As college campuses shuttered in March 2020 in an effort to blunt the spread of COVID-19, many educators found themselves operating in unfamiliar territory. The shift to online learning requires a measured approach, taking into account the time to learn, plan, and get acquainted with new technology. 

One of the most important steps educators can take in navigating this different learning modality—and one that can alleviate some anxiety and frustration—is determining what content should be delivered to students synchronously (live or in real-time) and what learning can be supported asynchronously (recorded or self-paced). We’ve put together some guidance to help you make prudent decisions as you plunge into the brave new world of remote teaching.

What is synchronous vs. asynchronous learning?

Synchronous learning occurs live and in real-time supported by video conferencing solutions like Zoom, Go-to-Meeting and YouTube Live. When used in tandem with a remote teaching platform or learning management system, synchronous learning allows educators to replicate many of the experiences found in an in-person classroom. This includes the ability for attendees to access lecture slides, respond to interactive questions and engage with their classmates in discussion threads.

Asynchronous learning takes advantage of many of the same technologies. The main difference is that learning is self-paced and not reliant on adhering to a schedule. Educators can deliver content and assignments remotely using solutions like Zoom to record and post lectures online. With the right technology, learners can interact with interactive digital textbooks, assignments, homework questions and discussion threads to support engagement with faculty and other students. The benefit, of course, is being able to do this without the need for participants to be online at the same time.

When to use synchronous learning

Synchronous learning closely mirrors the typical in-class experience. Delivering information and presentations virtually in real-time creates a sense of speed and intimacy that is particularly effective for student engagement. Depending on your supporting technology, educators can also respond directly to questions and discussions, provide feedback and use interactive click-on-target questions to gauge comprehension and ensure students are moving in the right direction.

When you consider the impact of live discussion and the ability to work through problems together in real-time, synchronous learning provides opportunities to apply concepts and collaborate, helping to deepen learning. It’s especially useful when teaching material that requires immediate feedback or clarification to keep students on track. There are important social benefits as well: the opportunity to connect with peers, work together and see each other can go a long way in alleviating the sense of isolation many may feel learning remotely.

Best practices for synchronous learning

Ensure you have the proper technology in place, ideally a video conferencing solution as well as an active learning platform or learning management system (LMS) that can support content delivery, live discussions and interactive questions. Take time to conduct a dry run to get comfortable with your set up. If your class is large, it’s wise to have the support of a remote teaching assistant. They can alert you to any technical or experiential issues that may happen along the way. They can also provide support by responding to discussion threads directly or bubbling up commonly asked questions requiring clarification.

Just as in a physical classroom, it’s important to balance content delivery with interactivity and time for reflection. It’s recommended that the time to present information is kept to ten-minute chunks followed by interactive questions and discussion to keep students engaged. In the same way that the answers to in-class discussion questions inform how comprehensively you cover (or retread) course material, make sure to pay attention to where students are struggling when asking questions in a synchronous learning environment.

When to use asynchronous learning

Asynchronous learning is particularly useful if it’s difficult for your students to keep to a specific schedule. Accessing materials, readings, assignments, quizzes and lecture recordings in a single place allows students to explore topics in-depth and at their own pace. Supported by discussion forums and one-to-one communications through email are simple ways to create engagement even if much of the learning is self-directed. Asynchronous learning also provides the opportunity for you to promote peer collaboration, creating specific assignments that require students to work with each other or review each other’s work outside the confines of a class schedule. Just make sure to set tangible deadlines and check-in points that will keep everyone on track.

The convenience makes asynchronous learning an attractive option for this and another often overlooked reason: even in this day and age, not every student can afford or has easy access to the Internet. The ability to learn on your own schedule gives students the flexibility they need to find a place where they can meaningfully engage with course material.

Best practices for asynchronous learning

Take time to revisit your syllabus and learning objectives for the semester. Are there components that can be recorded for students to view on their own schedule? Is there a place where students can access readings, lecture materials, assignments and instructions? Thinking through these pieces can help shape an effective plan and identify potential gaps.

Without the benefit of live interaction, it’s especially important to communicate—or over-communicate, as the case may be. One of the disadvantages of asynchronous learning is student apathy and isolation. Taking time to set expectations, provide clear instructions and respond to student emails and discussion threads is critical.

Apathy can apply to instructors as well. If you plan on pre-recording a series of lectures that will be rolled out to students each week, make sure you build in the time and effort to make those videos really count. Prepare for them the way you’d prepare for any in-class lecture, though you may gain efficiencies by choosing to record multiple lectures over the course of a few days.

Eric Davis, professor at Bellevue College, highlights how he uses Top Hat to teach remotely

It’s not either-or

The reality is, effective remote teaching requires a combination of both synchronous and asynchronous learning. For example, if hosting a live lecture seems daunting, it may make sense to put more emphasis on assignments, readings and participation in discussion threads. This way, any required live remote communications can be used to clarify issues, revisit difficult material and address any challenges students may have.

Ultimately, the key is to play to the strengths of each approach (and your comfort zone). Using asynchronous methods is a great way to help students collaborate with peers by explicitly assigning cooperative work that needs to be done before a set time. It’s also great for ensuring they are prepared to make good use of time for any synchronous or real-time lessons. Every course and educator is different, so the most important thing is to think about your objectives, your students and let this guide your approach.

Click here to learn more about Top Hat’s virtual classroom capabilities—and reimagine just how much better online, blended and face-to-face courses can be.

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