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Synchronous or asynchronous? (#1037)

Topics/tags: Teaching

Like most schools in America, Grinnell has made a move to distance learning for the rest of the spring semester [1]. Distance education is a challenge for students, faculty, and staff. There are, of course, many options in how one designs their distance learning. There are fewer options when one rapidly switches to distance learning without advance notice.

One big question is whether you do synchronous learning, where the class meets together at the same time, or asynchronous learning, where each person works at times that are best for them, perhaps with some specified times that the instructor will be available for help. A related question is whether or not you use video. Synchronous video learning is a lot like an online meeting or videoconference. It’s also the mode closest to our normal classes.

Grinnell is not recommending synchronous video-supported learning. In fact, the Dean, the Chair of the Faculty, and the various learning support specialists on campus are all telling us that we should focus on asynchronous learning. They have good reasons. Although Grinnell is in the middle of flyover country, Grinnell is a global institution, drawing students from around the world. Normal class times are unlikely to work well for many students.

But there’s more to it than just time zones. Not all students have ready access to sufficient bandwidth for video conferencing [2]. Not all students will necessarily have access to a computer during a synchronous class; if there are computers in the home or apartment [3], they may be shared with siblings who are also taking classes from home or parents who are working from home. Most video-conferencing systems, including the two ones that Grinnell has selected [4], also allow students to call in. I expect Grinnell would cover the phone costs if necessary. However, a phone call is not the same as a video chat, and you lose some of the features, such as the opportunity to annoy the faculty member in the group chat. Students who are home may also have obligations, obligations to work, to take care of siblings, to care for someone, to care for themselves.

It sounds like I’m asynchronous learning is the way to go, doesn’t it?

I’m not so sure. I’ve had three experiences of synchronous learning this week: a workshop day in a creative writing class, a lunchtime discussion at virtual CS table, and a discussion day in the creative writing class. Particularly on the first day after break, I found it incredibly important to see my peers, to watch their gestures, to get a sense that, amidst all the chaos, they are still (mostly) doing okay. I like my peers in that class. But being able to see them showed me just how much I care about them and how worried I was, even if I didn’t realize it. CS table also provided a sense of comfort as I could see, or at least hear, students and faculty I care about. It’s also much more fun to disrupt a conversation in real time.

What about the course content? I know that it’s possible to workshop a piece asynchronously, with comments building upon comments building upon comments over a series of days. But it doesn’t seem like it would be the same experience [6].

That sense of comfort and community is not the only reason for synchronous learning. There are also issues of scheduling, motivation, and organization. Some students will make progress and get work done whether or not they have regular class periods. But others need regular class periods to give structure to their lives. We see it in near learning [7]. It may hold even more for distance learning. I know that I’m much more productive when I have a daily schedule of classes keeping me on tasks. I expect that others are, too.

I’m fortunate. I’m not teaching this semester [8]. So I don’t have to make the hard decisions about how best to accommodate the very real challenges our students face or to consider related complexities. Still, it’s worthwhile to consider. Given my experiences this week, I think I’d work on a model in which we’d have one synchronous meeting each week and nearly daily small pieces of work due to keep people on task. I’d likely make short video pieces for 151, but that’s partially because having such pieces has been a long-term goal. Oh, while I’d strongly encourage students to attend the weekly meeting, I would accept reasonable excuses. Does that put too much burden on students? Perhaps. Does the regular work put too much burden on me to respond? Almost certainly. But, if I arrange things right, it keeps my graders employed!

Of course, that’s all hypothetical. I’m not sure what I’d do in practice. Here’s hoping that I don’t have to figure it out this fall.

Postscript: While I’m hoping not to have to do distance teaching this fall, I’m seeing increasing likelihood that I will have to run distance MAPs this summer. I’ll muse about that issue within the next few days.

Postscript: I realize that I did not cover synchronous non-video (and non-audio) learning. Perhaps I’ll return to that topic at another time.

[1] Schools on quarters or trimesters have mostly moved to online learning for all of their spring semesters, terms, quarters, or whatever term they use.

[2] As a Windstream user, I don’t always have sufficient bandwidth for video conferencing.

[3] We are assuming that the student has a home or apartment. I realize that not all do. I’m hoping that such students got to stay on campus.

[4] Webex [5] and Blackboard Collaborate.

[5] Sometimes written as WebEx.

[6] It might be worth trying as an experiment at some point.

[7] Is near learning the opposite of distance learning? I’m not sure, but I’m going to use the term as if it has that meaning.

[8] I’m fortunate in other ways, too.

Version 1.0 of 2020-04-02.