Woman looking at laptop while clenching a pencil in her teeth

To sync or be async? Some thoughts (and questions to consider if making that choice).

Note: An updated version of this post has been posted by University Affairs.

It’s generally been agreed that 2020 is a raging dumpster fire. In higher education, students and faculty have been doing their best to get through courses in a term that has brought considerable (and unusual) challenges. Of course, it is not surprising that university students, faculty and administrators are looking at Fall 2020 courses and drawing conclusions re: online teaching in general, and comparing synchronous vs. asynchronous classes. I’m just hoping we won’t let dumpster fire smoke taint our approaches to online teaching!

Some online education experts have already expressed concern about conclusions being drawn from what is not an ideal semester by any measure, where many courses are being offered/taken online out of necessity rather than by choice. While some faculty (e.g., me) had the relative luxury of summer months to prepare for online teaching, others have had no break, and many sessionals/adjuncts may not have even been notified of teaching assignments long before the term began. I’m very lucky – I have a continuing teaching-focused faculty position, I’ve taught online before, and my university announced that the Fall term would be online very early, providing time for instructors to prepare. I have also had some amazing guidance and support from experts in my university teaching and learning and open learning centres, my colleagues in oCUBE, and the Online Learning Toolkit facilitators and community. I am not suggesting that how I ran my courses was ideal – like everyone, I did the best I could under the circumstances, and am grateful for the support and resources available to me.

Recently, I’ve been hearing very broad (occasionally worrisome) conclusions about synchronous vs. asynchronous classes. Much of this has come from faculty colleagues. As an academic advisor I’ve also had the privilege to hear about the experiences from a number of students, and these have varied widely in positive and negative ways. Personal experience and emotional stories are memorable, and will shape perceptions on both sides of the podium (screen?). I am hoping that we can also try to put these experiences into perspective, and while learning what lessons we can, try not to make overly-sweeping generalizations about a particular mode of offering online courses.

There are advantages and disadvantages, and best practises for course design and instructional methods with synchronous and asynchronous teaching. Of course, for faculty who do not normally teach online and/or are not education geeks, this may be uncharted territory. (Keeping up on the literature in your discipline is a challenge – adding DBER/pedagogy literature on top of that is a struggle!)

There are arguments made for synchronous courses providing some structure and community for students. This may be particularly beneficial for first year students who are making the transition from the structured high school environment, and those transferring from college programs. There are also arguments for asynchronous courses providing flexibility and autonomy, which may be appreciated more by upper year students, and those who are balancing academic commitments with demands of work, family, etc. Similar to face-to-face courses, there isn’t one “best” way to run online courses. As with so many aspects of teaching and learning, the way that the course is structured and run will make a huge difference in terms of how well those advantages are leveraged, and the challenges faced by students in our courses.  If you’re trying to decide whether to offer your online course synchronously or asynchronously, here are some questions to consider …

  • For synchronous courses, can discussion and active learning opportunities be brought in (rather than just conveying info that could have been delivered asynchronously)? Are there considerations for students who have technical issues, and/or may have to miss some classes because of work?
  • For asynchronous courses, are the course and LMS set up in such a way that students know and can easily see what they need to do, and when?
  • In an asynchronous course, providing instructor presence may take more deliberate attention. Can you ensure regular communication from the instructor and/or TAs (by email/through the LMS or tools like Teams)? Can you make instructional videos that show some element of your personality (even if you don’t feature yourself on camera regularly)?
  • Are there many learning objectives/outcomes of the course better supported by synchronous interactions? (My 2nd year intro micro course is a survey course (content-driven – there are various ways to share info); my 4th year microbial ecology course has more of a focus on skill development – I felt that some synchronous activities would be useful there.)
  • Are most/all of your students in several other courses offered synchronously? Do they have mandatory synchronous labs in some of these courses? (One thing that affected how I offered my larger course was knowing that the majority of the students in my class would also be taking at least two, possibly three other courses offered synchronously, each with synchronous labs – i.e., they could be spending 12-18 hours in online meetings just in those courses. The situation was different for most of my upper year students.) Depending on what you teach, this might not be a feasible thing to figure out, though.
  • What is your comfort level with the teaching activities/tools used in these modes? e.g., If you’ve produced videos for your courses in the past, asynchronous teaching may be less daunting than if this is something you would need to start learning from scratch. (HT to Nicole for bringing this up in Twitter discussion!)

There’s no “one size fits all” here, and just as there are flipped and blended courses offered in the traditional setting, it is also possible to use elements of asynchronous and synchronous online teaching in one course to provide some of the advantages of each. While I’d describe my Fall 2020 intro micro course as “mostly asynchronous” and microbial ecology as “mostly synchronous”, neither were completely one or the other. It is possible to provide a lot of the factual information asynchronously via recorded videos and written activities, while also having optional synchronous Q & A or discussion sessions. Conversely, classes can be offered synchronously, with some in-class individual and group activities/assignments, while providing recordings of those class sessions and alternate assignment versions for students unable to attend a class. I’ve seen various creative and thoughtful approaches being used by instructors over the past months.

