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Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Remote Instruction: Finding a Balance

Definitions | Contrasting | Deciding | Matching with Tools

What Are Synchronous and Asynchronous Teaching/Learning?

Synchronous online learning occurs when instructors and students meet in “real time” supported by a web-conferencing tool such as WebEx, Blackboard Collaborate, or Google Meet, allowing immediate interactive exchanges among students and the instructor. When it is used in concert with a learning management system (LMS, e.g., Blackboard) it allows instructors to replicate many of the experiences common to an in-person classroom, such as showing and sharing lecture slides, responding to student questions, and polling students.

Asynchronous learning is more self-paced and is facilitated when instructors prepare course materials for students in advance of students’ access. Students access digital course materials, including assignments, homework, and discussion threads, at a time that is convenient for them (within the course schedule), and they interact with each other and with the instructor with some time lag.

Contrasting Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Teaching

Synchronous Asynchronous
Advantages
  • Immediate personal engagement between students and instructors may create greater feelings of connection and community.
  • More responsive exchanges between students and instructors may prevent miscommunication or misunderstanding.
  • Greater time flexibility can make learning experiences more accessible to different students and also make an archive of past materials accessible.
  • More time to engage with and explore the course material may increase students’ cognitive engagement with the material.
Disadvantages
  • Scheduling shared times for all students and instructors may be challenging.
  • Some students may face technical challenges or difficulties if they do not have fast or powerful Wi-Fi networks accessible.
  • Students may feel less personally engaged and less satisfied without the social interaction between their peers and instructors.
  • Course material may be misunderstood or have the potential to be misconstrued without the real-time interaction.

Deciding between Asynchronous and Synchronous Activities

During remote instruction–which is not traditional online learning–you may want to choose between synchronous or asynchronous teaching throughout the course, depending on your needs, the needs of your students, the material, and your goals for student learning for specific activities. Students know the time schedule when they register for your course and presumably are available for real-time, synchronous meetings during that time. However, if you plan to conduct a significant portion of the course activities synchronously, think about querying your students about:

  • Their location and time zone
  • Their responsibilities and schedule for child or elder care
  • The availability of a safe and quiet place to work
  • Their access to technology and internet resources

When you deem that synchronous activities are optimal, aim to find equitable workarounds for students who face any of these challenges of access.

Choosing between asynchronous and synchronous teaching may depend on your personal or family responsibilities or situation, your goals for the class, the nature of the material to be learned, and your students’ abilities to self-regulate during these extraordinary times. For example, lectures can be asynchronous, often through video, to allow students time to engage with new material in advance of synchronous activities. Then synchronous activities might include students collaborating with one another to apply the new concepts through problem-solving or guided discussion in small groups. Synchronous lectures, however, can provide structure for students who find it hard to manage their time during this crisis. Also, if your lectures are interactive and it’s important to draw students’ voices into conversation in real time, then plan for synchronous lectures with pauses for discussion and Q&A. The synchronous conversation could then be extended beyond class time in an asynchronous discussion board. Either way, your decision about which method to adopt for different aspects of teaching/learning might be guided by such considerations as:

  • How might your personal obligations, office situation, or technical constraints affect your ability to present synchronous sessions? (Might argue for asynchronous activities)
  • Will students benefit from the opportunity to go at their own pace as they engage with or absorb challenging new content? (Argues for asynchronous activities, such as video lectures or readings)
  • Will students benefit from being able to ask questions of you or each other in real time as they grapple with challenging material or applications? (Argues for synchronous activities, such as collaborative problem-solving in breakout rooms, or interactive lecturing)
  • Which method will give you the best glimpse into where students are struggling? (Argues for either method. Synchronous activities involve taking breaks during lectures to poll students, or using small groups for problem-solving and having each group turn in the outcome of their work for your review/comment. Asynchronous activities could be having students create and react to each other’s VoiceThreads, or completing problem sets as “homework” that you can then review.)

Matching Teaching Method with Supporting Technologies

Teaching Method Available Technologies Description
Synchronous Webex or Blackboard Collaborate Synchronous tools like Webex or Blackboard Collaborate can be useful for meeting students in real-time or holding virtual office hours and extra-help sessions with your students.

For further information, see Effective practices for Collaborate webinars.

Asynchronous, via video Panopto and Blackboard You can use Panopto to pre-record video content for your students. Once the video is created, you may choose to host it on Blackboard to give students access.
Asynchronous, using an annotated Word document or PowerPoint file Office 365 or Google Docs You can create, annotate, and share documents and presentations using Office 365 or Google Docs. You can share the links to the files with your students via e-mail or in Blackboard.
Asynchronous Discussions VoiceThread or Blackboard Discussions In VoiceThread you (and your students) can upload slides, videos, PDFs and other media; present (or ask/answer questions) via video, audio, and text; and create an ongoing conversation with students. You can set up VoiceThread activities within your Blackboard modules, so students can find them easily and your grading is streamlined.

Blackboard Discussions is text based and easily accessible in Blackboard. You can quickly see who has participated and link a rubric for quick feedback and gradebook entry.

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