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Content Delivery for Remote Learning: An Accessible Approach that Combines Asynchronous and Synchronous Learning

by Katelyn Stark

Publication Details

 OLOR Series:  OLOR Effective Practices
 Author(s): Katelyn Stark
 Original Publication Date:  20 August 2020



The teaching approach outlined here combines short, small-group synchronous online class meetings with asynchronous activities in order to deliver dense content while encouraging student engagement and participation. This approach was originally employed in an upper-level Rhetoric course that started as a f2f course in Spring 2020 but moved online due to COVID-19. As remote instruction continues for Fall 2020, this article will explain how a dual approach to remote instruction can be carried out for content-heavy courses across the disciplines. The practice addresses OWI Principle 1 and OWI Principle 4.

Resource Contents

1. Overview

[1] The teaching approach outlined here combines short, small-group synchronous online class meetings with asynchronous activities in order to deliver dense content while encouraging student engagement and participation. This approach was originally employed in an upper-level Rhetoric course that started as a f2f course in Spring 2020 but moved online due to COVID-19. As remote instruction continues for Fall 2020, this article will explain how a dual approach to remote instruction can be carried out for content-heavy courses across the disciplines.

[2] Since the course design explained in this article includes synchronous instruction, a specific day/time slot is required for the course. When this approach was first applied, my class had been meeting f2f. When I will apply this remote instruction approach in Fall 2020, students know they are signing up for an online class, but there are days and times assigned to the course that have been already determined by the registrar. For a traditional two-day-a-week 75-minute class, I would split up the 75 minutes into two 30-minute time slots that allow time in between for transition. If the course takes place on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:00 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., students will sign up for 11:00 a.m. or 11:45 a.m. on both days. With usual class sizes of 19, there will be approximately 10 students in each small-group synchronous meeting. Students sign up for these spots on a first-come-first-served basis but can make changes if needed throughout the semester.

[3] After meeting with students to deliver content synchronously, students engage in asynchronous activities that connect the content with other readings and course objectives. Students are responsible for turning in these class activities to our institution’s Learning Management System by midnight on the instructional day. If we were in a physical classroom together, these class activities would be completed during our class time. With virtual learning, students have more flexibility to complete these activities on their schedule, but the activities are still due by the end of that instructional day to make sure students stay on track with the course. This paired synchronous-and-asynchronous approach accounts for diverse learning styles and, as explained below, student access.

Contextual Details

A. Type of institution: Research 1

B. Course level(s) and title(s): 3000-level, “Rhetoric”

C. Course type(s) (asynchronous, synchronous, online, hybrid): F2F turned Online – both synchronous and asynchronous elements

D. Delivery platform(s): Zoom, Canvas (or any institutional LMS), Google Drive

2. Challenges Addressed by this Practice

[4] Accessibility and inclusivity are at the core of the GSOLE Online Literacy Instruction Principles and the CCCC Online Writing Instruction Principles for good reason. Being able to (1) access and (2) participate in an online learning environment are two of the top priorities for online instruction as students cannot move forward in a course without being able to engage with the content. In face-to-face classes, students move their physical bodies into a common space where material is verbally or physically delivered. In an online class, instructors are responsible for creating a virtual classroom space, and students have to navigate this classroom using technology and software they may or may not be familiar with.

[5] In the panic of moving to remote instruction in March 2020, there were many conversations occurring between my past-and-current colleagues about different pedagogies, including recorded lectures, recorded slide-presentations, and discussion posts. As a part of these discussions, I suggested synchronous class sessions, which, to my initial shock, created an uproar. I had past colleagues express concern that any synchronous approach was not considering students’ access to both material objects, such as laptops, and non-material objects, such as WIFI. Some even associated synchronous learning with a “classist” and inaccessible pedagogy. The approach I offer here addresses these concerns with a type of content delivery that allows for a range of student-engagement options: including video calls, phone calls, recorded class sessions, and comprehensive written lessons. And now, unlike Spring 2020, students are better prepared to participate in virtual learning environments, and some may even have the option to choose virtual learning as their preferred mode of delivery.

[6] The conversation about moving to online teaching in response to the pandemic is reflective of larger questions regarding online pedagogies. Should synchronous learning—the primary learning method of face-to-face instruction—be completely abandoned in the move to online? Can synchronous learning exist and account for access and equitable student success?

[7] By focusing on tenets of OWI Principle 1 and Principle 4, this practice offers an example of online pedagogies that prioritize student-learning experiences while accounting for access. In addition to creating “mobile friendly content” and “interaction affordances” (Principle 1), this online pedagogy approach also considers learning styles that are more likely to be supported in face-to-faces classes but can be untapped when learning remotely. Access to the online learning opportunities is critical, but access only gets students in the door. Once students have access to the material, the content needs to be delivered in ways that enable students to critically participate and engage. The approach I outline here presents one way—not the only way, but one way—to achieve access and engagement through a combination of synchronous and asynchronous pedagogies. By taking in consideration my past colleagues’ valuable concerns about inaccessible teaching, this approach gives students multiple ways to participate, including calling into Zoom meetings and shared recorded synchronous sessions, so that everyone can engage with the material in ways that work best for them.

