Online and Digital Learning

Learning designs with synchronous web conferencing

In this post we explore three ways Collaborate could form part of the learning design for a module and the way different learning experiences are offered by using synchronous online activity. Collaborate is an online seminar tool, and as such allows participants to use video, voice or text chat to communicate without needing to be in the same location. Collaborate also includes interaction tools, shared whiteboard space and application sharing.

Webinars, a form of synchronous online learning activity akin to a virtual (web) seminar, allow for text, voice and video chat amongst participants who can connect remotely. Whilst the flexibility of space and place is offered by webinars, they are not flexible in terms of time as all users participate at the same time. However, most webinar systems allow for recording and therefore have similar affordances as lecture capture, allowing learners to revisit the content of a webinar discussion.

The best designed webinars should not be online lectures, but make the most of the synchronous aspect to involve learners in a participatory experience. Having learners attend a webinar for a lecture is counter to the synchronous nature of the space – a similar argument that is often thrown at traditional (or didactic) lecturing.

The three learning designs explored here are:

  • Additional point of contact for learning
  • Delivery of core content for remote participation
  • Double-flipped classroom to stage higher order learning

Learning design: additional point of contact

The webinar is loosely connected to the scheduled teaching programme.

Webinar learning design: scheduled teaching with a two-way arrow to webinars

Main teaching method

This may be through face-to-face teaching or online activities, but the webinar is not embedded as a core part of content delivery or a required learning activity. The focus for learning and delivery of content is in scheduled teaching sessions, such as lectures or structured distance learning content.

Students may have limited opportunity for synchronous online discussion. This may be appropriate for the cohort if they are on-campus and still have opportunities for immediate social learning experiences. For distance learning, asynchronous activities may form the basis for the course and be more accessible to a wider range of learners instead, however for some students the lack of synchronous interaction may feel isolating.

Webinar activity

A webinar could be included as an optional activity, for example to discuss an assessment, provide immediate question and answer access to an academic or practitioner expert, or for peer-support. This may be formal, with a clear structure to the session, or informal such as a drop-in.

De Freitas and Neumann (2009) discuss the way webinars support communities of inquiry, a pedagogical approach that values social interactions, in particular the construction of understanding by a group of learners through shared expertise and experience. The synchronous activity acts as a focal point for engagement and motivation in the course, particularly if the module has limited interpersonal contact elsewhere. Webinars could be led by academic staff, or created as spaces for student-led discussions, for example journal reading groups.

Learning design: delivery of core content

A series of webinars is used to deliver the core content of a module, required or in preparation for students’ independent study.

Webinar learning design: webinar leading to independent study

Webinar lectures

Lectures are delivered to remote students via a webinar, similar in practice to face-to-face lecturing.

This approach attempts to replicate the face-to-face lecture environment, and mitigate against some of its constraints such as lack of interaction and feedback during the session. Webinar software allows for chat-based dialogue between students and lecturer during the teaching, polling to check understanding and file sharing during the session which is not possible in the face-to-face context. This is a more active mode of learning, but students are not necessarily able to critically analyse content within the short time scale of a collaborate session.

Wang and Hsu (2008) suggest a number of approaches to facilitation of remote lectures with particular emphasis on developing conceptual knowledge through interactions. They also caution against requiring students to do too many disparate activities, or practical tasks remotely, due to the challenge of keeping participants on track with the session.

Independent study

Provision of further resources and a structured programme of student work that requires active learning.

Drawing upon the lecture material and further resources to complete specific learning activities and undertake assessments that drive learning. Here students have the time and space to critically analyse content and apply their understanding to problems or assessment tasks.

Learning design: double-flipped classroom

A flipped-classroom model requires students to undertake preliminary tasks, usually in the form of watching an online lecture or reading, to develop a theory base for discussion or practical activities. The insertion of a webinar between these two stages provides opportunities for expert viewpoints that may not be able to be brought into the face-to-face session, but none-the-less require some form of theoretical grounding first. Each phase addresses a different level of learning towards higher order objectives.

Blended learning with webinars: double-flipped classroom starting with pre-session online lecture or reading, leading into webinar, followed by face-to-face session

Pre-session online lecture or reading

Covers introductory theory and prerequisite knowledge.

Students are able to engage with new content in own time and at their own pace. This requires self-directed learning and students to identify gaps in their knowledge and understanding. Clear learning outcomes helps student gauge expected level of understanding, so a clear structure to the delivery of pre-session content is needed.

Webinar session

A short presentation by external speaker, for example a keynote addressing threshold concept or providing first-hand experiences with opportunity for question and answer, is delivered through a webinar. In addition to the presenter, a moderator is available to field questions and structure the session.

Students have access to an expert viewpoint and can reflect on how this compares with theoretical background. This may raise questions for further discussion. Students’ critical thinking skills developed as they appraise theory in relation to practice.

Face-to-face session

The face-to-face time is not used for content delivery, but instead for follow-up discussion, application to practice through guided activity, practical application, assessment support.

The learning activities provide consolidation of learning through application of theory to a problem, case study or practical exercise.


De Freitas, S., Neumann, T. (2009). Pedagogic strategies supporting the use of Synchronous Audiographic Conferencing: A review of the literature, British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(6), 980-998.

Wang, S. and Hsu, H. (2008). Use of the Webinar Tool (Elluminate) to Support Training: The Effects of Webinar-Learning Implementation from Student-Trainers’ Perspective. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 7(3), 175-194.


Adapted from an original post on the ELDT Blog: Learning designs with collaborate for synchronous online activity written as part of my E-Learning Adviser role.

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