Synchronous vs. Asynchronous, or, How I made Asynchronous work

One of the most significant decisions I faced at the beginning of this remote only semester was the delivery method, as in, whether to deliver lectures “live” at a set time using Zoom (synchronous) or to deliver lectures via video with no set class time (asynchronous). The diagram below summarizes my weighing of the pros and cons:

As I thought about what makes teaching exciting to me, interacting with students is one of the top reasons. It would appear that the synchronous model would then be the obvious choice. But it was not as clear cut in my context. My classes tend to be larger with about 60-90 students in each of them. The class size thus makes interacting over Zoom, in which I can only see a handful of students on the screen at a time, difficult to be meaningful and productive. Even if each student has a 95% chance of having no technical difficulties with WiFi or computer in any given class, the chance of having every student in my class having no technical difficulties is 1-5%. Worst, my computer and internet would necessarily be the weakest link – no prof, no class!

Moreover, I feel burdened by students’ mental and emotional well-being. “Zoom Fatigue” is much discussed, which seemed to be true to my experience. I am aware of students having to face 5+ hours of Zoom class and even more hours on their computers to do homework; that is a lot of hours on the computer! Not to mention that because of Covid, many students whom I know had to take on additional family duties and work hours and would not be available at the class set time. It would be a compassionate and gracious thing to have more flexibility in the class structure.

For all these reasons, I chose the asynchronous model. The question then becomes how to mitigate the cons of this model.

I did four things to address that. Firstly, I am thankful for my fantastic teaching assistant team because I expanded the “coverage” of the review sessions they held. In previous semesters, review sessions were offered on 2-3 days, but this semester, there is at least one if not more student-led review session every day except Friday and Sunday. These would be the “synchronous” time for the students who want to interact with fellow students and TAs.

Secondly, I continued with the post-lecture questions and comments. In previous semesters, these would come in the form of stacks of index cards (an exercise I learned thanks to SEPAL@SFSU) that I picked about 50-60% to respond. This semester, these arrive at my computer via Google Form. Every week I would dedicate time to respond to these questions and comments. From midterm evaluation, it appeared that students perceived interaction with faculty to be good.

Piles of post-lecture questions from previous semesters; now they are all online submission

Thirdly, I used participation points to encourage students to keep up with the video watching and not “binge” at the end. Every Friday, they would submit a post-lecture quiz (when available) and post-lecture questions/comments for participation points. Thus even though there was no set class time, there was a soft deadline to complete things.

List of questions submitted from my students (Blurred)

Finally, I did a “soft-flipping” in my lab class. There are multiple lab instructors, and I cannot do a full flipping, but in my lab sessions, I dedicated some time to review the lecture material and a chance for the students to ask questions.

I am writing this in week 13 of the semester with two more weeks to go. I will find out if my mitigations were effective when the teaching evaluations are released at the end of the year. Just as everything else, this past semester had been a learn-as-you-go sort of semester. I am sure I made mistakes that I hope to address in the next semester, and I can at least say that I did think through this past semester.

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