When I started in this role in May of last year, it was coming off of a very rewarding experience helping design and facilitate what I’ve come to call a “highly synchronous” online course on restorative justice. One of my convictions coming out of that course and into my current work was that it was the weekly synchronous/real-time dimensions of this course – and the ways we structured activities and interactions during those meeting times – which contributed to its success.
I was convinced: Asynchronous was out, synchronous was in. Face-to-face engagement creates a deeper sense of connection and cohort in an online course. Therefore, if EMU wants to expand further into online education, then synchronous modes of delivery should be privileged. Indeed, this would be reflective of the Anabaptist-Mennonite premium put on community.
Ah, those halcyon days of yore!
Perhaps the reality that’s checked my idealism is best summed up in this Campus Technology article, When Does Telepresence Make Sense? On the last page of the article, in a side-bar entitled “Why Telepresence Is Not an Online Alternative,” an online professor of graduate-level courses at West Texas A&M reflects:
You can think of synchronous [distance learning] as kind of a lobster fork–a specialized tool too small for just about anything else… [My students] have no patience and no real ability to keep a schedule where they have to be ‘at class’ at 3 in the afternoon on Tuesdays and Thursdays… I’ve got 103 students in my program. If I used synchronous instead of asynchronous, I’d have maybe 10. (emphasis added)
What I came in with was a single course-level experience with a small set of students in a program that otherwise doesn’t do any online courses. We had nine months to design the course, partly because the professor who taught it was in half-retirement and had time to be creative with me (which was awesome!). In this and all other graduate programs at EMU – whose online delivery commitments vary from almost zero to nearly 100%, and whose faculty and students are quite busy people – things get much more complicated.
Each program is unique and draws from unique pools of potential students. Graduate programs often correspond to professional fields, and masters degrees are becoming practically required in some professions (such as K-12 education). Graduate students are thus often already very busy people with jobs, families, etc., and I’ve realized that online education is a draw for many students at a distance precisely because it means they don’t have to uproot and completely re-orient their lives for an education (like my family did for our four wonderful/crazy years at EMU). Convenience, then, becomes an important factor for potential students in online courses.
On the other end, residence-based graduate programs at EMU have a formula that’s worked for them thus far, and the prospect of introducing online courses, or even entire online programs, is a big pill to swallow. Even for programs that have offered asynchronous online courses to their students for years, such as the Seminary, it’s been a challenge for me to get synchronous delivery and engagement worked into many online courses.
Perhaps the “lobster fork” is the most apt metaphor. While I’ve definitely had a sense of realism worked into me when it comes to synchronous delivery in online courses, I still think it’s worth trying to practice, even if only in small ways. Therefore, I think there’s an approach to online course delivery that can be both/and, rather than either/or. It might look something like:
- Asynchronous resources: Recorded mini-lectures, digital text (e-books, PDF articles), other video resources, good ol’ fashioned physical texts
- Asynchronous activities: Message board discussions (text or recorded/uploaded video), quizzes, wikis
- Synchronous activities: One whole-class synchronous session per semester (negotiated ad hoc), virtual office hours (video and/or text chat), small group video chat (scheduled or ad hoc)
Anything else I’m missing?
Mixing modes of delivery in online courses also has the benefit of catering to different learning and interpersonal styles. Woven together creatively, a mostly-asynchronous course can still develop a deep sense of engagement and connection between students and instructor. Here’s hoping we continue to tweak the status quo, while still being on the lookout for opportunities (those “kairos moments,” as our seminary dean says) to radically innovate…