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 Summer School – 7/17/2013
Yes. I know. I have not written in a while. You can blame the birth of our daughter and the first nine months or so of her life. Between teaching a full load, teaching an overload, taking care of the other three kids, and taking care of a baby, blogging has taken a back seat to the rest of life. Now that things are settled down some, and my teaching is done for the summer, I hope to get back on here a bit. We shall see how I do, but you have to start somewhere.
I just finished up my seventh summer of teaching full time (yes, I also taught some summer classes as a graduate student). I have taught online every summer session that I have taught, and this one went about the same as usual. Since our pay decrease two summers ago, I now have to teach three summer classes to make the amount of money that I want to make, so I taught three sections — two of the first half of American history and one of the second. I am not sure why my department chair assigns me both halves in the session, as it would be easier to do all of one, but I don’t have a lot of choice there.
While teaching in the summer, I had some general thoughts that I thought I would share.
The quality of students we get at a community college is dramatically higher in the summer. The majority of students are ones that are off at a 4-year university somewhere and have come back to get a few classes out of the way cheaply. Thus, the quality of work submitted is often much higher, and the ratio of A’s to the rest of my teaching is much higher. It reminds me a lot of my teaching in graduate school, where I was always fairly pleased with the quality of work submitted to me.
At the same time, we also get a lot of students who are taking summer classes who should not. I started out at the end of the spring semester with three full sections at 30 students each. By the time the summer session started, I was down by about 10 students, as we always lose some for academic suspensions or failure to pay. Then, in the first week, upon getting into the class and seeing the level of work required, I lost about 10-12 more students. Then, over the course of the summer session, I had more drop and/or stop attending. All together, I started out with 90 students at the end of the spring semester and ended up submitting about 55 real grades to students who worked on material all the way through the summer. This is fairly typical.
One of the requirements at my community college is that we hold physical office hours over the summer, even if we are teaching only online. The required number of on-campus office hours is fairly flexible, but some must be there, and I ended up holding 8 on campus each week. In the five weeks of the summer session, I saw three students in those office hours, and they all came on the day before the first exam opened. So, except for that day, it was a waste of both my time and gas to go to campus every day. I also held online office hours in the evening for students who could not make the on-campus hours. In the five weeks, I had no students in my online office hours. So, traditional office hours were largely a waste. However, I answered emails all day every day, participated in online discussions, responded to student posts with questions in the classroom, answered messages in our LMS system, graded, evaluated, read drafts, worked on course material, and more. Yet, if you count my output on what I did during my “official” time in office hours, it would look like I did very little. This is the conflict that we run into with teaching online, that the actual productive activities are not easily quantifiable or restricted to traditional avenues. In our culture that wants to quantify everything, it can easily look like I don’t do much, yet, if you ask my wife, I never stop working. I am busy in the class every day from when I get up until when I go to bed.
As usual, 20% of my students say they loved the class, 1-2 students said they hated it, and the rest are never heard from. It is frustrating sometimes, as I can only assume I am doing good as most of what I hear is positive. Yet, all it takes is that one students to write how much (s)he hated the course to drag down the rest. That is the comment I obsess over and worry about. I know I shouldn’t when that person is outnumbered by far by the rest. The one this summer session hit me harder than usual, as she said that I came off as rude and unwelcome in my Announcements to my students. Thus, now she has me paranoid that this is how I came off, and that is why I don’t hear from the other students. The so-called rude Announcement that I made was that the students should read the syllabus and Announcements before contacting me, as I get irritated when I have to copy and paste the answer back to them from something I have already said. I didn’t think that was an unreasonable thing to say, and I have sent an Announcement out along that line most semesters that I have taught. Sigh. It only takes one comment to get under your skin.
And, finally, the good thing about my course now is that I have it all pretty well set up. So, it largely runs itself, which allows me more time to actually participate in the classroom rather than spending my time creating and maintaining. It was a generally pleasant experience overall.
And, with that, I’m out for now. I just hit 1000 words, which is pretty good for the first time out in a while. I promise to try and write more.
Thoughts on Teaching – 6/13/2012 – Back to online office hours
Just a short post today. I am, again, in online office hours. The problem with online office hours in mid-week is that I tend to forget them. I am not used to having them on a Wednesday night, so if we are doing anything else, I tend to forget about them. So, tonight I forgot. Or, at least, I forgot about the first hour. The thing is, as is consistent with what I have discussed here before, it’s not like the students are banging down the door for online office hours. I started an hour late, and there is no evidence that any student tried to get into my office hours. And I have now been in them for 45 minutes with no students. So, as usual, it seems to be pretty much a waste of time. But I am diligently doing my job.
