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Synchronous Tools for Schools

With most schools in the United States wired to the Internet and with computers located in lots of classrooms, libraries and labs, the ability to use new online tools to converse, work and play in real-time has come to schools. In addition, with low-cost devices such as netbooks available to teachers and students outside of school, real-time collaboration can be extended to the home, the local library or just about anywhere with Internet access. Real-time collaboration is more commonly referred to as synchronous collaboration and can support student learning, teacher professional development and engage all participants in an environment that includes the “same time-same place” environment found in the physical classroom.

The host of synchronous online tools, including, but not limited to Skype, Google Docs, Adobe ConnectNow and Second Life, provides a teaching and learning platform that is available and accessible to students and teachers from both home and school.

Educators use these tools for various reasons. One major use of these synchronous applications is in conjunction with a class or event while at school or in conjunction with your class in non-school times. Bringing in virtual visitors, experts or other educators to your school in this way allows your classroom or district to go global.

Another use of these tools is to provide a “regular” classroom experience to students who may not be in your school building for reasons such as illness, incarceration, geographic isolation or large-scale natural disasters.

A third way to use these tools is for educators to have the option to attend synchronous online events to enhance their professional development and collaborate with others. This can be done anytime, anywhere. Students, too, are able to attend online events of interest to them.

Tools for You

Google Docs

Google Docs is a no-cost suite of tools available to everyone over the age of 13 who registers for a Google account. The primary components of Google Docs include a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tool that all allow multiple users to collaboratively work on documents in real-time. In addition, schools can apply for a Google Apps for Schools account to provide additional functionality to the basic Google Docs suite of tools.

Our district is a Google Apps for Schools district, and our teachers are taking advantage of the collaborative components of the tools by having students work virtually in small groups. Students are able to edit documents simultaneously, and every revision of the document is saved with a time and user stamp so teachers can easily go backwards in time and follow student progress. We have had quite a few students who have been home with the flu and “drop-in” to their collaborative group in Google Docs during class time to continue working with their peers at school.

Adobe Connect

Adobe Connect is a full-featured web-conferencing online platform. For no cost, you can invite 2 others to attend a synchronous session. The shared meeting room allows all users to project audio and video simultaneously, share files and computers screens, keep track of ideas or provide additional information through note and chat pods.

A classroom teacher can use this tool to broadcast the in-school class session to a student at home, with the added bonus of the student’s ability to broadcast back their audio and video, too. With this two-way communication, the student feels a part of the class.

Adobe Connect is also good for small presentations and collaboration among teachers in varied locations and for having experts virtually visit the classroom.


Skype is primarily a voice-over-IP (VOIP) program that requires the installation of a software client on your local computer. However, your list of contacts lives on the remote Skype server, so no matter what computer you log-in to, your contacts are available. Computer-to-computer calling is free and up to 5 people can conference call in a voice session. One-to-one connections allow both users to broadcast audio as well as video with screen-sharing.

Skype is often used in school settings to bring in an expert, share something going in class with an off-site student or to share off-site student experiences with students in the classroom.

Second Life

Second Life is an synchronous online virtual environment in which all participants appear as avatars (virtual representations of themselves.) In the K-16 arena, it is used primary for professional development purposes. Hundreds of users can be present in a designated location within Second Life. They can collaborate in large and small groups, use text- and audio-chat, present professional development sessions and much more. 

Second Life requires a software client to be installed on the local computer, and requires a fairly powerful computer to participate in online sessions. The learning curve for use is rather steep, but there are many places in Second Life, such as the Discovery Education Network site and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) site, that are maintained by K-16 educators who are willing to help out new users at any time!

The list of uses for these tools is only limited by your imagination. If you have not tried them already, resolve to explore them in 2010! For more information, you can find a list of even more synchronous web-conferencing tools to try on my blog.


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