U.S. News & World Report recently reviewed online post-secondary educational offerings, noting that as of fall 2017, more than 3 million students had been enrolled exclusively online. They comment: “One of the main reasons online learning has grown in the past decade is the flexibility it provides for students to complete their coursework on their own schedules…. The online format often makes sense for individuals that need flexibility to complete coursework around their schedules. Online undergraduate students can continue working full time while advancing their education…. To succeed in a program, students need to have good time management skills and the self-discipline to learn, study and complete assignments without constant face-to-face interaction with an instructor.”
Their review equates online instruction with asynchronous instruction, where students work on assigned material alone and at their own pace — much like the correspondence courses of yore — with no regular “classes,” only self-initiated sessions. The perspective is common, and though it was appropriate a decade or so ago, this characterization is now increasingly outdated and misleading.
In fact, today’s students can choose between two qualitatively different types of online learning — asynchronous and synchronous. Many universities, such as Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University, have grown to prominence offering only asynchronous courses for their online offerings. But an increasing number of universities, ranging from Ohio State University to Singularity University, are offering face-to-face, real-time synchronous courses online.
Consider the differences: Asynchronous learning is self-paced and the schedule is flexible; you do the work when you have time (perhaps within a set timeframe, such as a two-week period for a given unit). You can go over readings and videos as often as you like. You can speed up for material that’s easy for you and slow down for material you find more difficult. You take quizzes and either get feedback immediately (if your answers are machine graded) or have to wait for a faculty member to grade them. If you have a question, you submit it formally and wait for a response; in some cases, you can schedule a time to talk to a faculty member, but you may not have any regular times when you meet with faculty. If you do group work, you need to schedule it when it is convenient for all members.
Most aspects of a synchronous online class are different: Classes take place via videoconferencing software that allows you to see and hear others face-to-face, live and in real time. Rather than reading and watching videos alone, you are with others and often are interacting with them as you comment on the material. Even though you may be in different cities, you are not alone — you are part of a student community of learners who provide different perspectives. You are interacting with an instructor who can respond to nonverbal cues (such as smiles and blank expressions) and help to ensure you understand the material. You get feedback in real time; if you say something that’s not quite right, it’s likely that the instructor will correct you. The class meets at the same time of day on specific days of the week; you cannot reschedule at your convenience, and you cannot speed up or slow down the process. You need to keep up with the class as it moves forward.
Clearly, there are tradeoffs in the two teaching methods. The asynchronous approach provides great flexibility, whereas the synchronous approach may be more motivating and stimulating.
However, one key advantage of synchronous classrooms has not been sufficiently highlighted: active learning is much easier to implement when students are interacting in real time. This is important because active learning has been shown to be vastly more effective than traditional lectures, where students passively receive information. Why? One reason lies in the fact that the more engaged people are, the more deeply they process information — which has been shown repeatedly to enhance learning and memory. A key goal of teaching is to engage students and lead them to process the relevant information.
Crucially, students can engage in active learning exercises online that are difficult to do in a traditional classroom. For example, in 1972 Elliot Aronson devised a novel teaching method he called a “jigsaw classroom.” It was rarely used because it is logistically difficult to execute in physical classrooms, but this method can be used easily in synchronous online classrooms and can be extended to become a powerful learning tool.
Say that one is teaching the concept of a BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, as developed by Fisher & Ury, 1981). We can explain it easily, but to make it really stick — and to help students learn how to apply what they have learned — we can use an enhanced jigsaw design. Here’s how it could work: Students would be asked to role play a negotiation scenario, such as determining how water from a river should be allocated. The negotiation might include farmers, who need a lot of water for their crops; residents, who need water in their homes; the engineers, who would have to deliver on the solutions; and landowners who would have to allow pipes to cross their property. To teach the concept of a BATNA deeply, in a synchronous online environment, we could do the following.
First, we would have students meet in four-person breakout groups, each of which represents a different stakeholder (e.g., a separate group for the farmers, a separate group for the residents, etc.). Their task would be to devise a strategy for negotiating, which would include developing a specific BATNA.
Second, after 10 minutes these groups would be broken up and new groups formed (this is the “jigsaw” part of the process); each new group would include one representative from each of the previous ones (e.g., one representative of the farmers, one of the residents, etc.). Their job is to carry out a simulated negotiation, and each of them is supposed to discover the BATNAs of each of the other stakeholders.
Third, after another 10 minutes these groups would be broken up and the members put back in their original groups. Now each student would need to report their inferences about the BATNAs for each of the other stakeholders. The group would discuss this and converge on likely BATNAs for each of the other groups.
Finally, the breakout sessions would end and all students would be returned to the main online classroom as a whole. Each group would be asked to summarize one of the BATNAs they inferred for one of the other groups — and that group then would verify or correct them.
Note that at every stage students are motivated to process the information deeply — and hence to learn it. In the initial stakeholder groups, the students know that they soon will need to represent their stakeholder individually and don’t want to be embarrassed in front of their peers (note this important role played by the social component of learning, which is missing in asynchronous settings). In the second group, they know that they soon will return to the first group and report on their observations. And in the last breakout group, they know that they will soon return to the class as a whole and their inferences about BATNAs will be evaluated by the groups and the professor.
This sequence of events would be awkward to carry out in person, but it could be done by dragging chairs around and moving from place to place. What would be much harder to do would be to assign students to stakeholder groups based on their performance. For example, right after the lecture that explains the nature of a BATNA, one could present a quiz on the material, which could be instantly scored by the learning platform. Each group could then be composed so that there is a range of competence, ensuring that each group has at least some members who can help the others. This sort of thing is easy to do in a synchronous, online class conducted on a software platform — and utterly impossible in asynchronous settings.
In short, online courses need not be asynchronous, and there are many advantages to synchronous classrooms. These advantages are powerful and compelling; I expect that as broadband access becomes ubiquitous and more institutions move into online learning, we will see increasing numbers of such online courses — to the point where people will not assume that “online” means “asynchronous.”