Of course, since it is a summer class, the funny thing is that nobody comes to office hours in person either. I have, a week and a half into the summer session, had one student in office hours. And, that student actually came to my office hours online last Sunday. I have had one phone call during my office hours as well. However, I have answered several dozen emails, sent out a half-dozen official announcements in the online classroom, and responded back to dozens of forum posts as well. It is simply a fact that the majority of my student interaction occurs outside of any official office hour channels.
And now, back to staring at a blank screen to see if any students come in the last 15 minutes.
Thoughts on Teaching – 6/10/2012 – Teaching summer school
Well, that time is here again. Time for teaching summer school again. We always need the extra money, so I teach every summer. I teach online, as that is easier with my own schedule as well as easy to step in with prepared classes. Also, as I am the primary online history instructor at my community college, there is always a high demand for my classes in the summer. So, I never have to worry about my classes making. It’s a good thing all the way around.
The summer is always weird. Squeezing what the students normally do in a 16-week semester in 5 weeks is quite a challenge for them. They have a lot to do each week, and I don’t think that a lot of students realize what that means. We always get students who are taking vacations in the middle of the summer session or who wait a week before entering the course, leaving them tremendously behind. I think that students assume that an online summer course is going to be easy. The general perception of online courses, I have found, is that they are easy (not mine, unfortunately for them). As well, many assume that it will be easy to complete a course in 5 weeks because it takes up less time. The time demand is high, and you cannot put your work off until the last minute because there is a lot of it.
Summer school also attracts an odd mix of students. Here are some of the types I have noted:
- Students who want to finish their degree early and so are doubling up in the summer
- Students who go to a four-year university and are home for the summer and taking a class or two for cheap
- Students who have failed the class in the normal semester and are hoping for better results in the summer
- Students who have never taken either an online course or a college course and decide that this is the best way to do it
It’s the last group that is the biggest pain for me. It’s always a good 10-15% of the students. I don’t know if someone advised them to do it, or if they simply decided on their own that their first college course should be an online summer class, but it is almost universally a bad idea. Either online courses or summer courses by themselves are more challenging then many semester-long, face-to-face classes, but to do both as your first experience is brutal. I spend an inordinate amount of my time in the summer dealing with these students.
On the other side, the first two groups tend to be some of the most motivated and strongest students that I will see in an academic year, so the summer also has its good side, as these students can restore your faith in students. Teaching can be depressing, especially when a semester goes poorly, and the summer session can sometimes be rejuvenating because you do get some of the best students there.
As of right now, we are just finishing up the first week of the summer session, so four more weeks are left. The first set of assignments come in tonight at midnight, so I will be able to start sizing up the students at this point. And, as it is an online class, I again have online office hours. I have them Wednesday and Sunday nights, and, so far, one student has come by to ask a question. That makes it already one more student than came to my online office hours all of last semester, so there’s something.
I don’t know how active I will be posting on this blog this summer, but you will probably be hearing from me on Wednesday and Sunday nights at least, as I have to sit here at the computer for two hours anyway.
Thoughts on Teaching – 5/19/2012 – Revisiting office hours
Interestingly enough, I came across a recent article on a subject that I have written about before. I have debated the usefulness of online office hours here before, and a recent article in Inside Higher Ed raised the question again. Apparently, San Antonio College is considering going to online office hours because students just don’t go to regular office hours. As noted, professors these days are more likely to contact a student over email or something like that rather than them showing up to traditional office hours in an academic office. In this case, the professors still have to keep five day office hours on campus, but they are allowed to have five of their office hours off campus. However, my earlier issues are still there. I wonder about the actual office hours either way. If students don’t come to traditional office hours and they don’t come to online office hours, then what use are office hours in general?
I completely understand why we are supposed to have them. We are meant to be available. We are meant to be working. If we are not there physically, then we are not working in the traditional sense of the word. We have a board member at my community college who is already convinced that we do not work enough. According to him, our contract is only for 15 hours of teaching and 10 hours of office hours, so we are overpaid and overworked. If we were to move to even less “on campus” time, then the argument would be even stronger that we do not really work.
