An Affinity for Asynchronous Learning
There is something that bothers us about conversations about replacing face-to-face teaching with online learning: they often fall into a trap of assuming that incorporating synchronous interaction is the optimal way to make learning more personable, that it approximates the face-to-face setting closest, and is therefore preferable and better. More often than not, synchronous interaction here implies some form of two-way audiovisual interaction, even though there are text-only forms of synchronous interaction (e.g., Twitter live chat). There are also asynchronous forms of audiovisual interaction (e.g., voicemail, recorded lectures).
But we feel the enthusiasm for audiovisual synchronicity often comes without sufficient discernment, and without deliberative consideration of how asynchronous learning can be not only viable but productive.
We’ve had experiences both teaching and learning online in a variety of formats, as well as supporting others who are still learning to teach online, and this article reflects our experiences and how they affect our thinking about digital pedagogy more broadly. We both have a strong preference for asynchronous learning.
In November 2013, we participated in a Coursera MOOC from the University of Edinburgh: E-Learning and Digital Cultures (and #edcmooc on Twitter). We’re from opposite ends of the world (Cairo, Egypt and St. Paul, Minnesota, United States) both geographically and culturally, but not digitally. And through asynchronous communication, we not only came to meet, but also to write this piece, and while writing it, to realize that much of our higher education careers have been quite similar (we both did our master’s degrees online in 2003, using dial-up).
There are two misconceptions that we think hinder teachers’ creativity when thinking about teaching online. The first is a tendency to think of ways of approximating their face-to-face teaching into an online format as much as possible — instead of considering the possibilities afforded by the new medium, with the diverse opportunities for engagement and communication. The (problematic) assumptions behind this include a belief that text is less personal, that immediacy is inherently more valuable, and that approximating face-to-face is beneficial. The second, which relates to the first, is the belief (as Kolowich suggests) that increasing the “human” element of an online course is best done by either showing the face/voice of the teacher (e.g., as in pre-recorded lectures used in many xMOOCs), approximating a non-interactive lecture-based face-to-face class, or interacting synchronously (as in Google Hangouts), approximating a discussion-based face-to-face class.
An automatic preference for synchronous (usually audiovisual) interaction with students is often a “mistake”. It would, teachers imagine, be just like a face-to-face class, only online. Right? Actually, usually not. Maha has had experiences facilitating web-based video dialogue, and even though she sees it could have enormous potential when it works well, very often it does not. When we learn online, we are not together in one room, and we need to recognize not only the limitations of that, but the openness of its possibilities.
The strengths of online learning, especially in massive courses such as MOOCs, and especially for adult learners, might lie in their asynchronous interactive components.
Synchronous learning is biased
Here are some of the problems we have with synchronicity, as teachers and as learners. We wanted to include other people’s views on this, so we surveyed other participants in #edcmooc and quote some of their responses.
First, synchronous meetings are biased against certain time zones.
If the person leading the meeting is based in Europe/Africa, any time that is convenient for them will either be biased towards US-based time zones, or Australian/East Asian time zones, rarely being convenient for both. An imperfect way around this is to change the time of such interactions each week (as #moocmooc and #futureed chats have been), to accommodate each of the extreme time zones — i.e. you accommodate each timezone half as often.
Second, synchronous meetings are culturally unaware.
One Friday, Maha discovered that she had missed three separate synchronous meetings (two on Twitter, one Google Hangout) that she was interested in. Why? Friday is a holy day and weekend in much of the Muslim world. In Egypt, this could mean a variety of things: it could mean family time (therefore no time to work online); but it also means a day free of official work and study, which might make it convenient for online meetings; many people stay busy online on Fridays, which slows down everyone’s home internet connection (younger people like to spend lots of time online: fewer family commitments, among other things) and, in recent years, Friday has become a day for political protests and clashes (lots of social networking there, again slowing internet connections, but also keeping one too busy following that news if one is at home rather than on the street, leaving little brain capacity for online professional development).
Third, synchronous meetings are biased against families and busy people!
Maha once participated in a Google Hangout at midnight Egypt time (there’s that time zone bias again) and had to interrupt the interaction in the middle because her toddler woke up. These issues are less problematic with text-based synchronous events with larger groups (e.g. Twitter chats) because a few minutes’ absence would likely go unnoticed, and one can re-cap what was missed quite quickly. As one #edcmooc participant put it:
“It all comes down to time available to undertake the work required. Working full time with heavy work and family loads. And also when a mooc is managed from the other side of the world, the hangouts etc. are hard to do in real time. (i.e., I have to get up really in the morning UK time to catch.)”
These are logistical reasons, but important ones, as online learners may not have the luxury of learning online without the convenience of asynchronous communication opportunities.
Fourth, synchronous meetings that involve audiovisuals are elitist
Synchronous meetings can be biased against people with choppy internet infrastructure or even occasional electricity cuts (e.g. in developing countries), or whose level of technical skill or access to technical support can prevent them from participating fully (e.g., because of faulty mic setup). One #edcmooc participant said:
“I can’t touch type so I find myself easily lost in synchronous chat. I don’t have a reliable connection so Skype etc. frustrates me as I miss parts of chat and feel like [it would be like] shouting from my window as a means of engagement!”
Maha and Bard each completed our master’s degrees online using predominantly asynchronous communication, and we were both on dial-up at the time, which would not have allowed for heavy reliance on synchronous and/or audiovisual interaction.
