To sync or be async? Some thoughts (and questions to consider if making that choice)

Woman thinking whether to sync or async

It’s generally been agreed that 2020 is a raging dumpster fire. In higher education, students and faculty have been doing their best to get through courses in a term that has brought considerable (and unusual) challenges. Of course, it is not surprising that university students, faculty and administrators are looking at Fall 2020 courses and drawing conclusions re: online teaching in general, and comparing synchronous vs. asynchronous classes. I’m just hoping we won’t let dumpster fire smoke taint our approaches to online 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 summer months to prepare for online teaching, others have had no break, and many sessionals/adjuncts may not have even been notified of teaching assignments long before the term began. I’m very lucky – I have a continuing teaching-focused faculty position, I’ve taught online before, and my university announced that the Fall term would be online very early, 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 available to me.

Recently, I’ve been hearing very broad (occasionally worrisome) conclusions about synchronous vs. asynchronous classes. Much of this has come from faculty colleagues. As an academic advisor I’ve also had the privilege to hear about the experiences from a number of students, and these have varied widely in positive and negative ways. Personal experience and emotional stories are memorable, and will shape perceptions on both sides of the podium (screen?). I am hoping that we can also try to put these experiences into perspective, and while learning what lessons we can, try not to make overly-sweeping generalizations about a particular mode of offering online courses. 

There are advantages and disadvantages, and best practises for course design and instructional methods with synchronous and asynchronous teaching. Of course, for faculty who do not normally teach online and/or are not education geeks, this may be uncharted territory. (Keeping up on the literature in your discipline is a challenge – adding DBER/pedagogy literature on top of that is a struggle!)

There are arguments made for synchronous courses providing some structure and community for students. This may be particularly beneficial for first year students who are making the transition from the structured high school environment, and those transferring from college programs. There are also arguments for asynchronous courses providing flexibility and autonomy, which may be appreciated more by upper year students, and those who are balancing academic commitments with demands of work, family, etc. Similar to face-to-face courses, there isn’t one “best” way to run online courses.  As with so many aspects of teaching and learning, the way that 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 to consider:

  • For synchronous courses, can discussion and active learning opportunities be brought in (rather than just conveying info that could have been delivered asynchronously)? Are there considerations for students who have technical issues, and/or may have to miss some classes because of work?
  • For asynchronous courses, are the course and LMS set up in such a way that students know and can easily see what they need to do, and when?
  • In an asynchronous course, providing instructor presence may take more deliberate attention. Can you ensure regular communication from the instructor and/or TAs (by email/through the LMS or tools like Teams)? Can you make instructional videos that show some element of your personality (even if you don’t feature yourself on camera regularly)?
  • Are there many learning objectives/outcomes of the course better supported by synchronous interactions? (My 2nd year intro micro course is a survey course (content-driven – there are various ways to share info); my 4th 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 affected how I offered my larger course was knowing that the majority of the students in my class would also be taking at least two, possibly three other courses offered synchronously, each with synchronous labs – i.e., 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.) Depending on what you teach, this might not be a feasible thing to figure out, though.
  • What is your comfort level with the teaching activities/tools used in these modes? e.g., If you’ve produced videos for your courses in the past, asynchronous teaching may be less daunting than if this is something you would need to start learning from scratch. (HT to Nicole for bringing this up in Twitter discussion!)

There’s no “one size fits all” here, and just as there are flipped and blended courses offered in the traditional setting, 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 intro micro course as “mostly asynchronous” and microbial ecology as “mostly synchronous”, neither were completely one or the other. It is possible to provide a lot of the factual information asynchronously via recorded videos and written activities, 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, while 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 months. 

This is just a starting place – there are other, more comprehensive resources available from people with more expertise than I have! A few things that helped me a lot when I was working on my courses for the fall term:

Do you have any other questions/advice for instructors planning their synchronous and asynchronous courses (or elements of courses)? Ideas to help push back against some of the assumptions and generalizations being made from online experiences over the past pandemic months? Comment below or tweet at me!

Tanya Noel

A Learning Specialist in the Department of Integrative Biology in the Faculty of Science at the University of Windsor, Dr. Tanya Noel teaches undergraduate microbiology courses, provides academic advising, and is involved in various educational projects. A microbiologist by training, her current interests include effective and inclusive teaching/learning in science, microbiology misconceptions, open educational resources, and academic advising. She was honoured to receive the 2008 University Wide Teaching Award (under 10 years) at York University, the 2014, 2015, and 2020 University of Windsor Science Society “Excellence in Instruction Award”, the 2016 Roger Thibert Teaching Excellence Award in Science, and the 2017 Outreach and Engagement Award in the Faculty of Science at the University of Windsor. She is a founding member of the Canadian Society for Microbiologists Committee on Microbiology Undergraduate Education (CSM CMUE), and oCUBE (Open Consortium of Undergraduate Biology Educators).

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