In the spring, DLINQ provided advice to faculty that encouraged them to focus their remote courses on asynchronous interactions. This advice, given in consultations and via our blog, highlighted the many challenges our students could be facing in the sudden transition to remote learning, and offered the perspective that asynchronous provided flexibility and better access for students who are facing those challenging situations. As an institution, we were dealing with an emergency situation and trying to make it the best it could be, for as many students as possible. This suggestion was also made on the basis of extensive research on online education that suggests that asynchronous interactions are more equitable for students.

In a late-spring remote learning check-in survey, feedback from Middlebury College students showed that they rated the effectiveness of synchronous interactions and asynchronous interactions similarly. The data showed that:

  • 88% of students watched recorded lectures (asynchronously), 51% reported that they did this frequently. Of those who frequently watched recorded lectures, 37% responded that it was an effective learning experience, 56% responded it was somewhat effective, and 7% responded it was not effective.
  • 85% of students reported participating in synchronous lecture, 53% reported that they did this frequently. Of those who frequently participated in synchronous lectures, 34% responded that it was an effective learning experience, 58% responded it was somewhat effective, the remaining 9% responded it was not effective.

Student feedback on the benefits of asynchronous interactions praised its flexibility (“I can take notes with ease, and I can watch at times of the day that work for me. It is efficient and I am learning”). Student feedback on the benefits of synchronous interactions praised the ability to see their instructor and other students and how those interactions helped combat feelings of isolation. When outlining the challenges of each, students noted problems focusing on asynchronous and synchronous interactions alike.

Notably, many students shared an appreciation for courses that weaved together the synchronous and asynchronous interactions:

One of my classes (XXXX) has been structured in a way that I think is great. This class has asynchronous lecture videos that students watch when they can and synchronous small-group problem solving sessions. You watch the lecture (asynchronously) before your group problem solving session in which you work on problems that relate to what was talked about in the lecture. I think this format has worked the best of my four classes.”

For the fall, we have more time to introduce nuance back into the conversation about synchronous and asynchronous interactions in courses. The barriers to synchronous learning– time zone, Internet access, accessibility, Zoom fatigue– may still exist and we still need to be mindful of them when planning our courses. However, we’d like to think about synchronous and asynchronous as working together, rather than at opposite and opposing ends of a spectrum. Research indicates that blending synchronous and asynchronous interactions in remote/online courses can promote social presence and combat students’ feelings of disconnectedness while supporting student learning.

How can we blend asynchronous and synchronous learning to best support student learning? How can make sure that the synchronous sessions are being used not because they look most like our in-person classes, but to achieve the teaching/learning goals that are best suited to that kind of synchronous interaction?

Perhaps most importantly, how can we ensure that all of our students feel supported and can make meaningful use of the synchronous and asynchronous portions of our courses?

We’ll address these questions during Camp Design Online conversations, but here are some teaser suggestions:

REFLECT ON THE STRENGTHS OF EACH TYPE OF INTERACTION: For your course, reflect on what strengths synchronous and asynchronous interactions might have for the kinds of learning you want students to do. During Camp, you’ll have the chance to align these reflections to your learning goals. Here is an example of what such a reflection might look like:

Synchronous Asynchronous
Scheduled Flexible
Builds excitement, models disciplinary conversation Builds rigor, models disciplinary writing & inquiry
Reactive / spontaneous Reflective
Multimodal (slides, video, etc.) Multimodal (video, text, hyperlinks, audio, etc.)
Interpersonal cues through video Interpersonal cues through text, video, photos, etc.
Dynamic and responsive (immediate feedback) More time for crafting understanding and responding

SET EXPECTATIONS: Students come from a variety of backgrounds, are facing unique challenges in their “home environments”, and have varying experiences with learning online. Students benefit from orientations and expectation-setting interactions that help them understand how to be successful participants in asynchronous and synchronous interactions in your courses (Yamagata-Lynch, 2014).

HAVE A PURPOSE & EXPLAIN THE PURPOSE: Beyond setting expectations, we encourage faculty to explain the purpose of each form of interaction. Doing this will require connecting each form of interaction with learning goals. Ask, what learning goals do my synchronous interactions support? What learning goals do my asynchronous interactions support? Then explain the rationale to students. Students are more likely to understand and appreciate the choice of modality when its purpose is clearly communicated to students, rather than assumed. You can explain the purpose at the outset of each interaction. We also encourage that the explanations are incorporated in the syllabus for your course and aligned with course learning objectives (so that students understand what you’re wanting them to learn and how these interactions play a role in their learning).

CREATE AN APPROACH AND STICK WITH IT: As you create a recipe for how you will blend synchronous and asynchronous interactions, we recommend that you stick with that approach throughout the semester. You might reshape some things due to student feedback, but in general, students will benefit from having a clear understanding of the “shape” or “pace” of each week.

CONSIDER WAYS TO DEEPEN YOUR USE OF EACH MODALITY: We may try to use synchronous and asynchronous modalities to replicate what we do in class, matching our teaching approaches in Zoom, for instance, to how we’d teach in person. We encourage exploring ways of using those modalities that transform, rather than replicate, what we could do face-to-face. For example, you might learn to use polling in Zoom to add interactive Classroom Assessment Techniques to your live sessions.

If you’d like to continue this conversation, join us for Camp Design Online. Sign up now!

Keep reading

Blended online learning: Benefits, challenges, and misconceptions, by Peter J. Fadde and Phu Vu

EDUCAUSE resources on Blended Learning

Live synchronous web meetings in asynchronous online courses: Reconceptualizing virtual office hours, by Patrick Lowenthal, Joanna Dunlap, and Chareen Snelson

Featured photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash