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1.3 Asynchronous and synchronous teaching opportunities

Throughout this course, you will be introduced to relevant research papers. If you want to explore the ideas presented in them in more detail, full references are included at the end of each week. The first such paper, by Murphy et al. (2011), reports on interviews with 42 Canadian high school distance education teachers regarding their views on synchronous and asynchronous online teaching activities. Although this research was carried out some time ago, the findings reported below have frequently been echoed by teachers who moved their teaching online during the pandemic.

  • Teachers combined synchronous and asynchronous online teaching in different ways. Some taught entirely asynchronously. Others combined asynchronous teaching with synchronous forms, such as scheduled classes or times when they would be available for tutoring and responding to students.
  • All those interviewed made some use of asynchronous online teaching, such as providing learning materials for students to work through in their own time, using online quizzes, or supporting students to ask a question via email or forum and receive a response at a later time.
  • Teachers suggested that many students preferred asynchronous and text communication. One observed that it was rare for students to request voice chat rather than text communications. Another noted that students could email to ask multiple questions and the teacher could then take some time to construct a response.
  • Some teachers felt that the best way of addressing a particular student query was through synchronous communication such as video conferencing or use of a shared online whiteboard.
  • Teachers felt that synchronous sessions, including time for socialising and informal discussion, could help reduce feelings of isolation.

Activity 2 Synchronous and asynchronous online education

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Consider how synchronous and asynchronous modes of online education could be applied in your work.

Make a note of short examples – either real or imagined – that fit the following criteria:

  1. A situation where synchronous approaches would be appropriate and beneficial in supporting learning.
  2. A situation where asynchronous approaches would be appropriate and beneficial in supporting learning.
  3. A situation that combines synchronous and asynchronous approaches to support learning.
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This activity is designed to help you think about online education in your own context. One of the very first considerations in taking education online is to decide which elements lend themselves to synchronous learning, asynchronous learning, or both.

The study by Murphy et al. (2011) was conducted in the context of high school distance education. Some of the findings may hold true for you, but they may not be universally applicable.

Consider the practical issues, the preferences, and the benefits in your own case. There could be very good practical reasons for using an asynchronous approach – for example, students might not all be available at the same time. Or a synchronous approach might benefit students by providing immediate responses to queries. Some students may like the way a synchronous discussion can create a sense of community and engagement; others may prefer the slower pace of an asynchronous activity where they can craft a question or response and reflect on it before sharing with others.

It is often sensible to make use of both forms of teaching to provide a range of experiences and opportunities for learning.