Synchronous Web-Conference Teaching Resources

The resources on this page are designed to help you make some initial decisions about your synchronous web-conferencing teaching -- whether you are using that as your primary teaching modality or as a supplement to your face-to-face or online asynchronous teaching.  Stearns Center also offers ongoing webinars, workshops, and consultations to support your course development in this modality.

  • Build in Blackboard: Stearns Center recommends that all synchronous courses have at least a basic "home base" build in Blackboard at the start of the semester, and that you familiarize students with its key elements, as preparation in case we need to shift to remote learning.
  • Which tool works best for you? To help you decide on a synchronous tool, consider this comparison of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and Zoom.

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Get Help

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  • The team at Stearns Center is available to help you with questions about the design and implementation of your course, with advice about strategies, choices, policies, and interactions that improve your students' learning and your own efficiency and satisfaction -- whether you're teaching in a classroom, via synchronous web-conferencing, in the field, or asynchronously via Blackboard.
    • Check our list of upcoming office hours, webinars, and workshops
    • Get in touch with an Instructional Designer by submitting questions or requesting a 1:1 consultation here
    • Check out our self-paced courses (see below)
  • The team at Instructional Technology Services is available to help you with questions about how to use Blackboard and related tools to support all of your courses.

Ask the Stearns Center TeamAsk the ITS Team
How can I best organize my course week to week and day to day?How can I receive and locate a Blackboard "sandbox" course to practice in?
How much work should I assign, in what patterns and modes?How do I adjust the settings for tools like Blackboard Discussions or Tests?
How can I best blend asynchronous, synchronous web-conferencing, and in-person learning?How can I adjust the formatting or layout of my Blackboard content?
How can I revise this assignment or activity to fit a new modality, level, or course?How can I set up, record with, edit, or embed Kaltura videos?
How can I improve my assignment design or my grading rubric?How do I set up, use, record, and/or share Blackboard Collaborate or Zoom synchronous video sessions?
How can I engage and motivate all my students?How can my students access specific Blackboard resources?
How can I provide feedback to students to help them improve?How do I adjust the settings of Blackboard rubrics or Gradebook?
How can I create effective assessments and exams that support academic integrity?How do I set up Respondus Lockdown Browser for my students' exams?

Build Your Course Using the Stearns Center Blackboard Template

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Faculty who are teaching an entirely or primarily synchronous web-conferenced course are strongly encouraged to design a functional "home base" in Blackboard, especially to allow for any possible "pivot" midsemester to remote teaching and learning.

  1. View our template-based course. All faculty are invited to view and explore our Sample Basic Blackboard Site.
    1. This site uses a version of our template that models the basic information you would want to provide for your students, in a clear and accessible structure.
    2. Please note that guest access gives you just a preview, but you cannot edit or even view all sections.
  2. View and download advice and resources. On the Sample Basic Blackboard Site (above) you can view our folder of resources and advice for faculty that you may find helpful: see "Facilitation Toolbox" in the left-hand green menu (you may need to click-and-drag this menu over if you're using a mobile device or other small screen). You can also add resources to your course.
  3. OPTION A: Remodel your Blackboard site to match the Sample by uploading our Template. If you are opening a new Blackboard site right now or refreshing a Blackboard site that you have not already modified much, you can download a ZIP file and install the FULL Sample Blackboard Site Template directly into your course.
  1. These instructions are also available in the Sample Basic Blackboard Site >> Facilitation Toolbox >> Copy this Template folder
    1. Use this link to download the ZIP file you need.
    2. Depending on your browser, the file will arrive in your Downloads folder, on your Desktop, or to some other location you have set.
    3. Note that depending on your browser settings, the ZIP file may automatically convert to a folder (with a folder icon rather than a square gray ZIP file icon and a .zip suffix). If this happens, do not use this folder but either try a different browser or change your browser settings to stop this conversion:
      1. Change Safari settings
      2. Change Firefox settings
      3. Chrome doesn't usually do this, but if it does, disable its extensions and retry
      4. In your own Blackboard course, delete anything you are not using on the course menu (e.g. blank content areas) to prevent mix-ups with new menu items. (You will need to be in Edit Mode to do this.)
        1. Note 1: We recommend you begin deleting from the bottom of your course menu items and work your way up and leave the "Home" item at the top (trust us: this prevents a tricky editing situation).
        2. Note 2: Uploading this package will NOT delete any of your current Blackboard materials that you leave in your course. New items will appear at the bottom of your menu.
      5. Click on “Packages and Utilities” under the Course Management Control Panel near the bottom of the course menu.
      6. Choose “Import Package/View Logs
        1. Browse your computer to locate the ZIP file and add it
        2. Scroll down and click the Select All button.
        3. Uncheck “Availability” and “Enrollment Options" if they are checked
        4. Click on Submit. The process may take a few minutes.
  2. Update your course site menuOnce you install the template, all the new sections will appear at the bottom of your left-hand menu. In Edit Mode, you can click to the left of a menu item to drag it up toward the top of the menu; you can click on the gray chevron to the right to rename, hide, or delete any item
      1. NOTE about rubrics: The template also has embedded rubrics that you can keep, or you can delete them by going to Course Management >> Course Tools >> Rubrics.
      2. NOTE about gradebook:  The template has embedded discussion forums, quizzes, and assignments. Each of them has a column in the grade book. You can revise the prompt and keep the activity in your gradebook; you can also delete the activity and create your own. Delete the activity from tool itself (e.g., from the discussion forum page or where it appears in the lesson).
  3. OPTION B: Add a FEW sample resources to your Bb site. If you have already developed a working Blackboard site but would like to have easy access to some basic resources, you can take a look at our Minimalist Site Outline and then follow the directions on this handout to install a set of basic instructor resources (about Collaborate, Discussions, and other basic tools) that are part of the Minimalist Site directly into your Blackboard course.
  4. Need help? For questions about using Blackboard's settings, tools, and layout, contact -- or use their call-in or chat options for consultation.

