By Allie Davidson, Educational Technology Development Coordinator, EDC

As you gear up to teach online this term, you will need to consider what format your online teaching will take. Your first assumption might be to just move your classes online – teach synchronously, live streaming your lectures from Zoom or BigBlueButton. While at first glance this might seem like the simple or easy answer, it is not without its shortcomings. In fact, for most courses, synchronous teaching will pose serious problems for learners and so asynchronous activities will likely be a better option.

Online teaching does not necessarily mean synchronous teaching

Only a small percentage of students’ time is normally assigned to synchronous activities in a typical online course. This is because synchronous activities can present barriers to student learning and engagement.

Below are just a few examples of the types barriers some students will face:

  • Lack of necessary hardware (mic, webcam) or software to connect. It is almost impossible to find an affordable mic or webcam online right now, and if you can, delivery times are as long as four weeks from online retailers like Amazon.
  • Limited or no access to high speed internet at home. Some students only have access to the internet through their cell phone data which would make synchronous learning prohibitively expensive for most.
  • A busy or distracting household during the day, sharing space with young children or other family members.
  • Living in a home with only one computer to share between several family members, who also may be working or studying from home.
  • Increased anxiety and uncertainty interfering with a student’s ability to focus and concentrate. For some students, the current situation is overwhelming and they find it hard to focus through the concern they have for themselves and their family members.
  • Barriers to participation for students with disabilities, such as the lack of captioning in videos for students with hearing impairments and increased anxiety for students with mental health struggles.
  • Changes in time zones. Some students might have had to return to their countries of origin or to other countries to be with family members. Students working internationally might be in a time zone that would make synchronous learning unreasonable.
  • Employment changes. Students might not be able to work during the current requirements for physical distancing (or conversely might have to work more). Changes to employment can cause decreased incomes and reduced access to food and network services. Increased work expectations could result in changes to their ability to attend class.

Synchronous teaching puts immense amount of pressure on the instructor

In a live, online class, you have a relatively short window of time to teach while also managing whatever technology you are using to capture your lecture. One Wi-Fi interruption or microphone mishap, and your entire class could be ruined.

The good news is, with online teaching, you are not bound by the restrictions of a physical classroom – this means you do not have to think in the typical 1.5- or 3-hour blocks of synchronous classroom time.

The answer: An asynchronous approach

One strategy you could try is to break down your class time into more digestible “chunks” that your students can engage with throughout the week, at their own pace. For example, you can post a lecture recording (using Kaltura Personal Capture or another self-recording tool) at the start of the week and assign students learning activities to complete by the end of the week (e.g. forum discussions, quizzes, short reflection assignments, etc.). This approach will help increase accessibility and reduce student stress by giving them flexibility in their schedule while also prompting active engagement with your course content.

While there are downsides to synchronous teaching, I would be remiss if I did not recognize that synchronous engagement in an online course does have its place. It is a great way of establishing your presence in the course, connecting with your students, and getting a sense of how things are going for your learners. Consider doing a short, weekly, synchronous check-in with students or even separate the class into smaller groups and do a check-in with each of these groups once a week. Virtual office hours are another great option. It is also worth recognizing that synchronous meetings might be more necessary in a small seminar course than say, a larger lecture style class.

The key is to use synchronous activities sparingly and only when necessary as you teach online. 

And if you need to use a synchronous format, be sure to communicate the technical requirements to students in advance and be prepared to provide accommodations for students who cannot participate.