This is just a starting place – there are other, more comprehensive resources available from people with more expertise than I have! A few things that helped me a lot when I was working on my courses for the fall term:

  • The Online Learning Toolkit Summer “Camp Course Online Learning” and “Fall-on-Call” were a lifeline for me (at a reasonable cost). Check out their “Spring-on-Call” community for support starting in January!

Do you have any other questions/advice for instructors planning their synchronous and asynchronous courses (or elements of courses)? Ideas to help push back against some of the assumptions and generalizations being made from online experiences over the past pandemic months? Comment below or tweet at me!

What I learned from 9 hours of online training (beyond the online training content)

Computer showing video conferencingOur Dean arranged for three days of Faculty of Science-specific workshops this week to help with preparing for our completely online Fall term courses. It’s great to have upper administration support for our teaching (also from CTL , OOL & ITS), and given the turnout and discussions that happened each day, there was clearly a lot of interest. We had the chance to discuss and learn about many tools, key considerations (pedagogical and technological), and express some worries/concerns that many of us have about our upcoming virtual term.
Additionally, we got to experience online learning from a student perspective in an intense way – we had three days of workshops, each with a three hour session in MS Teams or Adobe Collaborate Ultra. I had already some participant experience in the oCUBE Virtual UnConference, webinars, and online MSc defenses over the past few weeks, but this was particularly intense in terms of the amount of content covered, and the time spent in virtual meeting systems. So, in no particular order, here are things I learned (or had reinforced) this week:

Continue reading “What I learned from 9 hours of online training (beyond the online training content)”

Biology online/open-book exams, Part 2: time for reflection & discussion

In a previous post, I shared some tips on making online open-book tests. Those were mostly practical points, pulled together quickly after COVID-19 abruptly pushed us online. Originally, I anticipated writing a second post going more in depth about some of the challenges, practical and ethical, of online testing in large courses, particularly survey courses in biology (and other disciplines) that tend to be content-heavy. (It’s drafted, and a VERY LONG READ …) Instead, I’ll just mention my concerns at the broadest level … and why I’ll likely revisit the details later.

Continue reading “Biology online/open-book exams, Part 2: time for reflection & discussion”

Second Pandemic Book Club meeting: aligning video content with instructional goals

We had our first PBC meeting on May 4, and it was great to get to talk to different educators about the value of making educational videos (Section 1 in Karen Costa‘s “99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos”) . We talked about the book, but we also discussed some other aspects of online teaching, and I so appreciated getting to hear different perspectives and advice!

I’m hoping to have another PBC meeting next week, discussing tips in Section 2 (“Aligning Video Content with Instructional Goals”) of Costa’s book.

UPDATE: We’ll meet Fri. May 15, 2-3 PM (ET) in Google Meet: https://meet.google.com/ezw-ordk-hhx

Physical copies* of the book still seem to be delayed in getting to Canadian buyers, though I think people can still participate even if their book hasn’t yet arrived. I’ll continue to update the Google Doc for sharing reading notes: Supplementary materials for Pandemic Book Club: Costa book.  If you are reading the book, and are willing to contribute to the document, just request edit access (click the button at the top of the page)!

Are you interested in hosting a PBC meeting on this book, or others? Sign up here!

* If you would like an eBook version of Costa’s book, it can be purchased for download from Amazon (Kindle), Stylus or Kobo (ePub). The Stylus price with the (current) 30% off promotion is about the same as the Kobo price and Amazon.ca Kindle prices, once the exchange rate, as of time of writing, is factored in.

Biology online/open-book exams, Part 1: general tips/considerations & examples

With COVID-19 shifting us all online, and as someone who has taught online (fully and partially), I have had a number of colleagues approach me with questions and ask advice. Though I don’t consider myself an “expert”, on online teaching, I can (and want to) share what I do know, and my own experiences, and I’m going to try to do that here.
Continue reading “Biology online/open-book exams, Part 1: general tips/considerations & examples”

UPDATED: 1st Pandemic book club meeting: Costa’s “99 Tips for Creating & Sustaining Educational Videos”

Results from the Doodle poll for a book club day/time to start discussing the newly published (and incredibly timely) book: “99 Tips for Creating & Sustaining Educational Videos”: the most popular time was Mon. May 4, 2-3 PM (Eastern Time).

I’ve set up a Microsoft Teams meeting (and hope it will work for this). Teams is available for download on computer, phone, iPad: https://teams.microsoft.com/downloads . You can also  access it through a  browser: https://teams.microsoft.com/

Need the book?

It can be purchased:

– directly from Stylus, the publisher. The paperback and ePub versions are both on sale right now (along with other online ed books). Note that prices are in USD: https://styluspub.presswarehouse.com/landing/onlinelearning2020 (Outside the US, it will likely take some additional time to get the paperback.)

It’s a really new book, and Chapters/Indigo and Amazon don’t have the hard copy yet, but eBooks are available:

Kobo has the ePub format: https://www.kobo.com/ca/en/ebook/99-tips-for-creating-simple-and-sustainable-educational-videos (If buying in Canada, this is a few $ cheaper than the Stylus ePub, given the current exchange rate).

