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To sync or be async? Some thoughts and questions to consider when teaching online

Take the time to determine how your course is structured and run; it will make a huge difference in deciding which method to choose.

BY TANYA NOEL | APR 19 2021

In the past few months, I’ve been hearing very broad statements about synchronous vs. asynchronous classes from faculty colleagues concerned that “students need synchronous classes to learn” or “students prefer asynchronous courses.” As an academic adviser I’ve also had the privilege of hearing about the experiences of a number of students, which have varied widely in positive and negative ways. Personal experience and emotional stories are memorable and shape perceptions on both sides of the podium (or screen). I hope that we can try to put these experiences into perspective and learn from them … and avoid sweeping generalizations about online courses based on what happened during our pandemic teaching.

Some online education experts have already expressed concern about conclusions being drawn from what is not an ideal semester by any measure, where many courses are being offered/taken online out of necessity rather than by choice. While some faculty (e.g., me) had the relative luxury of the summer months in 2020 to prepare for online teaching, others had no break, and many sessional/adjunct instructors may not have even been notified of teaching assignments long before the term began. I’ll note that I’m very lucky – I have considerable flexibility in how I can teach and assess students (within senate policies), have a continuing teaching-focused faculty position and had taught online before My university announced very early that the fall 2020 term would be online, providing time for instructors to prepare. I have also had some amazing guidance and support from experts in my university teaching and learning and open learning centres, my colleagues in oCUBE and the Online Learning Toolkit facilitators and community. I am not suggesting that how I ran my courses was ideal – like everyone, I did the best I could under the circumstances, and am grateful for the support and resources I had.

Just as with in-person courses, there isn’t one “best” way to run online courses. There are advantages and disadvantages of synchronous and asynchronous teaching, and best practices for each. Synchronous courses usually provide regular schedules, structure and community for students. This can be particularly beneficial for first year students who are making the transition from high school and those transferring from college programs. Asynchronous courses can provide more flexibility and autonomy, which is often appreciated by upper-year students, and anyone balancing academic commitments with demands of work, family, etc. Overall, as with other aspects of teaching and learning, the way the course is structured and run will make a huge difference in terms of how well those advantages are leveraged, and the challenges faced by students in our courses.

If you’re trying to decide whether to offer your online course synchronously or asynchronously, here are some questions that may help with your decisions and planning:

  • What information and material can effectively be shared asynchronously in your course? Where are synchronous interactions necessary or advantageous? (E.g., My second-year introductory microbiology course is a content-driven survey course – there are various ways to share the information; my fourth-year microbial ecology course has more of a focus on skill development – I felt that some synchronous activities would be useful there.)
  • Are most/all of your students in several other courses offered synchronously? Do they have mandatory synchronous labs in some of these courses? One thing that influenced the choice of how I offered my larger course was knowing that the majority of the students in my class would also be taking at least two or possibly three other courses offered synchronously, each with synchronous labs  (and they could be spending 12-18 hours in online meetings just in those courses). The situation was different for most of my upper-year students – several of them reported that the majority of their courses were asynchronous and that they missed getting to interact with their instructors and classmates! Depending on what you teach, this might not be a feasible thing to figure out, unfortunately.
  • What is your comfort level with the teaching activities/tools used in these modes? Do you have support for using the technology you’ll need in synchronous or asynchronous teaching? If you’ve produced videos or course workbooks/study guides for your courses in the past, asynchronous teaching may be less daunting than if you need to start developing resources from scratch. Meanwhile, tools like Zoom, Teams and Blackboard Collaborate are generally used in synchronous classes. It’s a good idea to explore the features and gain comfort using these tools, along with any others you want to use in those sessions (e.g., Padlet, Mentimeter, Kahoot, etc.).

Once you’ve decided on what format you will use, there are some additional things to keep in mind.

  • For synchronous courses/sessions:
    • How will you make the most out of having students “together” at the same time? For example, can you use some of the time for discussion, interactive activities and other active learning opportunities?
    • What considerations will there be for students who encounter technical problems and/or may have to miss some sessions because of work, childcare or other responsibilities? (You may want to think about back-up plans in case YOU experience an issue with technology – or life! – too!)
  • How will you structure your course, syllabus and learning management system (LMS), such as Blackboard, Canvas, or D2L, so that students know and can easily see what they need to do, and when? Clear LMS navigation is especially important to plan for in completely asynchronous courses. Consider asking someone to visit your course LMS site to give feedback on navigation and ease of finding necessary information.
  • Have you planned for accessibility? This is important in both synchronous and asynchronous courses. Is there closed captioning available for live and recorded videos? Are course materials accessible to all students (e.g., can a student view necessary resources via a screen reader)? Your accessibility office may be able to guide you!
  • How will you provide instructor presence (which helps motivate and engage students)? This often requires more deliberate attention in online courses, particularly with asynchronous delivery. How will you communicate with your students? Can your teaching assistants help with course communication?  Which tools (e.g., email/through the LMS or tools like Teams) can help maintain regular contact and interactions? Can you make instructional videos that show some element of your personality? (There are ways to do this even if you don’t feature yourself on camera!)

There’s no “one size fits all” here, and it is also possible to use elements of asynchronous and synchronous online teaching in one course to provide some of the advantages of each. While I’d describe my fall 2020 introductory microbiology course as “mostly asynchronous” and the microbial ecology course as “mostly synchronous,” neither were completely one or the other. It is possible to provide information asynchronously via recorded videos and written materials, while also having optional synchronous Q & A or discussion sessions. Conversely, classes can be offered synchronously, with some in-class individual and group activities/assignments, providing recordings of those class sessions and alternate assignment versions for students unable to attend a class. I’ve seen various creative and thoughtful approaches being used by instructors over the past year!

I’ve just described some of what I’ve learned and thought about, but there are other, more comprehensive resources available from people with more expertise than I have! The following helped me a lot when I was working on my courses:

It is difficult to know exactly what the fall 2021 term has in store for educators, but it seems likely that many of us will still be teaching online, in whole or in part. I’m optimistic that we can reflect and build on the past year’s experiences, and keep conversations going about effective and accessible university education through various formats and methods of delivery.

Tanya Noel is a learning specialist in the department of integrative biology at the University of Windsor. A previous version of this post was published on her blog. Check her out on Twitter: @TCNoel.

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