Flipping the higher ed new normal: from synchronous to asynchronous education

What’s the best role for synchronous teaching and learning during a pandemic?

Over the past few weeks the switch to wholly online learning has been represented by live video meetings.  Screenshots of students and faculty in their Hollywood Square boxes are the emerging icons of the new post-secondary order.

Zoom University is a nickname I’ve seen pretty widely.  Already a casual glance turns up all kinds of ZU merchandise, even stickers“We live in Zoom now” claims the New York Times Style section.  Too much Zoom experience has a nickname: being Zoomed out.

Zoom I Paid Too Much for this education

Remember how I told you to watch for refund demands?

(I am mildly curious about why Zoom blots out any mention of the many other video tools out there: Blackboard Collaborate, Skype, Google Hangouts (Meet) or whatever it’s called now, Shindig, Adobe Connect, various Cisco offerings, Lifesize, etc.  I know people don’t want to mention Microsoft Teams because it’s Microsoft.  I don’t have good enough stats to know what Zoom’s market share actually is in higher education.)

This discursive emphasis on video in education is based on some reality.  Campuses have taken to videoconferencing for classes at unprecedented levels during the pandemic and it’s easy to see why.  Most instructors who’ve never taught online can find live video to be a closer analog to their classroom practice than asynchronous tools.  I would bet many instructors want to feel a connection to their students, and the active video feed counts for much more than an email reply or a Blackboard discussion post.  They want “conversational spaces” for teaching and learning (Diana Laurillard; cited by Tom Haymes).

Meanwhile, many faculty and students own or otherwise have access to hardware capable of capturing and displaying video.  Plus a lot of colleges and universities purchased licenses for one or more videoconference tools.  And – less widely discussed – there are decades of scholarship on how to teach with synchronous technologies.

However, over the past week I’ve been seeing and hearing stories of pushback.  There’s a current of thought which holds that students would be better served by dialing back the Zoom and shifting instead to a greater emphasis on asynchronous tech.

What’s the reasoning here?

First, requiring live video means assuming students have access to infrastructure.  Not everyone has the right hardware.  Worst, not everyone has sufficient bandwidth.  Those that do might struggle with limitations of data caps or competing with folks thrust together in a lockdown and each hungry for broadband.  Heading out to an academic or public library is not an option, and the same goes for setting up shop at a Starbuck’s or McDonald’s.

(I’m not sure how strained national and local infrastructures are by this.  Any problems they have will worsen things for all.)

Second, time zone issues can become a real problem in scheduling a simultaneous event.  This is especially true for international students.* It can also be a problem for people within sprawling nations, such as Russia, Canada, or the US.  For the latter I recently heard of Hawaiian students having to cope with meetings scheduled for early mornings on the mainland’s east coast.

From a Reddit/profs thread I started:

I am on the west coast. There is a student down the street who goes to Cornell and is now doing online classes. She has instructors who are doing synchronous classes… which means she is up and online at 5 AM to attend lecture.

It sucks.

I am strongly advocating for the asynchronous approach with my colleagues, and most of them get it thankfully.

Third, scheduling becomes harder for many people under quarantine.  Think of parents with children now staying at home, or people balancing limited bandwidth: multiple students and professionals.  Those who still have jobs may see schedules shifted.  Those working directly to address the pandemic – nurses, surgeons, first responders, etc. – will also run into scheduling problems.

Fourth, turning on a camera for an hour or more might be a problem for people suffering physical health issues.  They might be sick from any number of ailments, not to mention the coronavirus itself.  Those enduring mental health problems, possibly exacerbated, may not want to present themselves to other people.   They may also (or additionally) be caring for other people and not want to show that on screen.

Fifth, as with any other technology, faculty and students have to learn how to use it competently.  Anyone who’s ever used videoconferencing knows the many ways users can run into tech problems: camera not picking up, mic not recording, speakers not playing.  Then there are accidental ways we can look foolish or embarrass others, from bad camera angles to not muting oneself.  These are all problems corrected by practice over time, especially with the help of skilled folks… but we haven’t had that luxury this past month,.

When I wrote “competently” I was only speaking of the technical side.  The pedagogical dimension – the whole point of the exercise! – runs into versions of these problems as well, especially for faculty just using the tech for the first time.

EDITED TO ADD: Sixth, live video is not always comfortable for people with a range of non-neurotypical profiles. (thanks to Sue Scheibler for the reminder)

There are also challenges with Zoom in particular.  Recent criticism of its security practices (cf those from The Intercept: 1, 2) have given some campus IT leaders – and their associated lawyers – pause.

I’ve raised this topic with a range of academic audiences and heard a lot of assent.  If I’m right – and, as ever, am happy to be corrected by evidence – we’re seeing a nationwide reaction to a first wave of videoconferencing practice and policy.  I don’t have enough information about other nations to go on.

Are you seeing this, or experiencing it in your own practice?  Are there other rationales in play?  And is anyone using this switch – if they have the time – to follow Haymes’ advice to reflect deeply on what actually works best?

*Yes, for years I have considering setting up a counter-clock Future Trends Forum to serve Asia, as well as being easier on Australia and parts of Africa and Europe.  Let me know if you’re interested.

(thanks to many friends, including a slew on Facebook and this Reddit thread)

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22 Responses to Flipping the higher ed new normal: from synchronous to asynchronous education

  1. Ed Webb says:

    I have enough experience as a participant in connectivist MOOCs and other online learning that I had a strong preference for asynchonicity from the start. My two larger classes I teach via Prezis with voiceovers (and transcript) which drop twice a week. Students can work through these in their own time and at their own pace. There is a forum hosted on Moodle for each day of teaching for questions, comments, and discussion. A very brief weekly quiz allows students to pick up some extra participation points and check their learning. The disadvantage is the lack of face time: I’m thinking of hosting drop-in hours on some video instance or other later this week for that. Students can also book a phone call or video chat any time they like via my Calendly scheduler.

