Blending Synchronous and Asynchronous Approaches

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Traditionally, blended learning has been defined as a course that includes both face-to-face and online learning components. But in the context of COVID-19, there is a new type of blending to think about and that is the mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning. Due to the pandemic schools around the world had to move rapidly into fully-distanced models of teaching and learning. By far the easiest way to do that for most faculty members was to substitute Zoom calls for classroom lectures. While this model has a lot of advantages–social interaction for isolated students, opportunity for dialogue, the ability of the teacher to address misunderstandings as they arise–it also has some significant disadvantages. Internet connectivity is not always dependable for many of our students (and faculty, for that matter). Low bandwidth, internet service interruptions, rolling power outages, and other infrastructure issues can make it difficult to get the entire class together at the same time for a Zoom call. Students (and faculty) may also have family obligations that make it difficult to log on to a Zoom call at a set time. They may need to supervise their children’s at-home learning or tend to a sick family member. If multiple family members have to log on to Zoom calls at the same time, that can create bandwidth problems. Including asynchronous leaning opportunities can alleviate some of the stress of not being able to attend live sessions for our students.

Diana Laurillard has written extensively on the subject of blended learning. She encourages teachers to leverage the strengths of both face-to-face and online learning as they design blended curriculum. We can broaden that principle to think about leveraging the advantages of both synchronous and asynchronous approaches to distance learning.

When we think about our learning goals for the course, how many of them are related to content and how many are related to skills? Content delivery can generally be handled quite well by using asynchronous approaches. Students can read articles and books or watch videos on their own time and fit learning around the other demands on their time. For many subjects, it is possible to find great content already available online that the teacher would not have to create herself. Perhaps students could watch a TED talk or read a recent article to supplement their textbook reading on the topic of the week. If a live lecture is necessary, most videoconferencing software offers the option to record the session so students who could not attend can watch it later.

Synchronous approaches tend to shine when it comes to application of the course content. A “flipped classroom” approach takes advantage of this and puts the content delivery online and reserves the classroom time for application. The same principle can be applied to synchronous and asynchronous distance learning. Synchronous sessions allow time for students to dialogue in pairs or in smaller breakout groups about the material. Group dialogue is also possible in asynchronous models, such as discussion forums. But for a group project like evaluating a case study, a live, synchronous chat would be preferable, to be supplemented with asynchronous dialogue as needed. Synchronous dialogue with the teacher is also helpful as it affords the teacher the opportunity to listen to student perceptions of the content and correct misunderstandings as needed. It also affords the opportunity to evaluate behavioral skills that are harder to assess in an asynchronously.

As you think about designing a blended course, look at your learning goals and for each one, ask yourself if it would be better achieved with a synchronous model, an asynchronous model, or a combination of the two. Remember that there is great flexibility in distance learning so you might choose a Zoom session one week and a discussion forum based on a video the next week. Just be sure to communicate the schedule clearly to your students and make sure they understand the rationale for the mix of synchronous and asynchronous activities.

[1] Diana Laurillard, "Thinking about blended learning: A paper for the Thinkers in Residence programme." Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts (2014), p. 3. Retrieved from

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