Tools for Synchronous Interaction

Synchronous interactions on the web that permit live dialog (chat) using text, voice or video through the Internet are becoming increasingly important to individuals who must agree on a single digital space.

Chat rooms

Chat rooms were mentioned before as allowing synchronous text conferencing between people that agree to meet at a given time in a given virtual space to talk about something of shared interest. Their great virtue is that there is practically no limit to the number of participants who can simultaneously follow or actively participate in the conversation; this may be, at the same time, their major weakness, since depending on the number of postings per minute, the complexity and speed of the interaction can become an issue. 

Another issue in these rooms is the type of conversations that can emerge. There is social dialogue and then there is pragmatic dialogue. Moderators typically promote social dialogue in private text interactions among participants, while pragmatic dialogue is fostered via interventions that either help focus or deepen the dialogue.

Since chat rooms can remain open during long periods of time and their content can be saved as long as needed, the scope of text-based chat rooms is wide and asynchronous interaction may happen.

Multimedia Instant Messaging Systems

Multimedia instant messaging systems are well known synchronous interaction devices. They permit sending and receiving messages between users who have previously agreed to establish communication using voice or video on the Internet, with the possibility of chatting via text and of sharing digital files as needed. These systems are deployed in a virtual space that the instant messaging system creates for each group.

Multimedia Instant Messaging Systems such as SKYPE, MSN Messenger,  AIM, and ICQ are very popular not just for being free but also for allowing effective multimedia online interaction with others; they are easily available, expansive and very powerful.  These systems allow a user to know which of his contacts are online and their level of readiness (available, busy, out -to-lunch).  They also allow for the blocking or enabling of individuals on the contact list, the saving of textual conversations, knowing if your partner is typing a message in the dialog window, and expressing feelings and sensations through icons or animations.  On the other hand, it is possible to dialog with groups, each with its own identifier (photo, drawing, font), and one or more parallel conversations using digital cameras, microphones and speakers.

A variant of these systems is Internet Telephony.  This feature is available in SKYPE and other voice-on-internet providers, where in addition to providing a system of voice and text interaction on Internet, it is possible to rent phone lines that are handled by the network at a reduced price.

Educationally, multimedia instant messaging has garnered a lot of strength among the members of learning communities.  Free tools like PRONTO, that run on multiple LMS platforms, make it possible for members of each virtual classroom to interact by voice or text so that the members of the educational community may be active.  Personal experiences using this system in faculty development and graduate courses show that it is an effective way to contact students (who often do not read their email) when you make the tool available to them.  It also builds community with and among them by holding voice dialogs and text chatting.

Video Conferencing Systems

Video Conferencing (VC) is becoming an increasingly important way to engage in educational or organizational activities that require direct multimedia interaction among participants who are physically distributed. Each of them needs to have access to an internet connection with high bandwidth, use of a headset to be able to listen and talk without echo, and install those tools required by the VC System that make multimedia interaction viable. The number of participants, the need to record the interaction or not, and the security policies and licenses available all impact the selection of best VC systems to use.

Some instant messaging systems—such as SKYPE and MSN—offer users the possibility of videoconferencing between two people; each member should have a web cam and headset, and be connected to a high band width Internet service.  Extensions of these systems—like FESTOON—allow the grouping of up to six users limited by the communication channel that is available (the frequency of images can limit and reduce the sound when there is narrow bandwidth).

Integrated platforms for videoconferencing also exist for large numbers of users such as  iLINC, WIMBA, and ELLUMINATE, from the commercial side. DIM DIM and WizIQ have won good reputation as reliable and expandable open access systems.  In these platforms there are virtual classrooms in which the instructors have privileges and can deploy electronic presentations, present websites, share resources with participants, like managing oral dialog with icons that ask for the floor, applaud, ask a question, etc.  The participants must have headsets and microphones, but when the quality of the Internet communication is unknown the telephone may also be used.  It is always possible to use text and voice chat.  For those who do not attend the session, it can be taped and posted on the Internet as a streaming video. 

It is also possible to use ICTE that allow video and high quality sound, that use sufficient bandwidth and that demand investment in equipment and communication services at each communication point.  This is the case of videoconference rooms with POLYCOM equipment which makes dialogs possible among groups in different places who can see and hear one another.