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Book Review: Learning in Real Time by Jonathan Finkelstein

By Colleen Roller / January 2010

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How do people learn, and what is the best way for learning to occur? For instructional designers and other teaching professionals, this has always been a key question. And although there may be a variety of ways to answer this question, the opportunity for collaboration and interaction amongst students and the instructor is certainly a crucial element.

In traditional, physical, on-campus educational settings, interpersonal interaction occurs quite naturally. Students often congregate spontaneously and informally, and instructors can make themselves physically available as needed. Some of the most effective learning occurs in these settings.

But what about in the world of online training? Is real-time collaboration and interaction still a necessary ingredient? What about training solutions that are completely asynchronous? Can these still be effective?

Jonathan Finklestein in his book Learning in Real Time, states that there are certain learning objectives that simply cannot be met in the absence of real-time human interaction. To remove live conversation and interaction from the learning environment is to remove the lifeblood of academic life and adult learning. All that remains are course materials, reading assignments, and isolated independent study. This is why asynchronous online training solutions sometimes fall short. But when the asynchronous and the synchronous are combined in a synergistic way, the results can be highly effective.

Instructors and Interaction
How does the training practitioner determine the best mix? With the vast amount and variety of online learning tools available today, it's easy to become overwhelmed. The possibilities for creative and effective online learning solutions can seem almost limitless.

It is at this point that Finklestein encourages his readers to take a step back and first answer a fundamental question: Why "go live?"

Until we have a solid understanding of what can be uniquely accomplished when people congregate in real time, we may very well end up doing nothing more than wasting people's time. If the educational objectives can be better accomplished via a document, a recorded lecture or an email, for example, then a live real-time session is not needed. There should never be any question as to why everyone is required to be together at the same time.

Finklestein emphasizes this point when he introduces the concept of a "synchronous compact," the idea that live, online experiences must start with an implicit, or even an explicit, agreement between an instructor and the learners.

The learners agree to limit the distractions in their environment during the live online session, and the instructor agrees to tailor every session with the underlying knowledge that she or he is addressing a group of people who have agreed to set aside a precious period of time when they all stop what they are normally doing in order to take the same exact hour to be online together.

Beyond Traslation
An instructor who takes the synchronous compact seriously faces both challenges and opportunities. While it may be tempting to simply replicate existing educational paradigms online, Finklestein encourages us to think beyond simply translating the standard classroom lecture, for instance, to the virtual world. A whole new world of opportunity awaits those who wish to reinvent and creatively exploit the possibilities.

Finklestein intends that his book be used as a desk reference to provide the practical information and strategies needed in order to design and facilitate effective synchronous online learning solutions.

In the first part of the book, he reviews commonly accepted principles of good practice in education, and looks at the potential of synchronous learning against these. He also examines learner skills that can be uniquely developed and assessed in real-time settings, but that are often overlooked or not taught online.

He then takes a closer look at the synchronous technology itself by examining some of the most common live online tools for text, audio and visual interaction. Next, he assembles these tools into synchronous venues such as virtual classrooms, chat rooms, instant messengers, and interactive Webcast environments. Finally, he explores the kinds of instructional goals best served by each of these.

The next part of the book focuses on developing effective facilitation skills for synchronous online settings, offering specific techniques to help the training practitioner ensure that learning is happening as expected and that he or she is connecting effectively with students.

Specific Approaches to Collaboration
Perhaps the most valuable part of the book is the final chapter, where Finklestein offers a set of original instructional approaches for fostering collaboration and learning, live online. Each activity includes a template that can be adapted to almost any subject matter and includes several examples, variations, and suggestions for weaving live experiences into the overall learning continuum, including asynchronous coursework.

We live in an age when technology is continually changing and advancing. It's an exciting time for those who are looking for creative new ways to achieve learning objectives via online venues. It is now possible to take the best of both worlds—the physical face-to-face classroom and the virtual online environment—and combine these in ways that significantly augment and extend the learning experience.

For example, field trips have traditionally been one way of augmenting the classroom experience. But what would happen if we took the "trip" out of the "field trip"?

Finklestein describes a scenario where a professor of paleontology in North America invites a paleontologist from Australia to interact with students in real-time via live video. Prior to the session, the paleontologist sends the instructor digital pictures of her latest dinosaur dig, and then during the session, talks about her work while annotating the images. As the session concludes, she uses her webcam to pan her workspace, giving students an inside look at an authentic dinosaur lab.

The real-time synchronous online experience bursts through the boundaries of the traditional brick and mortar classroom by bringing together people who wouldn't normally have a means of congregating—those who are widely disbursed geographically and who come from different cultures, backgrounds and worldviews. In many ways, opportunities for creative and innovative training solutions are limitless.

But this is actually the exciting part. Learning in Real Time will stimulate your creative juices, and then guide you through the logistics of making your ideas a reality.


  • Sat, 15 May 2010
    Post by Peter Fadde

    In addition to presenting interesting tips on running live, online learning John Finkelstein's "Real Time Minute" series is a great example of an original video learning object format. Check the eLearn Magazine article "Evolution of a Video Learning Object" in the Best Practice section (3/09).

  • Wed, 06 Jan 2010
    Post by Atwood


    I've read the book and you really agree with your assessment. I have also taken Jonathan's class which has been a immense help to me as my work requires that I have solid online teaching skills regardless of the synchronous platform.

    Please allow me to suggest the entertaining and informative "RealTime Minute" series. The latest episode arrived a few minutes ago which prompted me to share.