When Elizabeth Self starts teaching her 11 a.m. class via Zoom, she has to remember that it isn’t 11 a.m. for all of her students. She’s in Tennessee—where she is an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University—but some of the students she’s teaching are now taking the class from California, where it’s only 8 a.m. And a couple of students are back home in China, where it’s midnight.
Even when students are all in the same time zone—such as for most K-12 schools and community colleges—getting to a live online class on time can be challenging for those who live in households where there aren’t enough computers or tablets for every learner, or where the internet connection isn’t robust enough.
But the benefits of being online together, when it works, are huge, Self said in a recent episode of the EdSurge Podcast. “Those weekly face-to-face sessions are as much about seeing people’s faces—seeing how tired they look, seeing how engaged they are in the material, seeing all of those kinds of things, and having that back and forth—as it is learning new content together,” she noted.
As professors and K-12 teachers adjust to the sudden move to online teaching, one question keeps coming up: How much of class time should be done live—known in education parlance as “synchronous” teaching—and how much should be done so that students can do the work at their convenience—or “asynchronous” teaching.
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Experts in online teaching have been debating and researching the question of synchronous versus asynchronous for decades.
“The first distance learning programs were all correspondence programs in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s,” meaning that students were sent materials and assignments in the mail and then they sent back their homework and exams, says Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the Aurora Institute and the former director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. Back then, everything was asynchronous by default.
“It was really in the ‘80s and the ‘90s that the first satellite distance learning programs came up,” she adds, meaning students could sit in classrooms connected via interactive satellite TV. Students could ask a question of a professor over the satellite link and folks linked at other locations could hear the exchange. At first, such synchronous teaching was expensive and cumbersome.
Since the 1990s and the rise of online video conferencing, though, it has been possible for educators to choose which activities in their distance-education courses to conduct synchronously and which to leave as asynchronous.
The overall advice from experts is to mix both formats in any given class. “The challenge I see in this debate is the dichotomous thinking,” says Bonni Stachowiak, dean of teaching and learning at Vanguard University of Southern California and the host of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast. “If we stick to one or the other (synchronous versus asynchronous), we are going to be leaving someone out.”
Here’s some advice from education experts on what to consider when deciding which part of your teaching should be done live and which might work better on-demand.
Synchronous Works Better For Some Students Than For Others
Holding an online class via a live video platform like Zoom or Google Meet can closely resemble an in-person classroom dynamic. The instructor can lecture and students can ask questions, or the instructor can lead a live discussion.
That means that the format will likely work best for the same kinds of students who thrive in in-person settings, argues George Siemens, director of the LINK Research Lab at the University of Texas at Arlington. In other words, students who raise their hand the most during in-person classes will likely do the same when sessions shift to live video.
Meanwhile, shifting to an asynchronous approach, such as threaded discussions in a learning management system, may benefit shy students, because they will “have the ability to think in detail what you want to say and respond,” Siemens says.
Asynchronous Can Still Be Interactive
If instructors get creative, they can build personalized interactions into asynchronous teaching, argues Michele Eaton, director of virtual and blended learning for a school district in Indianapolis. She’s also the author of the book “The Perfect Blend: A Practical Guide to Designing Student-Centered Learning Experiences,” published by ISTE, EdSurge’s parent organization.
For instance, professors can have students submit video responses to a discussion question using a platform like FlipGrid. Everyone sends in their reply by a set deadline. Then the professor can either respond to each video with feedback or ask the students to post video responses to each other.
Or students can create joint projects using collaboration tools like Padlet, she adds.
“Just because it’s asynchronous,” she says, “does not mean it’s devoid of interaction.”
In Many Cases, Simpler Is Better
While using the latest tools to include video and shared whiteboards may be slick, there’s also a benefit to using low-tech tools, says Eaton.
For instance, instructors can ask students to post a one-sentence summary or brief reflection after going through an assigned reading or watching a short video lecture. “Give opportunities for practice for students to be really transparent about their thinking,” she says.
And some live video platforms, including Zoom, give participants the option to connect to the discussion by phone. Reminding students of that low-tech option could help make sure everyone can get to virtual class.
Mike Caulfield is one of the people stressing the value of minimalist online course construction at this time. In a series of blog items, he outlines what he calls a “dirt simple online course” with a bare-bones approach. “The value in what Caulfield shares is recognizing how much can be accomplished using low bandwidth, low immediacy tools,” argues Stachowiak.
Start By Teaching Students How to Learn Online
The remote format of instruction is likely new for students, so step one may be helping them adjust to the format, says Patrick at the Aurora Institute
“We can have some really important lifelong learning lessons,” during this time, she says. “Start with the skills for lifelong learning and learn those.” One free online course on that topic is Learning How to Learn, and a key concept is developing habits to seek out new knowledge and skills on your own.
Patrick adds that schools and colleges that have embraced competency-based learning may have an easier time adapting to remote learning during the pandemic. That’s because in competency-based approaches, course designers have carefully articulated what concepts need to be learned to meet course objectives, and “every day a student is coming in and saying what’s my learning goal for the day?”
Encouraging that kind of student empowerment can work well for asynchronous assignments, where students can be given an objective, like analyzing how protagonists function in fictional stories, and asked to work through an assignment like writing a report about the protagonist in a particular work of literature.
Consider Your Learning Goals
When deciding whether to teach material in live video or through a self-paced mode, it’s also important to consider the learning goals, Siemens said.
“Asynchronous is very good for community knowledge building,” he argues, since everyone can have time to contribute. He gives the example of Wikipedia, where a crowd of writers and editors curate articles, and notes that a live video chat would not be a good platform to create those articles.
If you need to impart key points or provide a forum for people to ask questions and get everyone on the same page, a Zoom forum might be a better option.
In a 2010 meta-analysis of online-learning research compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, authors found that some research shows that “asynchronous discourse is inherently self-reflective and therefore more conducive to deep learning than is synchronous discourse.”
Ask Your Students For Feedback on Your Online Teaching
For many teachers right now, moving online is like going back to the first year of teaching, when everything was new, argues Eaton.
That means it’s important for instructors to get feedback from students often and continue to adapt and iterate.