Use a Sandbox Blackboard Course to Practice Building Your Course

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If you are new to Blackboard and would like to practice building content and activities in a private site before you modify your course site, you can request one or more “sandbox” course(s); each course site will come pre-loaded with the Stearns Center Template (see above) to facilitate your course design.

Once you have built items in your sandbox, see our instructions on how to copy some or all of your course items from your private sandbox to your official Mason Blackboard course site.

Use Our Self-Paced Course to Improve Your Course Design Skills

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Stearns Center is currently offering a self-paced course in Pivotal Pedagogy Fundamentals, open to all faculty and instructors. Once you enroll, you can work through the modules in order, or you can skip to specific sections that will help you with your current course design. The course has an "Ask a Question" discussion forum staffed by Stearns Center and is supported by office hours (see above) and by ITS support through

  • Pivotal Pedagogy Fundamentals provides basic guidance for teaching a face-to-face, hybrid, and/or synchronous web-conferencing-based course, with a solid Blackboard "home base" so that you are prepared in case the university "pivots" to remote teaching during the semester.
    • To access the course,
      • First log into Blackboard using your Mason ID and password so that your connection is stable
      • Then return to this webpage and click this link
      • Ignore any error message; instead, look for the "+Enroll" button on the left side of your screen
      • Enroll yourself
    • The course has seven modules; completing each is estimated to take 3-6 hours
      • Module 1: Exploring Your Course's Learning Pattern (Review the Pivot-Ready Checklist, Request a sandbox, and Consider how to integrate F2F, Synchronous Web-Conferencing, and Asynchronous course elements)
      • Module 2: Redistributing Learning in Your New Pattern
      • Module 3: Aligning Goals and Assignments in Your New Pattern
      • Module 4: Building Assessments to Support Patterned Learning (tests, quizzes, assignments, rubrics)
      • Module 5: Engaging Students in Your Learning Pattern (discussion boards and lectures)
      • Module 6: Supporting Interaction and Collaboration (including Collaborate and Zoom information)
      • Module 7: Planned Flexibility

Course Design & Organization Basics

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Adapt your course to new opportunities and constraints

  • Consider your learning pattern. Nearly all synchronous courses this year will benefit from including asynchronous learning via Blackboard. You and students will benefit from having a clear, regular pattern of learning: which days/times, and/or which kinds of activities, occur in which space. Check our Learning Pattern Handout, and consider experimenting with a plan via our Learning Pattern Worksheet.
  • Check our "Blackboard home base" checklist! In order to provide the most stability through the semester, support students whose ability to attend class changes, and prepare for any possible mid-semester pivot, we recommend that all synchronous web-conferencing courses integrate a "Blackboard home base" approach. See our Pivot-Ready Course Checklist to help you prepare your home base.
  • Consider elements of basic course redesign:
    1. Successful redesigners are able to prioritize goals within course learning, since they may face time and resource limits
    2. Successful redesigners are able to identify basic preparational knowledge that students can learn without much intervention or interaction
    3. Successful redesigners are able to identify more complex or difficult knowledge that will benefit from interaction, stepwise learning, collaboration, and/or their instructional encouragement and feedback
  • Build in flexibility: This is especially important for learning during a time of interruption and fast-changing environments.
    1. Allow some leeway without penalty: During an unsettled time, many situations can cause delays even for dedicated and responsible students. Technology glitches, wifi access, family needs or emergencies, or issues of their own health or safety can complicate their work as students. For instance, rather than monitor a plethora of explanations and excuses, consider offering all students one or two "Life Happens" passes as you get started: Students can be up to 24 or 48 hours late without penalty or long explanation needed as long as they contact you to request the extension.
    2. Be flexible about video: Unless students need to be on video screen to demonstrate their learning (as in a dance class or an art class), be as flexible as possible in your requirements that students participate visually. Students with their cameras turned off (perhaps due to bandwidth, to unreliable home conditions, to anxiety) can demonstrate that they are paying attention through chat posts, poll answers, or work in shared documents.
    3. See our advice sheet about designing flexible policies for more ideas about teaching flexibly during a pandemic.


