The occasional ramblings of an academic

Synchronous teaching

Synchronous versus asynchronous learning events

It seems like I have been saying it for a long time now, but my sense is that there are very few times (relatively speaking) when some form of synchronous teaching activity is better than an asynchronous teaching activity. And, within that small pool of synchronous activity there is an even smaller subset of activities that are best done face-to-face or in-person teaching.

I need to say, that I have little evidence to back that assertion up, so I was interested to see this piece entitled “Synch Video is Bad,” perhaps a new research project? that notes that:

After teaching online since about 2005, after doing a lot of research on best practices for online teaching, after doing a lot of writing and research about MOOCs, I’ve learned at least two things about teaching online:

  • Asynchronous instruction works better than synchronous instruction because of the affordances (and limitations) of the medium.

  • Video—particularly videos of professors just lecturing into a webcam while students (supposedly) sit and pay attention—is not very effective.

The question that then emerges is, why—given what we know—have "many (most?) of my colleagues have decided on their own to teach their classes with Zoom and synchronously". An experience which seems to have been true here too.

I suspect that whilst it is true that asynchronous instruction generally works better than synchronous approaches, the practicalities of quickly "getting online" say many people taking what was the easiest route. Note, I don't think anyone would say it was an easy route; it was just easier than the alternatives (and probably substantially so).

Single-step learning

What worries me is that, having taken this path, many people make take away the lesson that synchronous (sometimes called Zoom lectures) are the way to go when it comes to online teaching; after all it has worked has hasn't it? Hasn't it; maybe not the way our students would have wanted. Yes, like us they have been tolerate of the situation and (often) appreciative of what we have tried to do in these circumstances, but going forward I think we need to get better both at the ongoing 'emergency response' to online teaching and in what we think good online teaching and learning looks like.

Face-to-face contact in teaching

In-person teaching

I have been thinking about how much face-to-face contact (or more correctly, in-person contact) matters when teaching. Given we know that there is no statistical difference in learning outcome between on-line and in-person education. What I'm why does the 'fact-to-face' issue keep surfacing. To that end, I've been reading.

Muilenburg, L. Y., & Berge, Z. L. (2005). Student barriers to online learning: A factor analytic study. Distance Education, 26(1), 29–48.

Factors affecting student satisfaction with online learning

Looking at what students perceive to be the barriers to online education, it identifies eight factors that explain 62% of the variance in the results of their survey. They are:

Component Total % of variance Cumulative %
Administrative/instructor issues 13.04 13.19 13.19
Social interactions 4.81 9.54 22.73
Academic skills 2.97 8.68 31.41
Technical skills 2.43 8.16 39.56
Learner motivation 2.07 7.46 47.02
Time and support for studies 1.66 6.10 53.12
Cost and access to the Internet 1.29 5.15 58.28
Technical problems 1.06 4.13 62.41
Source: Muilenburg and Berge (2005)

In more detail, those factors are:

  1. Administrative/instructor issues. Students perceive barriers that administrators and instructors control, such as course materials not always being delivered on time, lack of sufficient academic advisors online, and lack of timely feedback from the instructor.

  2. Social interactions. These are obstacles to online learning that students perceive as being caused by a lack of interaction with peers or the instructor, such as the lack of student collaboration online, the lack of social context cues, or their being afraid of feeling isolated in online courses.

  3. Academic skills. This factor concerns respondents’ perceived barriers to online learning due to their lack of academic skills in such areas as writing, reading, or communication.

  4. Technical skills. This factor concerns respondents’ perceived barriers to online learning due to their lack of technical skills such as fearing new tools for online learning, lack of software skills, or their unfamiliarity with online learning technical tools.

  5. Learner motivation. Respondents answered whether they had certain characteristics that would affect their motivation in online courses such as whether they procrastinate, choose easier aspects of an assignment to complete, or feel the online learning environment is not inherently motivating.

  6. Time and support for studies. This factor concerns the respondents’ perspectives on whether a lack of time or support from family, friends, or people in the work place causes barriers to their online learning.

  7. Cost and access to the Internet. This factor concerns whether the respondents find access to the Internet too expensive, fear the loss of privacy, confidence, or property rights, or otherwise find access to the Internet limited to the point of raising barriers to them.

  8. Technical problems. This factor concerns such things as a lack of consistent plat forms, browsers, and software, or the lack of technical assistance that causes obstacles to online learning.

So perhaps rather than thinking about this in terms of a lack of face-to-face interaction, it is more about perceived lack of social interaction with peers and instructors. Intuitively, that makes more sense.

This factor—Social interaction—is driven by six sub-items:

  • Lack of interaction/communication among students

  • Online learning seems impersonal

  • Afraid of feeling isolated

  • Lack of social context cues

  • Lack of student collaboration

  • Prefer to learn in person

The authors do some further analysis to assess the priority (rather than the importance) of the items, and Social interaction comes top of that list.

What is perhaps more interesting is that the Social interaction item halves in it's effect the more courses someone has done on-line. I.e., once they find out that those six-sub items are not necessarily a problem when doing on-line courses.

There was also a strong correlation between enjoyment of the course and Social interaction.

It's all food for thought.

From Rachel S.

Glillani - Chapter 1

These notes are based on chapter 1 of:

Gillani, B. B. (2003). Learning theories and the design of e-learning environments. University Press of America.

p.1 “Telling is not teaching: listening is not learning, Anonymous

Human intelligence can be split into eight somewhat related types (Gardner, 1983):

  • linguistic
  • logical-mathematics
  • spatial
  • bodily-kinsthetic
  • musical
  • interpersonal
  • intrapersonal
  • naturalistic

p.6 “Researchers … support the concept that the brain is pattern-seeking device that analyzes specific features from the environment and then generates permanent neural activities that represent these features. These newly formed neural patterns …. are being combined and organized with prior knowledge according to core concepts of major themes that guide the thinking, memory, and problems solving of students.”

p.7 “O’Keefe and Nadal (1974) discovered two types of memory: taxon and locale. Taxon memory is concerned with facts and figures and depends on rehearsal and rote memorization. Because it is non-contextual and not integrated with prior knowledge, the retrial of this type of memory is difficult when needed for problem solving…. it is driven by the limbic system [of the brain]…. Locale memory is contextual and situational based. The hippocampus in our limbic system creates a spatial and contextual of the environmental input. These maps are continuously reconstructed in our memory as the new information is combined with prior information. Therefore, our memory becomes internal and virtually permanent.”

p.7 “Experts are those individuals who have organised their taxon memory into their locale memory according to the big picture of some core concepts. A novice, on the other hand, simply memorizes new information without any attempt to encode it into long-term memory without much regard to its organization. The difference between the way an expert learns and to organize information and the novice who just memorizes new information becomes apparent when it comes to retrieval and problem solving. The former can easily retrieve relevant information to solve the problem at hand, whereas the novice attempts in vain to use a variety of approaches to solve the problem at hand. In other words, experts have achieved meaningful knowledge structures and problem solving abilities and novices have not.”

p.8 “Metacognition refers to the knowledge about oneself as learner…. Learns can be taught strategies to monitor and regulate their own learning. These strategies include planning, monitoring, and regulating. These strategies are important in helping students learn how to learn.”

p.8 “Researchers … have argued that a child’s [or a person’s] development cannot be understood by a study of the individual. One must also examine the external, social, and historical world in which the individual’s life develops. Each member of the society assists the child’s cognitive development.”