By Caroline Toy, CLT
Important update: we have added additional consideration of student workload that we strongly suggest you read in the blue box below. Updated 3/31/20, 10:30am.
As you work to shift your classes to remote instruction (thank you!), you may be contemplating using real-time (synchronous) teaching, asynchronous strategies, or a combination. What do those terms mean? What’s the difference? Which is better?
Those are all questions I was asking about eight months ago, as I designed my first all-online course. I began my teaching career as an outdoor educator, and then moved to teaching in-person college classes in the humanities. I was nervous about maintaining engagement and interaction with students I would not meet face-to-face. Spoiler: there have been some hiccups, which is natural. But overall, it’s turned out really well.
In my experience, the success of remote instruction really depends on interactivity. (We talk about that in the COVID-19 response materials here.) Content mastery is important, as are assignments and other forms of assessment. But interaction is the foundation on which other successes sit. That’s where the synchronous-vs-asynchronous question comes in.
What do Synchronous and Asynchronous mean?
You actually already use both synchronous and asynchronous learning strategies in your classroom. Synchronous simply means that all your students (and you) are participating in learning experiences at the same time. Asynchronous means people participate at different times, but still interact. The vast majority of in-person instruction is synchronous, but if you’ve ever had students collaborate through a Google Doc or email, participate in a Canvas discussion board, or do peer reviews outside of class, you have used interactive, asynchronous teaching strategies.
In remote instruction, synchronous teaching takes place through real-time interactions. The strategy we’re all hearing about right now, and that many of us will use next week, is videoconference lecturing and discussion at your usual class time. There are others; for example, you could invite all of your students to participate in a text-based chat, or you could have students meet synchronously in breakout groups for part of your class time, and then rejoin for full-class follow-up.
Asynchronous teaching, on the other hand, involves a range of ways students and the instructor can interact without being present in real time. Using discussion forums is a prime example. So are group collaborations, peer review tasks, video lectures or clips followed by reflection questions, reading quizzes, thought-provoking surveys, and feedback videos from you. (Canvas is designed to facilitate all of these, and that’s one reason it can seem difficult to learn to use.)
Which is better?
The short answer is that it depends. What are you trying to achieve? What is your class about? What materials do you need to deliver? How much time would you need students to gather synchronously? What are your students already used to? Do you have students with disabilities that make videoconferencing difficult, technological limitations like not having the right devices or good internet, or unusual responsibilities during the pandemic like picking up a new job or taking care of kids?
There’s no straightforward answer to this question, and there are good arguments for prioritizing both. There are probably more good pedagogical arguments for prioritizing asynchronous learning (which I’ll explain), but right now, some students want to stick as closely as possible to the in-person format they already know. I currently teach an online course that is 95% asynchronous, an approach I believe in strongly. However, given that students want to be comfortable, instructors are learning many new technical skills very quickly, and we are adapting on the fly, more synchronous teaching may be needed. Nonetheless, it’s important to include some asynchronous elements, and to understand that some students simply cannot participate synchronously under current conditions.
Synchronous Instruction: Pros and Cons
Synchronous learning has one very big pro, and it’s the same one that deters some faculty from teaching online in general: there’s something about face-to-face, real-time instruction that motivates many students, establishes relationships, enables instructors to “read the room” and adapt on the fly, and is just fun. All of those things can be accomplished asynchronously, but there’s no denying that it’s trickier. The second, and in our situation almost equally important, advantage to synchronous instruction is that we already know how to do it. Learning to use Meet or Zoom might be a technological challenge, but once you’re in the “room” with students, you know how to lecture, how to quickly and clearly answer questions, and ways to prompt discussion.
However, synchronous learning has some serious disadvantages too. There are accessibility problems with some videoconferencing platforms for students who have auditory and/or visual disabilities. Now that students are at home, possibly in lockdown, they may not be able to consistently meet during class time, get access to a computer, or have sufficient internet for videoconferencing. (Live text-based chat sessions can help a lot, especially for students who can’t do streaming video or who have kids or parents making noise in the background.) For some students, sitting in front of a screen, even a live feed, for an hour is not the most engaging–and that’s magnified for longer classes.
