Opinion: The Importance of Being Synchronous

Joel Haefner, Illinois Wesleyan UniversityJoel Haefner
Illinois Wesleyan University
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Yes, this title does injustice to the title of Oscar Wilde's 1896 play, but the misappropriation probably would amuse Wilde. After all, The Importance of Being Earnest is about dislocations – dislocations of place, of birth, of names, of communication. As our classes become increasingly computer-mediated, as our students become increasingly computer-literate and willing to take courses online, the dislocations caused by these sea-changes must concern us as teachers. As we consider using asynchronous or synchronous computer-mediated communication in our online classes, questions about and challenges to our teaching methods and objectives confront us like an insistent blinking cursor.

But first to definitions. Synchronous communication is simply communication that happens at the same time, immediately, a give-and-take. A casual conversation outside the Jewel grocery store, a phone call back home to the kids when you're traveling on business, a discussion session on the Great Depression, exchanges in an AOL chatroom, all these are examples of synchronous communication. Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, is communication that can wait. When you leave a voice mail message for a colleague, mail a friend a Get Well card, write comments on a paper, whip off a quick email, or deliver a presentation or lecture with no opportunity for questions from the audience, you are engaging in asynchronous communication. No reply is required at that moment, sometimes not ever expected. Communication is not simultaneous.

For computer-mediated communication, asynchronous exchanges most commonly take the form of email, newsgroups, Web forums, and bulletin boards. Even surfing the Web is a kind of asynchronous communication: a file is downloaded to your computer and you passively view the information. If a Web surfer fills out a Web-page form (such as we do when shopping online) and begins exchanging information with a database, the back-and-forth flow of data is synchronous communication. Chatrooms, MOOs (multi-user dungeons, object-oriented) and other systems which allow users to immediately exchange information are synchronous, too.

But if you think about it, our teaching is comprised of both synchronous and asynchronous communication. We hold whole-class discussions, break the class into small groups, ask students to respond verbally to questions, work with students at the white board, hold group or individual conferences, offer tutorials – all varieties of synchronous communication. We lecture, administer tests, hand out assignments, respond to email and voice mail, publish our syllabi on the Web, comment on papers – all examples of asynchronous communication. Sometimes the line between the two blurs, as when teachers mix brief lectures with discussion or question-and-answer sessions. Asynchronous and synchronous communication work hand-in-hand in most college classes. They are symbiotic. In fact, a number of research studies, beginning in the late 1970s, concluded that "instructor use of nonverbal and verbal immediacy" fostered all kinds of benefits in the conventional classroom: more learning, more student motivation, more empowerment (Freitas, 1998, pp. 366-67).

It is hard to imagine teaching without both these modes of interacting with our students, and I can't believe many teachers would want to handicap their teaching by relying on just one of them. But anecdotal evidence suggests many online teachers do exactly this, and rely almost exclusively on asynchronous communication. The research on the impact of online learning on students is much sketchier, obviously because the field of distance learning itself is in relatively early, formative stages. Computer-aided instruction that is solely asynchronous cannot possibly convey any kind of immediacy. If it takes days, or even hours, for students to get a response to a question, many students will lose the intellectual thread – and the urge to follow it.

One distance learner, who was enrolled in a pre-taped video class, noted that there was not instant feedback on a question unless a student on the video happened to ask that particular question. Not many of us would probably endorse this kind of education by proxy or lottery. This student could email questions to the instructor, but the lag on response was usually at least one day or three days over weekends. And on several occasions the student was tested on material in videotapes he hadn't even received yet. This was a totally asynchronous class, and clearly it did not really meet the learning needs of this student, though he did complete the class (Dorociak, 2000).

The great advantage of an asynchronous class is that students can do the work at any time of the day. Middle of the night when the kids are asleep, over lunch break, in the morning before breakfast – anything that fits a desperately cluttered schedule will work. Instructors, too, can enjoy a flexible schedule. This contemporary commitment to educational convenience has been implicitly institutionalized in the Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnerships section of the reauthorized Higher Education Act (enacted 7 October 1998), although the stipulations of that program do not demand asynchronous communication (Distance Learning in Higher Education, February 2000). And a major funding source for distance learning is the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Asynchronous Learning Network, which again does not mandate asynchronous learning but implies it in its title (Blumenstyk, 1998).

But that convenience and flexibility carries some serious liabilities, the chief one being a sense of disconnection and isolation. At a recent roundtable discussion of distance learning at the Modern Language Association meeting in Chicago, experienced distance learning educators agreed that motivating their students was a major problem in their classes, that their Web-based courses just lacked the energy of face-to-face (FTF) classes. One teacher had, in over two years, had only six students finish a course, with 45 often on active roster. Three instructors' courses were almost exclusively asynchronous; one of them offered a chatroom as an option. Cheating and wondering if a student was really doing his or her own work was also a concern for these teachers. A fourth member taught a wholly synchronous video class, and he had very different problems – mainly scheduling.

The lesson I took away from that roundtable was that both synchronous and asynchronous computer-supported teaching have their strengths and their shortcomings. Besides convenience, asynchronous courses allow students to proceed at their own pace, and often catalyze typically quiet members to participate more. Besides the immediacy of contact between instructors and students, synchronous learning expands the horizons of students by broadening the student population and ameliorating the barriers of geography. In an important 1995 article, John D. Murphy extols the virtues of asynchronous teaching over a traditional FTF course, but Murphy defines a traditional class as a lecture-based, passive-learning Carnegie Unit model. If online classes are wholly or predominantly asynchronous, they run the risk of becoming simply a wired Carnegie Unit course-passive education, albeit electronic. A critical element of Murphy's ideal computer-mediated course, student-to-student communication, can become lost if online classes rely too much on email, newsgroups, or other asynchronous formats. My point here is that computer-mediated communication, just like a FTF classroom setting, can be asynchronous or synchronous, and that we as teachers need to think about the nature of student-teacher and student-student communication and how that fits into our teaching objectives.