    I supervise an independent research project: that student and I were already working via Google Docs and we have replaced our weekly face-to-face with a Google Hangout.

    My senior seminar with five students has evolved. I set up a Slack instance for our weekly meeting, thinking it would be kinder to everyone’s bandwidth to have a synchronous conversation via text rather than video. But the students themselves clamored for us to use Zoom, which they had used in some of their other classes. We found too much Zoom in one go is tough on everyone’s mental as well as internet bandwidth so now have a hybrid where we spend the first part working up some questions via Slack and then discussing those questions in Zoom for up to an hour. Even then, Zoom conversation suffers from patchy connectivity, so I’m not thrilled. I looked into jit.si (https://meet.jit.si/) but still haven’t figured out how to make that work well, so I’m still looking for something better than Zoom.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Ed, thank you for sharing this account of your mutated practices.
      The emphasis on asynch is fascinating.

      I am interested in the student desire for live video.

  2. Deborah Penner says:

    Yes, my courses are all asynchronous and have always been except for my upper level English Senior Seminar capstone group. Some of my students have picked up full time jobs now and need to do coursework during non work hours. We do have a number of international students who have now gone home. Zoom is good for faculty meetings and committee work not class.

  3. Ellen Moody says:

    This is just about my narrow experience: the use of Zoom on a webinar platform (as it’s called) at the two Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning, one at American University
    and the other at George Mason University. These OLLIs are both partly attached to these places (the use of library, of buildings, attracting staff) and independently funded.
    They say they use zoom because it’s the easiest one to master. Most of the people involved are seniors …

  4. Jim Groom says:

    Could some groovy blog syndication play a role again in this? I would love to think so 🙂

  5. Chris L says:

    Perhaps this is implied, but the single most important factor I see is time and effort: in terms of effort, learning to use Zoom is largely a startup cost; creating adequate asynchronous materials and structure costs more and continues to do so throughout the term. This is a problem for all kinds of reasons, of course.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s a crucial point, Chris. Either you make the stuff from scratch (recording lectures, whipping up handouts) or you migrate/translate them from other forms.

  6. A lot of faculty I know (myself included) did a short survey of student capability to participate in synchronous instruction as the classes were moving online, with some surprising results including work schedules that changed as a result of the virus (shifting from waiting tables to work in a grocery store requiring 30 daytime hours minimum, for example).

    Another factor that has been interesting to see as both a professor and a parent of a college student has been the strong parental opinions directed at universities. Parents I’ve seen tend to believe that guided reading/viewing and assignments reflects the student “teaching himself” and thus a poor value. Parents who interpret college as them paying a fee for service seem to have this opinion more strongly. This is anecdotal, but would be an interesting research question, now that I think about it. If the IRB were still active…

    • That’s a great point Amanda, about parents’ opinions and ideas dealing with guided reading/viewing and the idea of students teaching themselves. Many people, parents, and media included, don’t understand that higher education is only partially about learning facts and mainly about learning how to learn and different thought processes. It is about transforming students to be self-motivated and self-directed to be life-long learners, productive adults.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Two excellent points, Amanda.

      1: I’ve heard and seen that about schedules. Very fluid time.

      2: Sigh. Flipped classroom instructors sometimes get this as well.

  7. Joe Essid says:

    We assume too often that our students have access to these tools, or enough data to use them. That is not the case for the less affluent students I teach. Even in my own case, I had to change plans with our provider, because we live on a farm and are on satellite Internet. $50 extra a month for unlimited data was not a burden for me, but it would be for some of the students I teach.

    Just another example of America’s unjust have/have not economy.

  8. Dr. Lindsey Harness says:

    I agree with all the reasons that are being provided for using asynchronous activities during remote crisis instruction. Prior to COVID19, the research that I helped contribute to pointed to the issues of synchronous activities that we see emerging during remote crisis instruction. However, when I have spoken to some of my colleagues about the reasons for asynchronous learning, they agree yet some are still relying on synchronous teaching. When asked why they explain that the students at our institution requested this form of learning. As it became apparent that we would be engaging in remote crisis instruction, some instructors contacted their students and asked their preference. Perhaps because we are a small, liberal arts college that has a mission based on a highly relational pedagogy, students also wanted something that felt familiar. Small face-to-face classes are, after all, our status quo. While I have advocated for asynchronous learning during this pandemic, I cannot fault instructors for meeting the needs and desires of the students. If instructors were to ignore the requests of the students, would they not be inserting an unnecessary power hierarchy in the learning environment? Although I will not be using synchronous activities myself, I appreciate that my colleagues have listened to their students and that they do not make participation in the synchronous classes mandatory, which seems to be the key. Students are not penalized if they choose to not “attend” the real-time class. Rather, classes are recorded for students to view by a certain time and date. Once this semester has completed, my institution will be engaging in college-wide evaluations and conversations about synchronous versus asynchronous learning. I am intrigued by what we will learn and how these conversations will lead to critical understandings of what learning is and can be.

  9. Tyrell says:

    It’s in fact very complicated in this active life to listen news on TV, so I just use internet
    for that purpose, and obtain the latest information.

  10. Ria says:

    On this new normal era asynchronous learning could have a huge impact on your online education experience because online education continues to grow in popularity and accessibility specially on these days.

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