3. Relevant Literature

[8] In the move from f2f to online, instructors are tasked with reevaluating their pedagogies. Even if an instructor has never taught a fully online class before, as instructors in our current technological moment, we are not necessarily totally new to online teaching. Jessie Borgman and Casey McArdle (2019) argue that we’re all online instructors in some way: “many F2F writing classes are pretty much hybrid or blended writing courses given their use of digital spaces (for turning in assignments, doing peer review, doing the readings, etc.)” (p. 3). Much of the digital literacy that is required to both teach and learn in an online class has already been developed through participating in present-day f2f classes. Instructors, then, can rely on these literacies to develop and build their online courses.

[9] Foundational to the effective practice that is described in this approach is the scholarship that has already been written on employing both synchronous and asynchronous pedagogies. Connie Snyder Mick and Geoffrey Middlebrook (2015) in “Asynchronous and Synchronous Modalities,” which is part of the edited collection on foundational OWI practices, review the tools, affordances, and constraints of each teaching type. They argue that conversations of online teaching shouldn’t center on which practice—synchronous or asynchronous—is intrinsically better; instead, it should be a question of—as Stefan Hrastinski writes—“when, why, and how” to deploy one or the other (p. 130).

[10] According to Mick and Middlebrook, advantages of asynchronous activities include more temporal flexibility, increased cognitive participation, more processing time, multiple reading and writing opportunities, and archivable transactions (p. 130-1). Advantages of synchronous activities, they add, are interpersonal relationships and engagement, higher satisfaction, increased student learning, lower rates of attrition, and better communication (p. 131). By creating an online class that draws on both, students can have the interpersonal connections that come from participating in a synchronous class while having the access provided by an asynchronous class.

4. Implementing this Practice

[11] Before delivering any type of synchronous online class, students need to know up-front (and preferably during enrollment) that the class will be partly synchronous and will meet at designated times. The instructor needs to let students know the level of involvement required and how students are able to access materials, participate, and turn in assigned work.

[12] The practice that I illustrate here asks students to be available twice a week for a 30-minute synchronous session that is paired with an approximately 45-minute asynchronous activity that is due by the end of the instructional day (Figure 1). This dual approach (1) prevents video-call fatigue, (2) promotes conversations and relationships among peers, and (3) requires hands-on engagement with the course material.

  1. Video-call fatigue is a major concern when considering synchronous learning. According to Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, (2020) we process information over video differently than we do in person, and this “constant gaze makes us uncomfortable—and tired” (p. 3). Thirty-minute synchronous sessions prevent video-call exhaustion. By reducing the amount of time students are required to stay present in a synchronous meeting, students can engage more meaningfully. Anecdotally, I can report that students were active participants in these video-meetings during the Spring and Summer 2020 terms when I employed this dual-approach. Because the synchronous meetings were conducted over a short-period of time and consisted of small-groups of ten students, these meetings were fruitful and productive. Students reported that these video meetings helped them better understand the material and prepared them for the paired asynchronous activities. 
  2. Through these video-meetings, students interact with other peers in their class, which develops a community of learners. Results of Fan Ouyang and Yu-Hui Chang’s (2018) study of students’ social roles and cognitive engagement levels in online courses points to the direct relationship of socially active students to increased knowledge inquiry and knowledge construction. More simply, students learn more when they engage with each other. Small group synchronous sessions promote this social exchange and lead to better understanding of the material than if students were only to participate in the class alone. 
  3. The paired asynchronous activities allow students to apply the readings and lectures in a hands-on way. This dual approach is reflective on many common f2f activities that have been promoted for writing across the curriculum—these include but are not limited to reflective writing, brainstorming, drafting, and critically responding to reading activities. These activities are due each instructional day so that students do not fall behind in the course. Homework is assigned and turned in separately, similar to a f2f class structure.

[13] Creating a solid structure is the first step to teaching an online class: students need to have clear and consistent instructions for how they access lessons, activities, and homework assignments. To create this centralized location, I build a detailed Course Schedule that students use to participate in the class. This Course Schedule has four points of access: it (1) allows students to sign up and access the synchronous Zoom class; (2) gives an overview of the class activities/objectives; (3) hyperlinks to a detailed class lesson page, and (4) lists the homework assignment with due dates.

Figure 1: Course Schedule Example

Course schedule example.

Figure 2: Class Sign-Up Example

Class sign-up example.

[14] The first thing students do in the beginning of the semester is sign up for a timeslot for class. Students will sign up for a class meeting on a shared Google Drive document (Figure 2). For 19 students in the class, there would be two groups of either nine or ten students. In the sign-up document, I link the Zoom meeting. Students just have to click on the Zoom link to access the class at their designated time or call in using the phone number and Meeting ID provided. The class meetings are scheduled for 30 minutes, which add up my instructional time to be approximately that of one traditional 75-minute face-to-face class, (considering transition times between groups).

