Synchronous learning

Synchronous learning is any activity in an online course that happens in real-time, like a Zoom meeting or a chat. It requires all participants to be in the same online environment, actively participating at the same time. It is typically characterized by opportunities for interaction between the instructor and students and amongst students, such as a Q & A, a Class Discussion or Office Hours.

Advantages

Disadvantages

  • Provides opportunity for asking & answering of questions in real time, as they come up
  • Provides opportunity for spontaneous interaction and exchange between students and with the instructor
  • Provides opportunity for instructors to get feedback on student learning 
  • Adds the “human” element
  • Builds the classroom community
  • Increase in the number or “social” interactions (interactions not related to course content)

Unfortunately, while online learning can improve access for certain individuals, Synchronous learning can widen the divide for learners with: 

  • certain disabilities 
  • unstable Internet access
  • inequitable access to device and other equipment
  • caregiving responsibilities 
  • no access to a suitable space to participate 
  • time zone differences 

Asynchronous learning

Asynchronous learning is all the other activities in an online course that students can complete on their own schedule. While there may still be due dates, students can generally complete these any time within the given timeline for the task. These activities can include video lectures, readings, assignments and group discussions or collaborative tasks.

Advantages

Disadvantages

  • Students can complete work on their own timetable (a huge advantage in today’s context)
  • Students have the opportunity to take the necessary time to digest, and repeat/reread content that is difficult in order to deepen understanding
  • Students have time to compose and revise responses in asynchronous class discussions, increasing access to those with language and other barriers.
  • Without proper motivation, it is possible for students to put off completing weekly work and fall behind
  • Students can feel isolated or disconnected from the instructor and other students

When to use each format?

Pre-COVID, the typical online course did not include a synchronous element. Most online courses were designed to be flexible and completed by anyone on their own schedule within the course parameters. However, synchronous sessions can be effective to enhance the course when designed to take advantage of the interactive elements the tool has to offer.

This graphic summarizes the content on the page by listing the disadvantages and noting which activities are best served in each format.

Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning by Centre for Teaching and Learning, Concordia University CC BY-SA 4.0


How long should a synchronous session be?

Keeping in mind that a Zoom classroom is not the same as a face-to-face classroom because of the connectivity challenges and the nature of online environments, it is not recommended to hold 2 hour, forty-five minute sessions in Zoom. The ideal length of a Zoom session should be 45-60 minutes.


Choosing the right mode and technology for your teaching

While there is no single ‘right’ way to teach online, the following table may offer some helpful guidance in choosing the most appropriate mode and technology. It lists typical academic activities and identifies effective use cases, challenges and potential workarounds in each mode.

Academic Activities

Synchronous
(Zoom)
Asynchronous
(Moodle and other tools)
 

Lectures

  • Effective with lectures that are ‘chunked’ into smaller segments (7 – 10 minutes segments are ideal, with a maximum of 15 – 20 minutes)
  • Lecture segments are interspersed with student interaction (e.g. Zoom Poll, Q&A session, Chat Q&A, Breakout Rooms, etc.)

 

 

 

 

CHALLENGES

  • Interfering factors (distractions, internet connectivity, etc.)
    • keep segments short so students don’t miss too much if their participation is interrupted
  • Equalizing participation                       
    • include short, frequent low-stakes interactions to encourage participation 
    • Initiate a system to ensure you invite different students to share their thoughts by alternating forms of interaction

 

  • Effective for longer lectures and/ or more complex information so students can pace their viewing and review ‘sticky points’ as needed
  • Recorded lectures can be narrated PPTs, videos, demos, etc.
  • Where possible, lectures should be chunked into 15-30-minute subtopics to facilitate study and review for students
  • More inclusive for students with accessibility needs, second language, etc.
  • H5P plug-in can be used to create interactive videos & presentations

 

CHALLENGES

  • Time management                                  
    • identify deadlines for viewing and share with students and send reminder with your weekly check-in announcement
  • Work completion                                 
    • assign tasks & submission deadline for each presentation (1-paragraph summary of the main points, journal reflection on the content, 1-page of lecture notes, etc.)
  • Questions that arise while working on lectures, assignments, etc.
    • create a class discussion thread per topic for students to pose questions and share answers                 
    • include links to extra resources for anticipated trouble spots