Obviously computer-mediated communication in teaching is here to stay. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation cites a January 1999 report by the International Data Corporation that estimates that 2.2 million students will be enrolled in distance education by 2002. To meet that demand, 27% more two-year colleges will offer distance learning courses by that year, and 22% more four-year institutions. Western Governors University (WGU) now offers four degree programs to several hundred students from 26 states and 7 foreign countries. Thirty-three states are participating in virtual universities like WGU, and five more are mulling that option (Distance Learning in Higher Education, December 2000).The tide of distance learning courses does not necessarily flow quietly. When the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA) accredited Jones International University in March 1999, the AAUP questioned the action.

Accreditation of distance education programs is, like those programs themselves, still evolving. The NCA does indeed have guidelines for distance education posted on its Web site, and one of those provisions is to "provide for timely and appropriate interaction between students and faculty, and among students."

But what kind of interaction? Will it be solely asynchronous communication, which is convenient, flexible, inexpensive, less resource-hungry, and, well, lonely? Or will there be some mix of real-time, synchronous interaction and asynchronous communication? Accrediting bodies don't offer teachers much guidance for the appropriate use of computer-mediated communication, so it's up to us to decide how to balance synchronous and asynchronous modes in our online classes. What percentage of interchanges should be synchronous, exactly what kind of synchronous communication (chatrooms? MOOs? streaming video?), how it will be integrated into a coherent pedagogy, will just have to be thrashed out by teachers as they write their syllabi and teach the classes every day. And my purpose here is simply to urge teachers to really consider, as they contemplate computer-based communication in their pedagogy, how much they want to rely on email or e-lists or chatrooms or MOOs.

The argument that technology won't support synchronous communication is already moot. A number of integrated Web-based suites – like WebCT, Blackboard, Pipeline and others – vie for dollars and attention in the front pages of the Chronicle. Very, very soon, high speed networks like vBNS (Very-high-performance Backbone Network Service) or Indiana's Abilene network promise to deliver streaming media and live video broadcasts at speeds that won't slow teaching down (Distance Learning in Higher Education, December 2000).

Computer-mediated communication is not for everyone. Some, like John M. Zikopoulos at Mesa Community College, found that the technical obstacles, the need for high learning motivation from students, and conflicts with his own interactive, team-oriented teaching style made his online course a disaster (Carr, 2000). Joyce Neff, an English professor at Old Dominion University, found that teaching a hybrid RL and televised course (along with asynchronous communication) had profound effects on her teaching: "The ways I perceived and manipulated the medium, the ways I imagined the subjectivities of my students, and the ways intermediaries affected my authorities all influenced… my writing pedagogy" (Neff, 1998, p.154). Computer-mediated communication forces pedagogical reinvention.

For teachers who are committed to using digital technology in the classroom, or for those who are teaching virtual classes, there is now a real opportunity for balancing synchronous and asynchronous exchanges in the "classroom." Synchronous online sessions cannot equal the subtlety, the humor, the energy, and the excitement of the real life (RL, as it is known in cyber circles) classroom, but it affords more immediacy than asynchronous communication alone. Dialogue and conversation are by definition immediate interchanges, are synchronous, and since Plato dialogue and conversation have been an integral part of teaching and learning. Immediate interchanges have an energy and earnestness that can't be matched by deferred responses, delayed replies. And teachers trying to energize and motivate students know the importance of being earnest.

Works Cited

Blumenstyk, G. (1998, November 13). A Philanthropy Puts Millions into Asynchronous Learning. Chronicle of Higher Education, A23-A24.

Carr, S. (2000, March 28). After Half a Course, a Professor Concedes Distance Education Is Not for Him. Chronicle of Higher Education. [Online].

Distance Learning in Higher Education. (1999, February). CHEA Update, number one. Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Distance Learning in Higher Education. (1999, December 7). CHEA Update, number two. Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Dorociak, S. (2000, March 27). Distance Education: A First Hand Account and Advice. StudentNow.

Freitas, F., Myers, S., & Avtgis, T. (1998). Student Perceptions of Instructor Immediacy in Conventional and Distributed Learning Classrooms. Communication Education 47(4), 366-72.

Murphy, J. (1997). Virtual Time Computer-Mediated Distance Learning versus the Carnegie Model. In G. Hawisher & C. Selfe (Eds.), Literacy, Technology, and Society (pp. 239-44). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Neff, J. (1998). From a Distance: Teaching Writing on Interactive Television. Research in the Teaching of Writing 33(2), 136-157.

Publication Information: Haefner, Joel. (2000). Opinion: The Importance of Being Synchronous. Academic.Writing. http://wac.colostate.edu/aw/teaching/haefner2000.htm
Publication Date: April 9, 2000

Contact Information:
Joel Haefner's Home Page: http://www.iwu.edu/~jhaefner/
Joel Haefner's Email: jhaefner@sun.iwu.edu

Joel Haefner teaches computer science and coordinates the writing program at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Copyright © 2000 Joel Haefner. Used with Permission.