Choosing between synchronous versus asynchronous methods
The question of whether to use synchronous or asynchronous methods when teaching online does not have a “one size fits all” answer and depends on a number of different considerations. To begin, consider the following:
- What are the learning objectives of the course? How can I design online activities that correspond directly to those learning objectives?
- How can I create a collaborative learning environment online?
- How can I most effectively engage students with the course content, with their classmates, and with me as the instructor? What instructional methods can best accomplish these three types of interaction?
- How can I create instructional activities that will help me gauge how well students understand the course material?
- How can I maximize flexibility in course design so that you can facilitate learning in a number of different situations and for many different students? That is, how can I design a course that is inclusive?
Before deciding which activities are the best fit for your course, consider the following information about the advantages and disadvantages of each type of activity.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Synchonous and Asynchronous Instructional Activities
Enables real-time collaboration
Immediate responses and feedback
Carries body language and tone of voice
Increased social presence
Flexibility in time and place
More time for reflection
More evenly distributed contributions and sharing of perspectives
Equity concerns, including requirements of high bandwidth and availability at scheduled time, and asking students to invite you into their personal space. See also this page.
Lack of time for reflection
May not include tone of voice/body language
Disrupted by technology failures
Larger and more specific time commitment
No documentation of collaboration/communication
No immediate feedback
Harder to keep track of collaboration
Written ideas may be misinterpreted
Lacks social presence
Risk of irregular or inconsistent contributions (without additional structure)
Choose the Best Fit for Your Goals
Learning Objectives. First and foremost, you need to ensure that any methods you use are going to address the learning objectives in your course. Working backwards, choose a learning objective and decide how best to facilitate online practice for that objective. For example, if an objective is to have students apply course content to their everyday lives, a good tool for practicing this might be an online discussion board. Students post an example of everyday application and then comment on or discuss the various examples with classmates through asynchronous dialogue. This can even be utilized in very large classes by creating smaller groups or threads for discussion. This creates smaller learning communities in the online environment and can be difficult to accomplish with a synchronous, class-wide discussion because not everyone would have the opportunity to share.
Access. In choosing between synchronous and asynchronous activites, be mindful of differences in student access and ability to use the technology to participate in course activities. Some synchronous activities may pose challenges for some of your students. Here are some questions to consider in understanding how your choices are related to your students' access:
- Do all of your students have reliable enough internet access to tune in? Many students from low-income and rural backgrounds face internet access challenges if they do not live on campus. Some may rely exclusively on smartphones for internet usage. These constrains may limit students' access to live-stream class meetings.
- Are all your students in the same time zone? Some of your students, especially international students, may be in different time zones, and so find out whether you are asking any of your students to participate in live sessions in the middle of their night.
- Do all your students feel safe in sharing glimpses into their personal lives with you and their classmates? Synchronous activities that involve video (or even audio) are essentially asking students to invite us and their classmates into their personal space, and this may be less comfortable for some students than others. This blog post by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, associate professor at Arkansas State University, challenges us to think about the "ask" we are making of students when we require synchronous video interaction. If you do include synchronous video interaction, consider making student participation video/audio optional.
- What will you do for a student who cannot attend a synchronous session? Is this format really necessary for a student to be successful?
Connect with students to assess their technology capabilities and needs at the beginning of class, and work to ensure that any technology students use is accessible and useable. Consider whether your chosen technology will work on alternate devides such as smart phones of tablets. Refer students with technology access issues to the IT Customer Service Center, 785-864-8080 or email@example.com. See the Access page for more details.
Engagement. Engagement is key to successful teaching, especially in an online format. How do you want to engage students with the content, with each other, and with you? This blog post by Daniel Stanford offers a useful perspective on how online methods for engagement and collaboration vary on two important dimensions:
- Bandwidth—technology and internet requirements
- Immediacy—how quickly we expect responses when interacting online
As noted in his Bandwidth-Immediacy Matrix, a good starting point for building an online course is to use tried-and-true techniques that have low bandwidth requirements for students and an asynchronous expectation for engagement (i.e., low immediacy). Beginning with low-tech and asynchronous methods is a very inclusive way to design. For each type of engagement in your course, choose the tool that best accomplishes the job and is the most accessible for students. For example:
- For student-to-content engagement, simple file sharing, text-based readings, or asynchronous lecture videos work great and are very accessible.
- For student-to-student engagement on a group project where more robust collaboration is required, you might need to incorporate more synchronous methods (e.g., Microsoft Teams, group chat tools such as Slack or GroupMe, or a shared Google doc).
- You can also achieve student-to-student engagement using asynchronous methods such as a discussion board or by incorporating peer review for written work.
The tool you choose needs to fit the purpose of the engagement. Finally, how you as the instructor engage with students can vary greatly throughout the course. You might choose to have virtual office hours using Zoom for more in-depth assistance, but asynchronous feedback on a written assignment or email responses to questions also works great.
Finally, think about how you can be flexible in your course design. This study by Stefan Hrastinski offers a useful way to evaluate the tools you could employ. Figure 3 addresses the When, Why, and How of using synchronous versus asynchronous learning and highlights the advantages of each one. Include both synchronous and asynchronous components to maximize the quantity and quality of participation in your course. For example:
- Synchronous techniques (e.g., video conferencing, live lectures, messaging apps, etc.) can create a connected learning community among you and your students. This social connectedness creates psychological arousal that makes us want to respond to others, give immediate feedback during interactions, and be personally motivated to participate. They increase the quantity of participation.
- Asynchronous techniques (e.g., discussion boards, written assignments with peer review or instructor feedback, email correspondence, etc.) give more time for contemplation and reflection and allow students the room to do more research on the topic, to better prepare responses, and to engage in a deeper level of analysis, thus increasing the quality of participation.
The author notes that, “…other things being equal, synchronous e-learning better supports personal participation and asynchronous e-learning better supports cognitive participation.”
In conclusion, when comparing synchronous versus asynchronous techniques, there is no winner or loser. The best designed classes build in engaging activities that address course objectives, engage students in a variety of ways, and employ the best tools to meet the goals of the activity and class. Being flexible in the techniques you choose and learning to harness the power of these online tools will improve your teaching, both online and face to face.