Synchronous instruction provides connection students crave

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The Center for Learning and Teaching (CELT) can help instructors develop and test their synchronous teaching before they take it to the virtual classroom. Email CELT, visit the website or call the response team at 294-5357.

A lot has changed for Michael Bugeja since Iowa State went to online instruction in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but one thing remained the same.

"I still dress up every day I teach so there is no difference when I do my synchronous session," said the Distinguished Professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication. "I had a student thank me for dressing up for class because it showed that I cared about them. This was during face-to-face classes and since then, I think it is obvious that I am holding class now."

Bugeja teaches two sections of media ethics three days a week this spring. That seems compatible with asynchronous instruction -- which is recommended by the university for lecture and content delivery because of possible technology limitations -- but he believes students need the real-time advantages synchronous instruction provides.

Bugeja is able to interact with his students, allow his students to challenge him, answer their questions and give structure to their schedule in a time they are expected to do more on their own.

For the students

Synchronous instruction is university-recommended for discussion, office hours and other online learning contexts that necessitate engagement.

Bugeja not only wants to make the real-time connection with his students, he believes the way they consume video makes one of the key components of asynchronous instruction less effective.

"They use video in a manner that is for entertainment or to pass time," he said. "I was worried that I as a professor would be reduced to a link, much like a YouTube video. I also wanted to keep a sense of decorum, a sense they were still in college."

By conducting class through Zoom, students are able to interact with each other and still perform group work. His students understand the need for distancing, but that hasn't diminished their disappointment about not being on campus, Bugeja said. The class is mostly seniors, who are missing out on a traditional graduation.

"I get emails thanking me for holding classes," said Bugeja, who sends an email of thanks to each student after every class. "I think in our eagerness to make it easy for students -- reducing professors to video links -- [students] are missing out on being a Cyclone."

Greenlee associate teaching professor Diane Bugeja teaches two photojournalism sections twice a week. Although the switch to online forced her to change nearly everything, she still connects with her students. 

"We are doing live critiques after I give them some structures, and they are talking back and forth and really enjoying it," she said. 

Asynchronous backs up synchronous

Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching program coordinator Karen Bovenmyer also uses synchronous instruction for the preparing future faculty program. She believes it is up to the instructor to keep students engaged throughout the class.

"Use polls, breakout rooms, matching activities and chats," she said. "Make sure there are things students can do and are asked to do during sessions."

Bovenmyer puts significant effort into planning each class. Every live class is recorded and captioned so students who can't attend can view the lecture later.

"As you prepare asynchronous materials there is a lot of synergy that helps your synchronous teaching go better," she said. 

Bovenmyer recommends instructors set the expectation that students attend the synchronous session and have the asynchronous information as a backup.

Recording a lecture ahead of time also provides a safeguard should a technology issue prevent a class from meeting. Quizzes can be inserted into the videos to test the knowledge of students watching the lecture asynchronously. Transcripts of videos can be created in Canvas Studio so students with poor internet connectivity still have access to materials.

"Use learning worksheets where it is marked out from this time to this time we will be doing these things," Bovenmyer said. "Using timestamps allows students to follow along and move along with it."

Technology tips

Students may not have the same access to technology away from campus, so Bovenmyer  offered these suggestions for synchronous instruction:

  • Only presenters should have their camera turned on for accessibility. This limits the strain on bandwidth

  • Mute microphones to avoid background noise

  • Use headphones to prevent audio looping

  • In Webex, share PowerPoints as files, not screen-shares

  • Avoid playing videos because of file size

  • Have a document ready with important links or questions to cut and paste into chats or broadcast to breakout rooms to facilitate conversation

  • Use a targeted, task-driven conversation to maximize the time together

"When students have peers on video talking to them and they are trying to actively solve a problem together, that really ups the engagement," Bovenmyer said. "It keeps the learning high, the brain engaged and the distractions to a minimum."