Design Course Content

Design and Assess Major Projects and Formative / Practice Tasks

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You and students both benefit when they can check their understanding of course materials regularly. In a F2F class, you may ask individuals some questions, call for a show of hands, or take student questions to gauge understanding in real time. Online or in synchronous webconferencing, you can use both short assignments and quizzes/tests to check students' knowledge, so that you know they are prepared to use their synchronous video time together most productively.

  1. Design your major assignments and exams along with any assessment tools you might need.
  2. Consider how practice or "formative" tasks can support learning. Research shows that asking students to recall key information, practice application of concepts, and/or work on larger projects in stages or pieces improves overall learning. See our Formative Assignments Handout for more information and ideas.
    1. Blackboard's Test tool will let you create quick, low-stakes quizzes (which also promote memory retrieval and prepare for complex learning) that can be automatically assessed and recorded.
    2. Blackboard's Discussion tool can help your students prepare for or synthesize material covered during synchronous sessions. Check these resources for setting up a standard Discussion board
      1. Students post firstNote that if you set Discussion boards to "Participants must create a thread in order to view other threads in this forum," students will need to post their own response before they can see others' ideas. This is a way of encouraging students' original thinking at the beginning of a discussion.
      2. Optional toolsSee these resources for exploring slightly different interfaces: Blackboard Blogs (which allow each student to produce a series of individual posts, perhaps on their topic of interest, and receive comments from other students); Blackboard Wikis (which can allow students to easily collaborate on answers); Blackboard Self/Peer Assessment assignment (to allow students to provide feedback to one another's assignments using questions/guides you create); or Blackboard Journals for students to post private reflective writing just to you.
  3. Decide on how to assess assignments. Feedback is essential, but it is also time consuming.
    1. Consider some key principles for assessing assignments: as this short video points out, your feedback should be
      • specific to the task
      • actionable so that students can improve
      • timely, and
      • respectful
    2. Check our overview of tips for Managing Feedback to Students and our Five Tips for Effective Feedback Strategies so that you get the best "return on investment" in student learning for the time you put in.
  4. Consider using a rubric or checklist to provide feedback. You can build a rubric in Blackboard, design your own rubric (this example from AACU may help you consider your goals, though your rubric need not be this complex!), or work from a more flexible checklist to help identify key features of an assigned task. For best results,
    • Make the rubric or checklist available before grading takes place, so students see the expectations; asking students to self-grade before turning their project in can also be productive
    • Use similar language in the rubric, where possible, as are in your description of key goals for learning in the course overall, and in your assignment prompt
    • Use positive language in your rubric, describing what's there rather than what's awful or absent as much as possible. Instead of "Has a strong / mediocre / weak / no argument," try a sequence such as this one:
      • The essay's argument is stated early, gives a specific recommendation, and is consistently referred to throughout the project
      • The essay's argument is stated directly and makes a recommendation
      • The essay has a distinct point of view
      • The essay only summarizes or describes information
    • Use specific language in your rubric that describes what is present or what action students take rather than a state of being
      • "Has strong evidence" is not as useful a guide for students or for faculty graders as "Includes specific examples from the text in each paragraph"
      • "Provides analysis" is not as useful as "Challenges assumptions, explores complications, and/or poses provocative questions"
  5. Consider alternatives to "traditional" exams and essay assignments: See our Alternative Assessments handout.
  6. Help your students: See resources linked from our growing "Keep Learning" web resource, including a short handout you can share, and from ITS' Student Support FAQ links.

Engaging Students / Implementing Active Learning

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When we teach synchronously with web conferencing, all students attend all of the class meeting every week through streaming web conference. The benefit of this mode of teaching is that students can access web conferencing via the Internet without having to come to campus for a class. You can use the affordances of web conferencing to facilitate active learning, including using the chat-box feature as a backchannel to elicit student participation and using breakout rooms to facilitate small-group discussion.

The “Planning Effective Synchronous Sessions” handout provides ideas on how to plan to use web conferencing tools to build a sense of community and have an effective live class. The “Synchronous Online Zoom Class: Uses and Approaches” webpage provides tips on engaging students during the synchronous online class. For some advice about strategies to make a Zoom (or Collaborate) session more engaging, see this short Faculty Focus article.

To help you plan your synchronous activity, take a look at this Synchronous Activity Planning document. To plan an interactive lecture, consider the Interactive Planning worksheet.

Still looking for more resources? Consider taking a look at...