A Synchromodal Learning Environment is one in which online and face-to-face individuals (both students and instructors) interact with one another in real-time learning sessions (i.e., classes). As technology facilitators and observers, we have noticed that face-to-face students have their own physical presence in a class and occupy a physical space. As such, we have developed a synchromodal model aimed at giving online students their own virtual physical space in the physical space of the classroom. The personal portal model was developed and subsequently evolved with the goal of giving online students presence and immediacy comparable to that of the face-to-face students.
Personal Portal Model
To achieve comparability, we first used a combination of Skype and iPad to give the online students their own personal video streams and audio channels. The iPads are mounted on node chairs – chairs with swivel seats and tables. Skype video calls were initiated on the iPads – each calling one online student. A face-to-face student sat at each node chair and was responsible for swiveling the iPad to follow the class conversation. For example, if the instructor was speaking, the face-to-face student turned his/her chair so that the iPad faced the instructor.
The online students were able to see a student-view of the class, their face-to-face peers, and the instructor. They also saw the shared instructor’s screen through the iPad Skype video. In turn, the face-to-face individuals were able to see the online students as part of the class instead of seeing them on a large screen on the back wall of the class.
The online students were able to hear the conversation in the room through the microphones on each iPad. They also had their own audio output channel and thus each had his or her voice in the classroom.
We did face some limitations, however, as we tested this model. First, since the online students saw the classroom activity only through the iPad Skype video, the instructor’s shared presentation did not appear very clearly. Second, it became apparent that the online students could not see (a) each other well, (b) the face-to-face student sitting that their node chair, and (c) the entire class at the same time. Finally, the online students were completely dependent on the face-to-face students sitting at each node chair to move the iPads towards the class conversation and/or the topic of conversation. There were instances, unfortunately, where the face-to-face students forgot to steer the node chair in the right direction and the online students were stuck looking at a student who was not currently speaking or looking at the class presentation instead of looking at the current speaker.
To address the above issues, we further developed the personal portal model and came up with the enhanced personal portal model.
Enhanced Personal Portal Model
To implement this model, we asked the online students to join the class GoToMeeting on their home desktops or laptop and we asked them to use their iPads to video call each of the Skype accounts.
As such, there were two video streams, one from GoToMeeting and one from Skype. Through GoToMeeting the online students were able to (a) see each other, (b) see the entire class at the same time, and (c) see the instructor’s shared screen. Through Skype, the online students were able to see a student-view of the class; and in turn, the face-to-face individuals were able to see the online students as part of the immediate class environment.
Integration of online and face-to-face students was near seamless.
Using iPads on chairs allowed the remote students [to] participate more like they were physically in the room with the face-to-face student… The remote students more comfortably joined the face-to-face conversations as if they were physically in the ‘real’ classroom.
Without personal portals, online students would qualify their comments with statements like, “If it’s okay to speak, I’d like to add that…”
With personal portals, online students could pick right up when someone else stopped saying something, or even to overlap their seminar conversation when making an argument that called for grabbing the discussion floor.