Discussion forums / Message boards

Discussion forums and message boards are special online environments, where users can post and read messages. In message boards communication is linear and usually threaded, i.e. answers and comments to a post are shown sub-grouped to that message, thus allowing for some structure in discussions.

Forums do not support the subordination of answers, but new areas for the discussion of new topics can be set up easily, either by the users themselves or the forum’s moderator. The moderator can control the users’ rights to create new topics and to view or to post into certain areas, thus areas for e.g. a course’s administrators or group work can be set up. Several conversations can be conducted simultaneously (even by the same users), and a written record of all messages is kept.

Most forums support the sending of messages to other users and have an awareness function that allows registered users to see who else is online at the moment, and thus available for synchronous communication via chat or instant messaging.


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The use of (a)synchronous communication tools in e-learning
University of Marburg
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This paper gives an overview of different modes of communication and their associated tools and methods with special focus on their use in E-learning situations. The distinction between synchonous and asynchronous varieties is discussed as well as their advantages and drawbacks.
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Jan Niehues (Author), 2004, The use of (a)synchronous communication tools in e-learning, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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