Synchronous or Asynchronous: That is the Question

You survived spring 2020 and are now turning a watchful eye to prepping for fall 2020 online instruction. A question popping up for many instructors is whether to go synchronous or asynchronous with your classes. While some districts have made the choice for you, many others have left it at the discretion of the faculty. For those given a choice, here is some information to help you find the best fit for your class.  

First, let’s start off with a quick definition of what synchronous vs. asynchronous learning is. Pre-COVID-19, this was covered in Title V under 55204 Instructor Contact: 

(a) Any portion of a course conducted through distance education includes regular effective contact between instructor and students, and among students, either synchronously or asynchronously, through group or individual meetings, orientation and review sessions, supplemental seminar or study sessions, field trips, library workshops, telephone contact, voice mail, e-mail, or other activities. Regular effective contact is an academic and professional matter pursuant to sections 53200 et seq.

However, the post COVID-19 definition has a different flavor.  According to the Dean of Online Learning at Foothill College, Lene Whitley-Putz, “A few months ago, I would have said easy! In the current climate [COVID-19], synchronous means instruction that is happening through a channel where all participants need to be there at the same time--video conferencing is the big one right now, and the use of Zoom demonstrates that. Asynchronous means participants don't have to be doing the work all at the same time.”

It is fair to say some classes translate easier than others into an online format. With the spread of COVID-19 and shut down of many campuses requiring faculty to go online, the two big criteria for synchronous and asynchronous delivery are: accessibility and equity.

Accessibility: 

In online learning, accessibility is usually connected to the principles of Universal Design Learning. In NCSU's Introduction to Universal Design, NCSU defines Universal Design as "a design concept that recognizes, respects, values, and attempts to accommodate the broadest possible spectrum of human ability in the design of all products, environments, and information systems." For faculty, this means thinking through who will be in your class and how you can design a beneficial learning experience for all students. 

If you are going asynchronous, accessibility can be fairly easy to achieve by making sure your videos are captioned, your materials pass the LMS accessibility checker, you have checked with your ISP (International Student Programs) department about what sites are not accessible for students working outside of the country, and you are in contact with your DSPS (Disability Support Program Services) department about testing accommodations. 

If you choose to go synchronous, you will have a number of questions about accessibility that you will have to plan around. First, you will need to have a plan for capturing your live lectures and recording them for students that might miss or lose access to the class. Next, you will need to have a plan to make any images, screen shares, and whiteboard material accessible for the students.  Additionally, you should check with your ISP office to make sure the sites you are using synchronously to conduct class are viewable in foreign countries. Most importantly, contact your DSPS office for guidance on how to conduct accessible in-person quizzes and activities. 

Equity: 

If online instruction during COVID-19 has made one thing clear, it’s that connectivity and bandwidth are two huge factors in delivering an equitable educational experience for students. While it might be tempting to see synchronous learning as an easy transfer of your in-person lectures, the reality is more of a Pandora’s Box. 

In 2018, Pew Research found: “17 percent of teens say they are often or sometimes unable to complete homework assignments because they do not have reliable access to a computer or internet connection. Early reports from faculty teaching in spring 2020 show students were unable to complete online work due to a lack of internet access, lack of access to a computer, and lack of bandwidth.  

Synchronous classes present a real barrier for student equity because instructors may be penalizing students who miss class meetings due to lack of available bandwidth, Wi-Fi, or having to share technology. Potentially, faculty with strict attendance for synchronous classes could be inadvertently putting up an “unwelcome” sign to already marginalized students. Faculty choosing to go synchronous should think through their policies and course material to maintain equitable practices.   

For an asynchronous class, these issues can be lessened through design because students can access the work anytime. 

 By designing with equity and accessibility in mind, you have a better chance of choosing the best delivery method for your class this fall. 

 
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