On the other side of things, there is the question of whether the office hours that we do have are useful at all. What is the use of simply sitting in the office. Am I filling a purpose sitting there? Am I fulfilling a purpose by sitting in online office hours that nobody attends. Or, as the article raises as the real question, is the real interaction that we do with students not in something easily classified as an “office hour?” Where are the real interactions with students? Here’s what I do with students:
- talk with them before and after class
- answer emails within 4-6 hours of receiving them, if not sooner
- participate in class sessions both online and in person
- consider myself on as a teacher from the time I get out of bed to when I go to bed
What do you classify all of those things as? They all take place outside of traditional office hours, except the that I do answer some of the emails and participate in online classes during what are my on-campus office hours. Yet, for the most part, the time sitting there is simply time for me to get things done. However, is doing those things on campus useful? Could I be just as useful doing them somewhere else? But if I’m not on campus, am I not fulfilling my duty as a teacher to be available whenever my students need me? If I’m not on campus, what about those 6-10 students who do come by my office during the semester for help? Or, if I was available in other ways, would those students not come by? What about the non-tech-savvy students? What about the students who want face-to-face interaction? Is it enough for me to be available before and after class? Or do I need to be there for them?
There’s also the question I did raise in my earlier post about the online office hours. I had only one person come to them all semester. Apparently they are not useful as I have them right now either.
So, what is the solution? I don’t know. Any ideas out there?
Thoughts on Teaching – 2/19/2012 – First major assignments due
It’s the joy that anybody who is a teacher knows — the joy of the first major assignment coming due. It’s the point where students who have skated by not doing much are going to have to put up or shut up. And for me, that point has been reached. In my hybrid classes, their assignments are scattered and due over about a 2 week period, so it’s not quite as bad with them, but with the online classes, they are turning in their first big one tonight. And, since I’m in online office hours tonight, I am here and witnessing it blow by blow. What that has meant is that I have been hearing and seeing all of the excuses roll by as to why something is not working or why things will not be turned in on time. Actually, I haven’t seen that many of those yet, but it’s almost 8pm now, and the assignment closes at midnight. So, as it gets closer and closer, the fear-induced excuses will grow. On the positive side, I have seen a lot of drafts so far, which is very good. Drafting means higher levels of organization and preparedness and generally leads to better grades overall. Of course, even then, the assignment has been open for 5 weeks, and I am seeing even drafts only in the last couple of days. I know it’s a joke to say an assignment is open for 5 weeks, as very, very few students will do any work on something more than a week before it is due. Most will do it a day or two before, so a good number are working furiously to finish it right now.
I’ve also thrown in a different wrench this time to their plans (lovely mixed metaphor there). They get all of the information for their assignment from the textbook website, but they actually turn it in on turnitin.com. So, they have to take the extra step of making sure they turn it in to the correct place. As of right now, I have already been contacted by two who realized they turned it in at the incorrect place, and I’m sure there will be more who will realize it at a later point. As to excuses, I’ve had two so far — a child in the hospital and a crashed computer — both are probably legitimate (the first definitely so), and those have been dealt with. The more creative excuses come as we get closer to the time when everything is due. I do take late assignments at a 10-point penalty per day, but I don’t actually say that up front, as I don’t want students abusing that option.
For now, it is the time when I start to see who is really serious about the class and who is not. It’s funny that it comes to that, but it is true as well. A good portion of my students do not make it even to the first assignment of the semester. They are already lost before they’ve even gotten any significant grades, and there is not much I can do about it. I can notify them that they have missed the assignment (we have an Early Alert system that sends them an official email and letter from the college), but that’s about all I can do. This semester, there has already seemed to be a larger number in classes overall here at my community college that are not showing up. One of my hybrid sections is already down a third in attendance. I’ll have a better idea of how the online classes sit after this weekend, so I can’t say anything there yet. I’ve talked to some colleagues and even my classes themselves, and everyone has noted a larger than normal number of students who have signed up for classes and not even made it past the third or fourth week. I don’t really know why or what would make this semester any different than the others.
And so I sit and monitor my classes for now. I have some other projects I’m working on, so I am doing those on the side while I’m here monitoring my email and my online office hours room, but most of it is just sitting here and monitoring. Not the most exciting thing, but then teaching, especially online, does devolve into a lot of waiting on the students to do their thing so that you can do your thing. By tomorrow, I’ll have a mountain of grading to do. But for now, I wait, do some other things, and keep checking to try to avert whatever crises I can.