To Teach Synchronously or Asynchronously is Not the Only Question

Last Updated: September 11, 2020 - 12:12 pm

Please permit me to take a somewhat more philosophical approach to the “should I just teach synchronously” question that has been coming up during our move to remote instruction. I’ve been writing a lot of FAQs and short pieces that are basically bullets of items to check off to prepare for this transition, so it is a luxury to spend a little more time on something substantive.

But first, if you want the bulleted version, here’s my advice to Northwestern faculty who are new to remote instruction. 

For an instructor new to teaching remotely:

  • Focus, at first, on synchronous activities (and post these in the syllabus)
  • Keep to the time allotted by the registrar
  • Record your sessions privately, if you don’t want to share them with the class, but keep them in case a student falls ill and can’t attend a session

After three to four weeks, as comfort levels rise:

  • Start thinking about what works and what doesn’t synchronously, and make plans to move some activities into the asynchronous sphere (recording small parts of a lecture, etc.)
  • Work with class members on finding synchronous time that works for ALL
  • Start sharing your recordings with the whole class (they’ll come to the synchronous sessions if it is clear that there are activities in them that are useful)

For a longer version, read on for my reasoning behind this advice. Faculty ask us questions that basically boil down to “asynchronous vs. synchronous.” But, as my colleague Reba-Anna Lee, assistant dean of distance learning for Northwestern's School of Professional Studies, states, the preconceived notion that these two modalities are mutually exclusive is incorrect. She points out that this misconception is a key reason that “other schools have been able to go online quickly and somewhat smoothly,” as they have a culture of instructional fluidity, rather than believing that one teaching format is better than another.

Synchronous activities can include almost anything that currently happens in a face-to-face classroom, such as lectures, discussions, demonstrations, problem-solving, small-group activities, and so forth. Asynchronous activities are those that don’t require direct interaction among human beings, such as a recorded presentation, readings, a writing exercise, a discussion forum, or homework sets. 

Right now, as we look towards a Spring Quarter that starts fully online, the University has thousands of instructors who have had limited experience teaching remotely. They are likely to be tentative and unsure, wondering what will work in the online format and what won’t, worrying about appearing technically unsavvy in front of their students, and hoping for a return to face-to-face classes sooner rather than later. So what should we advise these instructors to do? Plan a fully online class with expert instructional designers guiding the way? That’s not possible given the tight time constraints. The faster, messier, but still acceptable answer is to suggest using the available technology tools to do things very similarly to the way they are done in the face-to-face classroom. That means meeting students face-to-face for a lecture or discussion via web conferencing, holding office hours via web conferencing, and enhancing the Canvas course site with readings, writing exercises, and demonstrations.

As the quarter moves along and Northwestern instructors become more familiar with the tools, I’d expect that they’d stop and take stock after a few weeks. What has worked well? What feels natural? Are they holding the students’ attention? Are there activities that are less well adapted to the current format? What are they hearing from the students? It may be that a 50-minute lecture is too long in an online format. Could those 50 minutes be broken into three or four chunks, each with an associated activity? Or, could the lecture be recorded so that the students could watch it before coming to the web conferencing session? Are there other activities that could move into an asynchronous format so that the face-to-face time can be used for answering questions, vigorous discussions, etc.?

The question of time zones, and especially international students, has come up repeatedly. At least we’re in the Central time zone, so the difference to the west coast is only two hours, so students there may have to get up a little early if they have a 9 a.m. class. As for international students, the synchronous activities will present more of a problem. There really isn’t a good solution at this time. It is a factor to think about, though, as the quarter wears on, and instructors may want to work with students to find times convenient to all. At least at first, though, faculty should stick to the times assigned by the registrar – otherwise, students carrying a load of five classes will be in a world of confusion.

In an ideal world, each faculty member would have had lots of time to work with instructional designers to plan a well-thought-through structure, complete with synchronous and asynchronous activities. But we’re not in an ideal world. We’re in a pandemic. So, we’re moving into remote instruction quickly and without a lot of preparation time. We need to acknowledge that this is somewhat scary for all involved. The tenured faculty here are highly committed to their teaching and their students, and they’re going to do their very best, as are all of us who are helping them. It’ll be ok.