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.
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.
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.
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.
Thoughts on Teaching – Third Week of Online Classes – 9/14/2014
This has been a mixed semester so far. I really thought it was going to be a rough one after the first week, which I referenced in my last post. I got everything cleaned up from my first mistake of having the incorrect link up for my classroom, and things have been fairly smooth since then. I always forget from one fall semester to the next how clueless about how to work online many of these students are in their first classes at college. Many students get shuttled into online classes as they work well with any schedule and are often perceived as easier than face-to-face classes. Yet, many have had no experience with online classes and really have trouble in those first weeks of classes. So, I end up doing a lot of technical support and repetition of information to the students as they try to grasp what they need to do. Luckily, by the time you get to the third week, most of that is behind, and the rest of the next couple of weeks is mostly maintaining the course and keeping it going.
What is interesting is how these first weeks are the same every semester. If I could somehow get it through to all of my students, I would set up a couple of things:
- The reaction I get from students who are taking their first online class with me is that my class is complicated and hard to understand. By contrast, any student who is coming into my class from other classes (and often the same students who were confused at first by the end of the semester) comments on how well laid-out and straightforward it is. I wish I could tell those students more directly that they will get used to it.
- Read the course outline. Again, read the course outline. And, read it again. Have a question? Read the course outline. Have a specific question? Look in that section of the course outline and see if I have answered it already.
- If you have a question that you can’t find the answer to, let me know as soon as possible. Do not wait until the second or third week to ask me a question that you had from the first moment in the class. By then, assignments will have come due, and it will be harder to fix things.
- Come by and talk to me if you have any questions. I can show you how everything works, and it often works better to show you how things are done rather than tell you.
You might think, well, why don’t you just say these things. The issue is that I do. In fact, I say them over and over. However, here is an example of what I am up against. Shortly after I wrote my last post, I got an email from a student. He said that some students (including him) were have trouble getting to the correct assignment and I should really tell the students about the problems there. If you will remember from my last post, the issue was that I had two contradictory links on how to access the textbook site in the classroom. I discovered this on Tuesday and corrected it at that point. So, I am getting this email about a week later telling me that I really needed to tell the students about this. As I then pointed out to that student, I had sent out 4 different announcements to students addressing this issue. I had also answered two questions posted in the questions forum in the class about this issue. I had answered about 20 different emails from students about this issue. So, when this student emails me telling me that I had not done anything to inform the students about this problem, I just had nothing left to say. And, this is the problem, no matter how many times I say anything, I can’t say it enough to reach every student.
So, what really is the answer is that I just have to keep my cool and remember that every student is new to this. Their problems are unique to them and they do not have the eight years of online teaching experience behind them. Unfortunately, this is not something I am particularly good with, as I get easily frustrated after dealing with issues over and over everyday. I just have to remind myself over and over about this.
The good thing is, by the third week, this section of troubleshooting and explaining is pretty much done. Some scattered issues with my online classes will come up, I’m sure, but things should be fairly stable until the first set of big assignments are due. I can’t say as much for my hybrid classes, but that will be another post.