[15] For each class period, I develop a detailed, written-out class lesson, and I share this document with my students. I refer to this as a “Class Breakdown.” On this breakdown, I include objectives for the class; key terms to focus our conversation; important quotes from the text; my explanation of the quotes; and a class activity. When we are in our synchronous class meetings, we review the Class Breakdown together. Students are able to access the Class Breakdown asynchronously, but holding synchronous meetings to review the Class Breakdowns allows students to hear the material explained, talk about the content, and ask questions, thus preventing cognitive overload (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). Synchronous meetings are recorded and shared to the Course Schedule so students can engage with the “live” portion of the class if they either miss the class or want to revisit the material. It is worth noting that it’s written on the syllabus which class session (e.g., 11:00 a.m. or 11:45 a.m.) will be recorded so that if students do not wish to be recorded, they can choose to attend the non-recorded class.

[16] Below is a video-example of how I run my synchronous lesson (Video 1). The video provided is just a short segment to give an idea of how the Class Breakdown is used to deliver material visually while I explain the content audibly. In the synchronous class sessions, I explain the reading and engage my students with questions and conversation. I edited the video so students would not be shown to protect their privacy.

Video 1: Synchronous Meeting Example

[17] At the end of these synchronous class meetings, I give instructions for an asynchronous activity. These activities connect the class reading and content to larger course objectives. The class activities are posted within the Class Breakdown, so all of the delivered content and class activities are housed in one document. The activities take students approximately 45 minutes, and I encourage students to complete the activity right after we conclude our synchronous meeting even though they have until the end of the day to turn in the activity to Canvas.

[18] For example, during one class day in Spring 2020, after discussing key concepts from Lloyd Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation” during our synchronous meeting, I provided students a letter written by a Florida resident asking the Governor of Florida to establish travel restrictions for people from Louisiana coming into Florida shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak. In this activity, students analyzed the rhetorical situation by articulating the exigence, constraints of the rhetor, intended audience, and influential composing strategies used in the message. This activity directly connected to the reading and our synchronous conversation and allowed students the time to practice analyzing rhetoric on their own.

[19] There are 3 concrete ways in which this dual synchronous and asynchronous teaching approach accounts for student access and engagement:

  1. Students are not required to have a laptop, webcam, or unlimited data/Internet to participate in the synchronous class sessions. Students are given the phone number for each Zoom meeting so they can call in and participate in the class. Even though those who called in can’t see us, they still have access to the Class Breakdown to follow along with the lecture and conversation. The short synchronous meetings promote student engagement while limiting video-call fatigue.
  2. If students—due to other responsibilities, sickness, or jobs—cannot attend the synchronous class, they are able to watch the class when it is convenient for their schedules. I record one of these class meetings per instructional day and upload the video to the class’s Course Schedule. Though students are expected to attend the synchronous class, through either video or phone call, the recorded meetings account for the possible instances that prevent students from joining.
  3. This practice accounts for cognitive overload and multiple learning styles. When classes are only delivered through text (e.g., assigned readings, written explanations/slideshows, and written activity instructions), students can experience cognitive overload. Only using written communication also limits engagement for students who need to hear the material explained or participate verbally in order to understand. By having three elements (the text instructions, the visual participation, and the audible conversation), students can pull on all three learning styles in order to grasp the dense material and move forward towards the course objectives.

5. Required Materials

[20] The hardware involved for participation in this class was a phone that could call in to the synchronous meetings or a computer to join the meetings. Students also needed either a smartphone or a computer to access the Class Schedule, Class Breakdowns, and LMS.

[21] I rely on three software programs to implement this practice.

  • Learning Management System (e.g., Canvas): Students use this secure software to upload all of their homework and projects. I also provide feedback and grades through this program.
  • Google Drive: I set up the Course Schedule, Class Breakdowns, and Zoom sign-up sheets through Google drive because (1) it’s free for users, (2) the settings can be set to “view only” or “edit”; and (3) hyperlinks are easily embedded.
  • Zoom: Our synchronous classes were on Zoom because my university supports this software. I imagine other video-conferencing programs could be used with similar efficiency.

6. Works Cited

Borgman, J., & McArdle, C. (2019). Personal, Accessible, Responsive, Strategic: Resources and Strategies for Online Writing Instructors. University Press of Colorado.

Fosslien, L., & West Duffy, M. (2020). How to combat zoom fatigue. Harvard Business Review, 2-5.

Mayer, R.E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 43-52.

Mick, C.S., & Middlebrook, G. (2015). Asynchronous and synchronous modalities. In B. Hewett & DePew, K.E. (Eds.), Foundational Practices of Online Writing Instruction (pp 129-148). The WAC Clearinghouse; Parlor Press.

Fan, O., & Chang, Y. (2018). The relationships between social participatory roles and cognitive engagement levels in online discussions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 50(3), 1396-1414.

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