Asynchronous Instruction: Pros and Cons
Asynchronous instruction has the great advantage of offering more strategies for teaching and learning, and a wider range of ways for students to demonstrate participation and competence. That means it can serve a wider range of learning styles. It is also generally more accessible for students with disabilities, students with family or work responsibilities, and students in other time zones. As such, it is probably more equitable; Ellen Zeman and I have written about equity and accessibility in the time of pandemic here.
In my experience, being able to participate on their own schedule gives students more flexibility to participate well. The quantity and quality of participation from almost all students in a well-structured asynchronous discussion forum can easily exceed a good day in the classroom (I am consistently astonished by the level of participation I see online compared to in-person). And for the simpler asynchronous activities, like discussion forums, the learning curve for participation is pretty easy.
On the other hand, asynchronous learning does not have face-to-face contact. Some people find this de-motivating. It is harder to assess whether students are “getting it” in the moment. It’s definitely harder to adapt on the fly.
So what should I do?
Short answer, part one: in the first week back after Spring Break, you should start with whatever strategy you think you can reasonably manage.
You are still learning and navigating remote instruction, and so are your students. If your strategy is not ideal, you can adapt (and the CLT can help). You might start out synchronously and decide that technical snafus are too annoying, or that it’s easier to have students discuss in a forum than try to call on people in a videoconference. Or you might start asynchronously and find that your students are getting listless and need a synchronous session every week to liven things up.
Short answer, part two: for the remainder of the semester, once you feel a little more comfortable, try to use a mix of both! While in a natively online course, we would recommend focusing on asynchronous strategies, right now you have a lot of flexibility alongside your challenges. You can weight synchronous or asynchronous more heavily.
If you are weighting asynchronous learning (by using peer interactions, discussion forums that both you and your students participate in, pre-recorded videos, reflection assignments, and/or other activities), it’s great to have a weekly short-ish synchronous session, in which you cover content, do Q&A, have a discussion, or review. Record these sessions so students can review them asynchronously. Offering live office hours also makes you accessible to your students.
If you are weighting synchronous learning (by delivering most of your class live), make sure you include asynchronous follow-up strategies. For example, shortening your weekly in-person time by forty-five minutes and adding a discussion forum students must post to twice, interacting with each other and with you, provides a participation opportunity for students who cannot be present for some or all of the live meetings. Record all the live meetings (Meet makes this easy) so those students still have access to them. While you can require students to be present, we encourage you to be very flexible with students who have difficult circumstances. And we strongly recommend asynchronous assessments, so no one is unable to take a test because they cannot guarantee access to a computer during class time.
Important Update: As of 3/31, we are receiving reports that some students have experienced a substantial increase in their workload as a result of remote instruction. Please consider the following as you incorporate asynchronous and synchronous strategies:
- The workload of synchronous instruction may not be limited to the hours students are present in a videoconference or watching a recording of it, because for many students, it is more difficult and time-consuming to review and practice lecture material delivered remotely.
- Substantive discussions posts take time to create. When students need to review their peers’ posts and create their own original comment, each discussion post is equivalent to about half an hour of work.
- At present, many students are struggling to find uninterrupted work time and space and are also under enormous stress. A normal amount of time for coursework can be difficult; an increase can be impossible
This does not mean that you should not incorporate multiple strategies! You can address the workload problem by cutting down synchronous session time; for example, if you ask for three discussion posts a week (90 minutes of work that would usually happen in class), go down to an hour and a half of synch time by having one live meeting per week or multiple shorter meetings, aiming for three hours total. Or you can limit the number of posts (two per week, with two hours of synch sessions).
Ask for support
The CLT staff, the wonderful members of the Library and SMARTspace staff, and faculty members who are currently assisting us have rich and varied experience with in-person and online teaching, and with using Canvas. Whether you question is in the family of “I have to do this to successfully teach my course and I don’t know how” or “I think my students would benefit from this new strategy, and I’m wondering if there’s a way to do it easily,” we can advise you. Please do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.