As you develop virtual or hybrid courses, 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? And can you use asynchronous strategies for out-of-class work in an in-person class?
The success of instruction really depends on interactivity. 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 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, use a collaborative annotation tool, 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 like videoconferences or live collaborative working sessions. You could also invite all of your students to participate in a text-based chat, or you could have students meet synchronously in breakout groups.
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, quizzes, thought-provoking surveys, and feedback videos from you. (Canvas is designed to facilitate all of these; search our Canvas tutorials to learn more.)
Which is better?
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 or technological limitations?
There’s no straightforward answer to this question, and there are good arguments for prioritizing both. The best answer is to use a combination of both, with the balance adjusted to suit your outcomes, content, and assignment priorities.
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 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. A second advantage is that it permits a variety of teaching techniques. Asynchronous learning is best when it’s consistent and very, very clear; synchronous learning enables you to do different creative things, whether you’re in a classroom or present virtually.
However, synchronous remote learning has some serious disadvantages too. There are accessibility problems with some videoconferencing platforms for students who have auditory and/or visual disabilities. (Live text-based chat sessions can help a lot, especially for students with auditory disabilities or technological problems.) 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. And many faculty have found that videoconferencing often involves the frustrating experience of speaking to a grid of empty boxes.
Asynchronous Instruction: Pros and Cons
Asynchronous instruction has the great advantage of offering a wide range of tools for teaching and learning, and a variety of ways for students to demonstrate participation and competence. That means it can serve a wider range of learning styles and personalities. For example, a student who is very shy or anxious in class discussions may be a rock star in a Canvas forum. It is also sometimes more accessible for students with disabilities. In virtual/online classes, it is a much better option if you have students in other time zones.
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. And for the simpler asynchronous activities, like discussion forums, the learning curve for participation is relatively easy. Many students also benefit from the increased consistency of well-designed asynchronous learning activities.
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.
Instructional Time Considerations
In order to meet requirements set by Champlain College’s accreditor, the amount of combined asynchronous and synchronous instruction–your total instructional time–must adhere to the credit hours for the course. For a three-hour course, the students’ time commitment for synchronous time and anything else that replaces classroom time (such as discussion boards, lecture videos, etc) must add up to just under three hours. We provide an explanation of instructional time here, with suggestions on how to estimate the amount of time asynchronous instructional activities will take. The most important takeaway is that your class should not be one hour of synchronous meeting plus extra homework or out-of-class-style assignments (not enough instructional time; too much homework), or three hours of synchronous time plus discussion forums or other things that replace classroom time as well as reading and homework (exceeds the reasonable time commitment and credit for the course).
So what should I do?
As discussed above, include a mix of both, but balance them according to your needs. Design your course around that mix to ensure that you maximize the effectiveness of each type of instruction.
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 any sessions where you lecture, demonstrate, or review 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 in which you present new material so those students still have access to them. You may also wish to use asynchronous assessments designed to avoid a need for test proctoring.
Ask for support
The CLT team has learned a great deal about balancing asynchronous and synchronous learning from the Covid-19 pandemic. Please do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.