Finding a Good Balance of Asynchronous and Synchronous Learning Activities
When we’re teaching in-person, we rarely thinking about the combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning in our courses. In general, students are asked to do the readings and then come to a required class meeting, where they have a chance to hear from the instructor and work with other students. Most of it is synchronous; students learn with everyone else at the same time.
When we teach remotely, we have a chance to find a different balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning. And for good reason: our students might find it challenging to meet online at the same time as everyone else. About 50% of our students have reported connectivity issues when it comes remote learning. So, we should consider when asynchronous learning is a better option and when synchronous learning is necessary.
Here are some key definitions:
eCampus Ontario offers a helpful definition here: “synchronous learning occurs when individuals participate in an online learning course at the same time but at different locations; . . . [t]his is done through software that creates a virtual classroom.” In synchronous learning, students are required to attend a course meeting at the same time as everyone else.
eCampus, again, is instructive; “when students participate in an online learning course at different times, it is known as asynchronous learning; asynchronous learning allows students to go through a course at their own pace.”
I think of finding the balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning activities as a chance to set the dial. On some occasions, we might set the dial by turning it all the way to the left, and offer only synchronous learning; or sometimes we’ll turn it the other way – all the way to the right – and have only asynchronous learning. More frequently, though, we’ll set it somewhere in between, finding a combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning activities that works well for our students’ learning.
But what is the right balance?
As with most questions about teaching, when it comes to finding a good balance of asynchronous and synchronous learning, there isn’t a single right answer. At the Centre for Teaching and Learning, though, we’re recommending that instructors offer as many asynchronous options as possible. And when synchronous learning is preferred or necessary: consider offering an asynchronous path.
Here are some key questions to ask yourself as you consider choosing synchronous learning:
Am I willing to manage a virtual classroom?
Zoom takes some getting used to; and we have some guidelines that should help you along the way. IT’s work to get the Live Zoom Sessions link integrated into Blackboard will save a lot of headaches, too. Yet there is some strangeness to teaching in a virtual classroom. Some students will feel comfortable joining the class, but not turning on their cameras (which you should absolutely let them do). Some students will be inclined to listen to the lecture, but not participate. And there will be those times when something goes wrong when you’re live. If you’re choosing synchronous learning, you just have to be ready for those situations.
Is this the best way to connect with students?
Maybe! You might be more comfortable connecting with students in Zoom. Or you want to make sure that students can have their questions answered in real-time. Or you’re concerned about the capacity for students to learn a new way of studying. In all those cases, synchronous learning might be a good choice.
Is this the best way to discuss complex ideas?
Flower Darby (in the infinitely helpful Small Teaching Online) maps the need for synchronous learning onto Bloom’s taxonomy. As the learning moves up that pyramid, it’s good to have more synchronous learning.
I’m not sure I agree with every part of that argument; but I get the general point. As we teach more complex ideas and skills in upper levels of undergraduate study, we might find it helpful to meet, to discuss, test out, and refine our understanding by talking with one another in real time.
Can I also provide an asynchronous path?
IT and Trent Online surveyed our students, after we shifted to remote teaching for the remainder of the winter term last year. One of the most important findings of that survey was that 50% of students reported issues with their internet connectivity.
There are likely a lot of reasons for that difficulty. Maybe a student lives in a different time zone. Or maybe a sibling or a parent needs the internet at the same time. Or maybe the class is scheduled at the same time that the rest of the family, including the student’s children, are eating dinner. Or maybe they live in a remote or rural location where it’s difficult to have a reliable internet connection.
As instructors, we can’t be sure what our students are facing when they are learning at home. So, if we offer an asynchronous path (e.g., a recording of the lecture, a chance to tackle the class questions on a discussion board) for every synchronous activity, then we’re making our courses more equitable, easier to complete by everyone, no matter where they live or what resources they have access to.
Written by: Joel Baetz
Edited by: Terry Greene
Last Updated: August 28, 2020