Thoughts on Teaching in a Pandemic – Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning

One of the issues the I keep coming back to in thinking about the past semester is how we teach online. Much has been made of the difference between online teaching (which I have been doing for over a decade now) and remote learning that was forced on everyone in March of this year.

The difference between the two is vast, as a true online course is one that needs to be created from the ground up as an online course and cannot be a quick move over of face-to-face content to an online environment.

One of the real differences that I noted in the approaches to online vs. remote teaching is the question of how the learning takes place. In my online course (and as echoed by my friend Mike Smith at McNeese State University), I have taught almost exclusively asynchronously. Most of the design books that I have read and resources that I have accessed over the years have confirmed that this is the best format for fully online instruction, as it allows for the flexibility in completing work and interacting with material that many online students are looking for.

Definitions

Before I go any further, however, I do want to provide some definitions here:

  • Synchronous Learning – Learning that takes place in a format where both the instructor and the learner are in the same location in time and/or space. This can be a traditional classroom format or something like a Zoom session that delivers content in real-time.
  • Asynchronous Learning – Learning that takes place where the instructor and learner are separated in time and/or space. This is seen very often in online courses, where resources and assignments are provided for students to access and complete on their own time.

Asynchronous Learning

As I stated above, my online class is completely asynchronous. The students are given the resources, assignments, lectures, textbook information, assessments, and discussion space all online with no expectation that there is a specific time or place where they will all come together for instructions. This does not mean I am not involved, as I generally work inside my classrooms for 1-4 hours each day, depending on the time of the semester, and am constantly monitoring both my classrooms and other messaging that I get from students outside of the classroom (such as email).

The only real point of direct, face-to-face interaction would be office hours. I also do hold more traditional office hours. This is a bit of sticking point for me, as my department had up to March of this year not allowed online office hours, which seems to me to be a blind spot to where our students actually are. Since March and probably for a while after, we now can have online office hours, which would actually be the only really synchronous material for any students who would come into those office hours and get instruction or have questions answered by me in real time.

Hybrid Learning

One thing that I do differently than a lot of people in their teaching is hybrid learning. I have been teaching hybrid classes for about 6 years now, and my model is roughly a 70/30 model, with 70% of the learning taking place online and 30% in class. Thus, like what I noted above, all of the online portion for the hybrid course is asynchronous. That 30% is the hour and fifteen minutes that I meet with them each week, and that is the only synchronous portion of the course.

My hybrid students are more likely also to come to physical office hours than traditional online students, meaning that they do also have those synchronous options.

The Change in Learning with the Pandemic

As we moved to remote learning in the pandemic, everyone had to scramble to figure out how to make those changes. I have already detailed some of this in previous posts in this Thoughts on Teaching in a Pandemic series. Since a lot of those who were guiding this move were focused on how to move the face-to-face classes to online, much of the assumption was that the remote learning would be at least somewhat synchronous. Since this is the assumption that many have of what online teaching looks like when they have not taught online before, I saw this all over the place – the assumption that we would all just schedule Zoom sessions during our normal class time and then lecture to the students as we would have at the same time and same place.

For better or for worse, this has become part of the story of what has happened – with a narrative emerging of how challenging, or even ineffective, Zoom learning (as it so often came to be) is. In my opinion that is because online learning is not meant to be synchronous. There can certainly be successful synchronous elements in an online course, especially if students are notified up front and early that there will be certain times or certain assignments that are going to require their presence. I don’t use any, but I know of a number of successful online instructors that do use synchronous discussions, group work, and the like in online classes. However, even those classes remain heavily asynchronous overall.

So, What’s the Point?

Why am talking about this somewhat weedy subject? I think that why so many faculty and students were unsatisfied by what they saw in the spring of 2020 is because of this synchronous vs. asynchronous distinction. I have heard, even from my own sons in college, that the learning situation in the spring was not very good. Both of my sons recounted having to get up for 8am classes from home and then sitting there with a lot of random banter, technical problems, and then not learning much overall. Now, could I say that every class experience I have had has been worthwhile and engaging, but there is something different about trying to do it online vs. face-to-face. Especially for my son who is going to a very (VERY!) expensive private university, he felt he was getting very little value out of his education for those last months. A lot of the “value” comes from being on campus and having access to everything there. Sitting at home in front of a screen when that is not what you signed up for is going to be rough no matter what. The insistence on holding classes at the same time and in the same format as before seems to me to be a recipe for discontent overall. It’s not the fault of the professor or of the university, as everyone had to figure out how to do this in a week or two. So, if it didn’t go well, then it just didn’t, but at least everyone knew that we were all doing our best in a difficult time.

What I worry about in the summer and fall. The easy path will be to try to continue on as if nothing really happened and feel that we can all just turn on a dime and teach online again if a second wave breaks out. I only hope that some lessons have been learned about what works and what doesn’t. This summer has to be one of reflection and reworking of courses for everyone. If change isn’t made, it is the students who will suffer. Both of my sons have said that they are worried if it will be worth it to go back to their four-year universities if it is going to look like it did in the spring. I am certainly not trying to say that the question of synchonous or asynchronous is the only issue in making a strong course that can be presented online only or moved online if needed, but it is an issue that needs to considered by everyone who wants to teach in any online format for the future.

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of four, student of life, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all-around guy.

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