Fifth, synchronous meetings rely heavily on linguistic capital
(Maha wrote about this recently in Teaching in Higher Education.) In synchronous dialogue, if you are not fluent in the dominant language spoken, you are lost. This is less of a problem if the syncronous communication is one-on-one via text, which might allow participants a bit more time to gather their thoughts before writing them.
In our survey, nine respondents were neither native nor fluent in English. One such person commented that asynchronous learning “makes the act of communicating with other people less intimidating. I can make sure that I don’t misunderstand what other people are saying.” Another person said, “synchronous thinking and responding could not happen when you should think of the content in another language’s logic and translate your ideas to English.” Note the emphasis on synchronous thinking. The thinking itself can benefit from asynchronicity (coming up later).
Why go for asynchronous learning?
There is nothing particularly revolutionary about what we have said above. But for some reason, many of these issues are not put into consideration when planning online learning experiences. People do not always ask themselves if what they are trying to do necessarily requires synchronous interaction (or audio or video, for that matter). And they often forget to consider these access issues (among others that we have not mentioned). Though these are not pedagogical reasons per se, they are in our view important…pre-pedagogical!
Convenience is not a marginal issue!
If learners cannot access the learning experience comfortably in the first place, not much learning is going to happen, is it? Bard’s view is that sometimes asynchronous is the only convenient or possible way to go. One #edcmooc participant said,
“Async fits in better with the rest of my life. Also, in this MOOC it works as I am on the other side of the world and would never be able to attend sync classes (unless I were awake at 4am). Async allows me to control the pace and timing of my engagement, and therefore increases the likelihood that I will complete the course.”
Another person compared the benefits of synchronous vs. asynchronous learning as follows:
“Asynchronous communication links with my local time, my skills, my preferences, my interests, my agenda. So it is focuses on ME. Synchronous communication links with teachers and other learners, it is spontaneous and lets you know how is your GROUP.”
We are not sure that asynchronous interaction misses out on the group’s thinking, because it still involves social interaction, but the comment above does seem to fit with another person’s comment that asynchronous learning “allows people to participate authentically on their own terms” (emphasis added). Whereas to make synchronous learning work, the needs and convenience of a larger group of people need to intersect.
In our survey, convenience was one of the main reasons people preferred asynchronous learning (21 responses out of 54), often coupled with flexibility (6/54). Some people noted the importance of working at their own pace (15/54) and or the issue of timezones specifically (5/54).
Asynchronous learning promotes deeper reflection
The most frequently cited pedagogical reason in our survey for preferring asynchronous communication was that it promoted better reflection (15/54), and some also mentioned the ability to research or look things up before responding. Here are some of the comments:
- “async allows me to be more contemplative which can lead to a more considered and articulate dialogue”
- “I like not feeling pressured to communicate right away – I like to have processing time and feel as though I can come back to the conversation later and still participate. It helps me to be more thoughtful.”
- “I love the flexibility [of discussion forums] and the time offered to think over one’s response (or ideas). In a perfect world a chance to do some higher order thinking, especially for those who can’t or don’t want to react in the moment with clearly stated points of view. As a teacher, one has the chance to view and reflect on students’ performance, concerns, level of understanding. As a student, one has the chance to do the same – if you don’t intervene at exactly the moment when the other student expresses her ideas, it doesn’t matter.”
- “In terms of my learning style, I enjoy reading and reflecting; turning things over in my own mind before contributing; being able to stop, walk away, look something up, before responding.”
Another person compared synchronous and asynchronous learning in terms of reflection:
“I personally feel that synchronous, being time bound, may sometimes induce a sense of urgency, due to which important concepts may be overlooked. Asynchronous provides me the opportunity to explore learning at my pace, allowing me more time to experiment and explore. An occasional synchronous interaction helps to clarify concepts and is also a little reassuring in the sense that it helps to affirm the presence of the trainers / lecturers.”
Questions to consider when making decisions about synchronicity
- Would the activity benefit from extended reflection?
- Would the activity benefit from additional research that students bring into the discussion?
- Does the activity require audio/video that can be recorded separately and uploaded for feedback later? Or is spontaneous audio interaction part of the essential learning outcomes (e.g. language courses)?
- Does the activity require synchronicity but not necessarily audiovisuals? Consider text chat (e.g., on Twitter), but note that information overload can occur, especially with larger groups.
- Can the interaction benefit from many-to-many interaction? That richness comes mostly from asynchronous text.
- Are most of your students full-time and able to commit to synchronous sessions?
- How large is the class? Large-class interaction is more manageable asynchronously, but also benefits from breaking up into smaller groups.
- Are participants in a variety of timezones, or clustered around one side of the world?
- Do students have equal access to good-enough infrastructure for synchronous (e.g., no electrical cuts), high bandwidth interaction (for synchronous audiovisuals)? If even one student does not have this, you have an equity issue.
- Do some students have linguistic difficulties or other learning difficulties that may be helped by working at their own pace? If so, asynchronous is important to consider.
- Do you have minorities or students who are shy, reluctant to speak up, or intimidated by louder or more eloquent others who tend to hog the conversation? Don’t all learning situations have some of these issues? Asynchronous learning creates space for these learners without having to suppress the more eloquent, more dominant participants.
Photo by Gavin Whitner