In my previous posts on online teaching, I mentioned that I only teach asynchronously. I guess I could start teaching synchronously instantly if I decided to because I know how to handle Zoom, Duo, Skype, Messenger or Instagram, but for some reason, I haven’t reached that point yet (one of the reasons may simply be that nobody
encourages forces me to). So, instead of entering this unknown territory of my own free will, I would like to look at the pros and cons of synchronous vs. asynchronous online classes and I would like to discuss the ways in which I can make up for the cons (and potentially exploit the pros) of the method I am currently using.
Let’s start with a short overview:
SL = Synchronous e-learning involves online studies through chat and videoconferencing. The pros (+) and cons (-) are the following:
- + Learners can easily interact with instructors and other learners.
- + SL enables students to avoid feelings of isolation.
- + Students can get immediate feedback.
- + They can ask questions and get instantaneous answers.
- – SL is not as flexible in terms of time. >>>
- – Learners have to be online at a certain time.
- – Some learners may feel threatened in this type of online environment.
- – SL teaching is also challenging for the teacher so they may need to receive relevant training so they’re fully prepared for their role.
AL = Asynchronous learning can be carried out even while the student is offline. It involves coursework delivered via web, email and message boards that are then posted on online forums. The pros (+) and cons (-) are as follows:
- + AL offers lots of flexibility, especially time-wise.
- + Learners can go at their own pace and access their course at any time (almost).
- + Learners have significantly more time to reflect on the content material they are learning.
- + AL is learner-centred.
- – Contact with the instructor and fellow learners may be limited.
- – The lack of interaction with instructors and peers may result in a sense of isolation.
- – AL requires self-discipline, intrinsic motivation and focus on learners’ part (but sometimes on the teacher’s part too).
Based on the above, it is obvious that ideally, effective e-learning courses should include both asynchronous and synchronous learning activities. But if you (need to) choose one type of e-learning, you should at least do your best to make up for the cons.
In my case, the main 4 cons would be:
- limited contact with the instructor and fellow learners
- feelings of isolation
- lack of self-discipline, intrinsic motivation and focus on the student’s part
- delayed feedback
I believe that as a teacher, I can have a huge impact on number 1 and 4. In other words, it is in my power to make the contact and feedback as immediate as possible. I practically work non-stop these days and so whenever I get a message from a student or any time an assignment is submitted, I react straight away, i.e. I respond to such a message immediately. Also, although I normally won’t send out the results and collected feedback until everybody in the group has finished, I correct and comment on the assignments right on their arrivals (even though these will also be visible to students later on). This continuous approach helps me to detect and foresee any potential problems students may come up against and it also helps me manage my time effectively. If I postponed the corrections and commenting until all the assignments have arrived, it would get totally overwhelming. It would also be counter-productive because my collected feedback would be unnecessarily delayed. What I mean is that instead of being able to send it right after the submission deadline, it would take me a few more hours to get back to my students. And since I teach many different groups of students, I would probably soon get totally lost in the heaps of assignments if I didn’t work continuously.
As far as number 2 above is concerned, unfortunately, we can’t prevent our students from feeling mentally isolated these days because, in fact, they are physically isolated. In other words, we have a very limited set of tools to influence this, especially when teaching asynchronously. But we can try. As I already mentioned, apart from sending individual comments, I often give collected feedback – I write a message to the whole group, addressing all the students as a class, and I attach the correct answers in a document in which I summarize how the students did as a group. Also, I sometimes mention that, for example, 3 students out of 50 reached the maximum number of points, but I do not give specific names (the students in question know). I may also say that participation in this assignment was almost 100 %, or, on the other hand, I express my sadness at the fact that the participation was very low this time. This, I believe, creates some sort of collective spirit and I secretly hope that those who skipped the task will feel a bit guilty and will hopefully join in next time (and they often do) whereas the ones who did well will feel flattered and even more motivated. One way or another, it reassures everybody that they are in the same boat and most importantly, that I am there and ‘listen’ all the time. One specific attempt at getting a bit closer to my students was recording an audio file in which I gave them feedback on the activity they had done that day.
Regarding the lack of self-discipline and focus on the students’ part, I don’t have many tips and tricks here. Since grading students’ work is not recommended under the given circumstances and I am not right THERE with the students to really monitor their work, there aren’t many tools to enforce discipline, let alone self-discipline. Those who struggled in regular classes will probably struggle in the online environment too, although I wouldn’t like to generalize because some students keep surprising me pleasantly.