 

Videos

  • Most effective when under 10 minutes and directly related to topic and task during class

 

 

CHALLENGES

  • Copyright concerns
    • ensure all material has copyright permission to use
  • Accessibility                                            
    • favour clips that provide captioning and described video where possible
  • Interfering factors (distractions, internet connectivity, etc.)                   
    • provide students with a link to the video in case they need to watch again later

 

  • Most effective for longer videos, especially if students are required to take notes or use the content for an academic task
  • H5P plug-in can be used to create interactive video presentations

CHALLENGES

  • Copyright concerns                              
    • ensure all material has copyright permission to use

 

Case Studies

  • Most effective for discussing case analysis, sharing findings, and Q&A session

 

CHALLENGES

  • Interfering factors (distractions, internet connectivity, etc.)                
    • keep activities low stakes   
  • Equalizing participation
    • include short, frequent low-stakes interactions to encourage participation
    • initiate a system to ensure you invite different students to share their thoughts by alternating forms of interaction
  • Monitoring participation                       
    • visit each Breakout Room         
    • include a peer evaluation grade for contribution to the group

 

  • Most effective for reading cases, analyzing information, sharing ideas, and finetuning analysis

 

CHALLENGES

  • Lack of direction / misunderstanding of task requirements
    • ensure instructions are clearly written, keep activities low stakes 
    • create a class discussion thread for students to pose questions and share answers
  • Equalizing participation
    • clarify expectations for student participation                            
    • create roles to ensure each student has a specific contribution to the work (Facilitator, Synthesizer, Critic, etc.)
  • Monitoring participation                         
    • monitor student posts              
    • include a peer evaluation grade for contribution to the group

Suggested Technology: Moodle Discussion Forum using "Separate groups" and/or a collborative document (such as Moodle wiki or Google Docs) to document analysis.

 

Experiential / Labs

  • Most effective for authentic interactions (e.g.: interviews, timed problem solving, etc.)

 

CHALLENGES

  • Coordinating participants                  
    • plan all events during your scheduled course time

 

  • Most effective for authentic tasks  (e.g.: design a complex research experiment, conduct a literature review, analyze experimental data, etc.)

CHALLENGES

  • Task/Process clarity             
    • provide models and rubrics to clarify expectations
    • create a class discussion thread for students to pose questions and share answers

 

 

Performance / Creation

  • Most effective for spontaneous interaction, audience participation and small groups

 

CHALLENGES

  • Meeting ‘live’ criteria
    • adjust requirements to allow for innovative responses to the task

 

  • Most effective for recorded performance or technical demonstrations

 

CHALLENGES

  • Lack of materials
    • adjust requirements to allow for a range of materials
    • create a class discussion thread for students to pose questions and brainstorm innovative replacement materials                             

 

 

Tutorials

  • Most effective for short reviews and Q&A sessions – focused on work previously shared with students

 

CHALLENGES

  • Monitoring for comprehension
    • include frequent knowledge checks (Zoom Poll, Q&A session, Chat Q&A)
  • Most effective for sharing problems and tasks with students that they complete and prepare questions on prior to the live session

 

CHALLENGES

  • Task/Process clarity             
    • provide models and links to resources
    • create a class discussion thread for students to pose questions and share answers

 

 

Collaborative Work

  • Most effective for brainstorming tasks, short focussed discussions, as an initial touchpoint for more complex tasks, as a wrap-up activity, etc.

 

CHALLENGES

  • Ensuring participation                         
    • provide clear direction prior to initiating Breakout Rooms
    • visit each Breakout Room
    • open a Google doc for each group and monitor work while in Breakout
    • require groups to share results (either in plenary time permitting, or a written summary to the instructor)            
    • include a peer evaluation grade for contribution to the group (if group compilation is constant)
  • Equalizing participation
    • clarify expectations for student participation                          
    • create roles to ensure each student has a specific contribution to the work (Host, Scribe, Synthesizer, Critic, etc.)

 

  • Most effective for more complex tasks that require critical thinking, analysis, reflection, etc.
  • Most effective for peer editing and collaborative writing tasks
  • More inclusive for students with accessibility needs, second language, speakers, etc.

