Synchronous vs. Asynchronous learning and the laundry test.

One thing that I have learnt from the lockdown and teaching online has been the challenge of finding the right split between synchronous and asynchronous material. My ‘Webex’ lessons were predominately asynchronous in that I wanted to get through material and also the fact that a lot of the more engaging aspects of my teaching are difficult to do through the Internet. Although you could do some engaging activities through chat forums nothing beats the energy and engaging nature of face-to-face in the classroom environment.

An article which I picked up from Michael Cameron’s blog ‘Sex, Drugs and Economics’ makes for very good reading.

Dan Levy ‘The Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Balancing Act’ Harvard Business Publishing Education. 7th August 2020.

Asynchronous learning is better when you think it is important to have the following:

  • Students developing a common foundation before class (especially of basic ideas or concepts).
  • An assessment of your students’ perspectives or background on the subject, as this will affect how live classes would be conducted.
  • Students being able to engage with the material at their own pace. This is especially useful if prior knowledge of the material varies a lot across students.
  • Students spending a substantial amount of time pondering and reflecting.

Synchronous learning is better when you think it is important to have the following:

  • Exchanges of perspectives among your students.
  • Students learning from each other.
  • Interactions in which you’re playing the role of facilitator or mediator.
  • Opportunities to build community.

Levy comes up with a novel way of looking at synchronous v asynchronous delivery.

Where I teach, online classes generally get recorded; students can watch the recorded videos if they cannot attend the live session. I recently asked a student how she decided whether to engage in the live class or watch the recording later. Her answer was revealing. She said, “When I am trying to decide, I ask myself, ‘Is this a class I could attend while folding my laundry?’ If the answer is yes, I watch the recording. If the answer is no, I attend the live session.”

While I think that, in general, we should design both synchronous and asynchronous experiences that students find so engaging that they cannot fold the laundry at the same time, I think the spirit of this question might help inform your decision of what to reserve for asynchronous learning. If the students can conceivably fold their laundry while engaging in the experience, my advice is to either eliminate it or reserve it for asynchronous learning.

As Cameron points out if a student could be folding laundry in your class you need to look at how you deliver your lessons / lectures. Class time is an opportunity to engage students in learning experiences and getting them to think for themselves. For this to work not only has the teacher got to have energy but the course / assessment at the end of the year has to encourage a type of thinking.

“Real thinking does not install knowledge in the brain: rather it evokes potential that exist in the student, developing innate talents and abilities.” Mind Over Water: Lessons on Life from the Art of Rowing by Craig Lambert 1999.

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