Synchronous tools and how to use them

Last Updated: December 11, 2023
A woman takes notes as she watches a man on a video call give a presentation

How this will help:

Identify the communication tools you will most likely be using in your online course.
Integrate best practices into your synchronous tools use.

The basics

Many faculty transitioning to online teaching are concerned with a disconnect between them and their students. With the help of synchronous tools, this issue can be mitigated to create an environment that fosters a healthy teaching-learning relationship. Any tool that permits/requires participants to be online at the same time (even though their locations may be different) is considered a synchronous tool. You have probably used tools like videoconferencing (Zoom, BlueJeans, Google Hangouts) to connect with colleagues or students. Synchronous tools are one of the first tools that may seem familiar to you if you are considering moving to online instruction.

Types of synchronous tools

  • Live Chat
    • Similar to e-mail or text messaging, live chats allow participants to engage in a written conversation at the same time. Chats are found on a variety of platforms such as Slack or Google Chat. Some of these tools are considered to be semi-synchronous, because it is possible to send others an instant message even when they are not online.
  • Web Conferencing
    • Also known as video chatting or calling, web conferencing allows you to activate your computer’s microphone and camera. With the help of Blue Jeans, Zoom, or Canvas telephone/video, you can connect your device with others via internet connection.
  • Live Stream
    • This tool allows you to broadcast any media to your participants. Live stream delivers video, image, and sound simultaneously with your own playback without others needing to download content files. You may choose to live stream lectures, current events, or presentations.
  • Online Whiteboarding
    • If you are someone who enjoys writing on the whiteboard/chalkboard during class, this is a great tool to utilize. Online whiteboarding tools provide an online version of a whiteboard that participants can write on, post images, or draw graphics to support your course content. This tool is interactive and when accessed synchronously, can promote classroom engagement.

When should I use a synchronous tool?

  • Generally our recommendation is to use synchronous tools where appropriate for your particular instructional goal. The challenges around large synchronous sessions in particular (scheduling, time differences, equity in access/technology) are profound enough to use it sparingly, where it can make a difference. Do students really all need to be online while you give a lecture? Probably not. Instead, consider recording lectures and using synchronous sessions for Q&A and/or community building.
  • Instead of having large group synchronous sessions, encourage students to schedule small-group synchronous sessions. You can even choose to set up groups by time zone.
  • Office hours is a great way to connect with students in a synchronous setting.
  • Make sure to look at some of our practical tips to help make synchronous sessions more effective.


As with any tool, there are benefits and disadvantages to using synchronous mediums in your online classroom. The most desirable aspects of synchronous sessions are the immediacy of communication and that it gives the familiar sense of a traditional classroom. From a pedagogical perspective, synchronous tools support instantaneous feedback and interactions. Students reported feeling more engaged and more connected to their peers through synchronous sessions (Watts, 2016). Synchronous tools can also be particularly helpful in courses that rely on verbal communication and facial responses, like foreign language or counseling. Some tools, like BlueJeans and Zoom can allow for “break-out rooms” which simulate the idea of breaking a larger group into small-group discussions.


One of the primary challenges with synchronous tools. Since online learning is usually designed to reach students in different locations, coordinating time zones as well as family/job commitments can make synchronous sessions difficult for some learners to attend. This can make synchronous sessions can be stressful to plan. Even if participants are able to gather synchronously, issues with technology or equity around broadband can undermine the activity. Some students may not have technology to support videoconferencing, or may not have access to the bandwidth at a given time. However, just like in a face-to-face classroom, online discussions can become more surface-level and student interactions are less focused (Marbrito, 2006).

Practical tips

  • Make sure you record sessions
    • Inevitably not all students will be able to be in the same place at the same time. If you choose to use a synchronous tool, make sure you record the session so it can be shared with those that were not able to participate. Recorded sessions can then be uploaded into your learning management system.
  • Don’t be afraid to use time for some social purposes
    • Set aside 5-10 minutes in a large group session to engage with students in an informal way. if you feel comfortable, share something about your week and give them the opportunity to do the same. Synchronous sessions are great for alleviating anxiety and isolation.
  • Consider using synchronous sessions for small group check-ins
    • Break up large group synchronous sessions with slotted small groups. Have small groups sign up for a time and then meet with you. Students have the personal interaction they may need, but it is not so overwhelming with time.
  • Create an agenda for synchronous sessions
    • Think about creating an agenda before embarking on synchronous sessions, at least at first. While you may be familiar with time and classroom management in a face-to-face class, a large video conference may feel different. Creating an agenda to share with students helps them stay on task as well.
  • Become proficient with technology
    • Prior to using any of the synchronous tools, be sure to explore them fully. Practice with someone else. It helps to not be trying to learn the technology while teaching a class.
    • Make sure your office is set up for media production.
    • Even small changes can make a big difference.


University of Michigan

ITS- Comparison of video conferencing tools

ITS- Video conferencing best practices

ITS- BlueJeans


Clark, C., Strudler, N., & Grove, K. (2015). Comparing asynchronous and synchronous video vs. Text based discussions in an online teacher education course. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, 19(3), 48–69.

Hartsell, T., & Yuen, S. (2006). Video streaming in online learning. AACE Journal, 14(1), 31-43.

Isaacson, K. (2013). An investigation into the affordances of Google Hangouts for possible use in synchronous online learning environments. Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2013, (1978), 2461–2465. Retrieved from

McCoy, K. S. (2015). Using zoom, cloud based video conferencing system: To enhance a distance education course and/or program. Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2015, (2009), 412–415.

Mabrito, M. (2006). A study of synchronous versus asynchronous collaboration in an online business writing class. The American Journal of Distance Education, 20(2), 93–107.

Sabin, J., & Olive, A. (2018). Slack: Adopting social-networking platforms for active learning. PS, Political Science & Politics, 51(1), 183-189. doi:

Sutterlin, Jane. (2018). Learning is social with zoom video conferencing in your classroom. eLearn, 2018(12). ACM.

Watts, L. (2016). Synchronous and asynchronous communication in distance learning: A Review of the Literature. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 17(1), 23.

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