 

CHALLENGES

  • Ensuring participation                         
    • provide clear direction prior to initiating task
    • create challenging, but achievable tasks
    • require groups to share results
    • use an activity that can be monitored (Eg: Discussion Forum, Workshop, Wiki, etc.)
    • include a peer evaluation grade for contribution to the group (if scope of work merits)
  • Equalizing participation
    • clarify expectations for student participation
    • require students to divide work and report on their own contribution

 

Suggested Techonology: Moodle Discussion forum using "Separate groups" and/or a collaborative document (i.e. Google Docs) to document analysis

 

 

Group Discussions

  • Most effective for smaller groups, with guiding questions to complete and share, and a reasonable time limit to keep students on-task

 

 

 

CHALLENGES

  • Ensuring participation                     
    • provide clear direction prior to initiating Breakout Rooms
    • visit each Breakout Room
    • open a Google doc for each group and monitor work while in Breakout
    • require groups to share results  (either in plenary time permitting, or a written summary to the instructor)        
    • include a peer evaluation grade for contribution to the group (if group compilation is constant)
  • Equalizing participation
    • clarify expectations for student participation                            
    • create & model roles to ensure each student has a specific contribution to the work (Host, Scribe, Synthesizer, Critic, etc.) & rotate the roles to give each member practice with each role

 

  • Most effective for groups ranging from 4 – 9, depending on number of discussion posts to create and number of responses required
  • Most effective for confirming student understanding / progress
  • More inclusive for students with accessibility needs, second language, etc.

 

CHALLENGES

  • Ensuring participation                        
    • provide questions that require higher-order thinking (analysis, comparison, application, etc.)
    • require groups to share results
    • monitor student contributions
    • attribute participation grades (for simple participation and/or quality of contributions)
    • include a peer evaluation grade for contribution to the group (if scope of work merits)
    • consider assigning a discussion facilitator for each group on a rotating basis to keep the discussion going

Suggested Techonology: Moodle Discussion forum using "Separate groups" 

 

 

Presentations

  • Most effective for presentations under 20 minutes
  • Best executed if student audience has a cognitive task during presentations (eg: apply criteria to peer review presentation)
  • Should be limited to 3 presentations within a session with intermittent breaks in between
  • Can be done in Breakout Rooms and recorded for grading purposes

CHALLENGES

  • Interfering factors (distractions, internet connectivity, etc.) 
    • keep presentations short so students don’t miss too much if their participation is interrupted
  • Ensuring participation
    • require students to evaluate the presentation using set criteria 
  • Validating use of student time
    • stagger audience members

 

  • Most effective with larger classes
  • Can be peer reviewed (eg: assigning each student specific presentations to watch and review)
  • Can provide comments at specific points with Audio (in Moodle Discussion Forum)

 

 

CHALLENGES

  • Ensuring participation                        
    • require students to evaluate the presentation using set criteria
    • Validating use of student time
    • assign each student to view specific presentations

 

 

Research Assignments

  • Most effective for individual or small group Q&A sessions to report challenges, etc.

 

 

CHALLENGES

  • Validating use of student time
    • keep sessions short and focused
    • hold individual meetings

 

  • Most effective when executed with specific milestones to ensure students stay on task (Eg: written summary of research topic, annotated bibliography, paper outline, post-assignment reflection, etc.)

 

CHALLENGES

  • Direction and guidance
    • provide models and rubrics to clarify expectations
    • set deadlines for milestone deliverables
    • attribute a portion of the grade to each deliverable
    • create a class discussion thread for students to pose questions and share answers

 

 

Assessment

  • Most effective for oral presentations and demonstrations

CHALLENGES

  • Validating use of student time
    • keep sessions short and focused
    • hold individual evaluation    meetings

 

  • Most effective for auto-graded quizzes, essays, research reports, problem-solving tasks, participation grades

CHALLENGES

  • Academic integrity
    • create alternate test versions for a single group
    • randomize question order
    • set time limits for test completion
    • create questions that are highly contextualized and require students to answer from a more ‘personal’ perspective (Eg: discuss specific to the context, provide justification, examples, etc.)
    • offer a creative option whereby students can meet the academic criteria with their own choice of artifact

 

Adapting your course

If you are not sure how to adapt your course, please find a couple of models below to help you plan your own course.

If your typical face-to-face lecture time was structured as...


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