Abstract: As online education proliferates, one concern that has been raised is that it may fail to capture desirable emergent phenomena from on-campus programs. Student community is one example of such a phenomenon: on-campus student communities thrive based on synchronous collocation. An online program might be designed to capture all deliberate constructs in an on-campus program, but there may be beneficial side effects of synchronous collocation that are not apparent. In this work, we examine the issue of social isolation in an online graduate program. By happenstance, three studies were conducted in relative isolation looking at social isolation from different angles. The first study examined trajectories in social presence as a semester proceeded. The second study developed an understanding of students’ needs with regard to community in an online program. The third study tested out an immersive virtual environment to try to improve students’ sense of connectedness. Combining their findings, we find compelling evidence of the existence of a Synchronicity Paradox in online education: students desire synchronicity to form strong social communities, and yet part of the chief appeal of these online programs is their asynchronicity. In light of this finding, we provide design guide-lines for how synchronicity may be reintroduced into asynchronous programs without sacrificing the benefits of asynchronicity. More specifically, we propose that scale itself may be the key to building emergent synchronicity.
The full paper “The Synchronicity Paradox in Online Education” can be found here.