The Kindle version is available:
In Canada – CDN$: https://www.amazon.ca/Creating-Simple-Sustainable-Educational-Videos-ebook/dp/B086VW87QH/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=karen+costa&qid=1587391775&sr=8-1
US: https://www.amazon.com/Creating-Simple-Sustainable-Educational-Videos-ebook-dp-B086VW87QH/dp/B086VW87QH/ref=mt_kindle?_encoding=UTF8&me=&qid=

I’m looking forward to seeing/meeting other folks interested in this book (and making educational videos)!

Pandemic time higher ed book club

Cat with educational booksHaving bought a few higher education related books just before or after The Great Shift to Remote, I found myself seeking some motivation to actually dig into them. I thought a little social interaction (and accountability) might be helpful, and I floated out a tweet asking if others might be interested in discussing a couple of these: Karen Costa‘s “99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos” (at the time of writing on sale with some other online learning books) and Kevin Gannon‘s “Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto”. I was thrilled to see how many people responded!

Continue reading “Pandemic time higher ed book club”

Conference season!

I haven’t written a blog post in a long time. Often, the regular academic year is pretty hectic, so I’m less likely in general to post here, but the past few months have been … unusual. (Like I have to point that out!) It’s been tough for me to justify taking the time and effort to write about teaching and learning stuff lately, as  these topics seem almost frivolous, given unfolding world events. (As a Canadian living in the US, I’m still concerned about the current political and societal situation, and I may talk about that more later, but that’s another post … maybe.) However, life goes on, and as we get into conference season, it’s time to think (and talk!) about things beyond day-to-day teaching (and other concerns).

The Windsor-Oakland Teaching and Learning conference is always a great start to conference season for me, running early in May. This year, I was particularly impressed by the keynote from Peter Felten (@pfeltenNC): “Valuing Teaching: What Matters Most“.  This led me to read the most recent book that he co-authored, The Undergraduate Experience (Jossey-Bass, 2016 – Indigo Chapters link). Like his keynote, the book is rich in providing clear information, backed up by evidence, with illustrative examples of positive change at various universities. I’ve read a few books centred on change in undergraduate education, which I’ve typically found to include advice that may not be realistic for my own school, or not feasible for someone to act upon who is not in upper administration. I actually felt like the Felten et al. book provided elements where I may be able to make a difference (beyond my regular goal of teaching and advising as well as I can, in my current position).

oCUBE 2016 group photo
oCUBE 2016 group photo – could you find a more friendly group?

The annual oCUBE May UnConference is coming up very soon! This is the eighth one, and I’m happy to see that our grass-roots community of practise is still going strong. We are a group of individuals across various institutions, in a number of different roles, all interested in improving Biology education. (It started as an Ontario group, but we now have members from other provinces, and even in the USA!) The UnConference format seems to work very well for the kinds of discussions our group has, and having some new and different members contributing, along with a mixture of original and new members means that we get different perspectives and a diversity of interests and experience in our sessions. Our meeting location at Shamrock Lodge (near Port Carling, ON) is a lovely retreat away from our respective cities … and I personally think that the blueberry pancakes promote creativity and well-being! (The Shamrock Lodge folks treat us  – and FEED us – very well.)

The annual conference for the Canadian Society of Microbiologists (CSM) is in June, in Waterloo, ON. The conference program looks great, and I’m excited to see Ed Yong (@EdYong209) and Jack Gilbert (@gilbertjacka) speak again. (Unabashed fangirl here!!!) Even more exciting, for me, is that we are holding our third pre-conference CSM FOME (Forum On Microbiology Education) workshop on June 20! Our keynote facilitator, Karen Smith (@DrMyth115), is a great microbiology educator and communicator, and our planning committee was faced with a challenge we had not faced in the previous two years – we have more workshop/presentation proposals than we can actually fit in our allotted time. CSM FOME co-chair Josie Libertucci (@Jos_Tucci) and I are thrilled to see how many people have registered for the workshop so far, and are looking forward to seeing this section grow in the CSM in future. (P.S. Is it rude to bring my copy of “I Contain Multitudes” to ask Ed Yong to sign it? What about getting a selfie with Ed and Jack?)

We also have the Western Conference on Science Education (WCSE) in July this summer (July 5-7). One of my favourite conferences, it runs every other year at Western University in London, ON, attracting high-quality workshops/presentations/posters, and opportunities to interact with highly engaged educators throughout the conference both in and out of conference activities. Early Registration for 2017 is still open at reduced rates until Friday, May 26th.  If you’ve been to WCSE before, you can once again save $50 on your registration if you find a Newb (WCSE newbie!) to bring along (and if you’ve never been to WCSE, being a “Newb” with a previous WCSE-attendee will save you $50, too!).

It’s going to be a busy summer, and that’s a good antidote to some of the other stuff going on in the world right now. What are you looking forward to over the next few months?



Ancillary fee anxiety

AnxietyCat Ancillary
Anxiety cat is anxious about ancillary fees

I had originally planned to write (and actually wrote a draft of) a post to explore my questions and concerns about asking students to pay for access to a web-based classroom response system (WBCRS henceforth), like Lecture Tools (now integrated into Echo 360), Top Hat, or Learning Catalytics. My major concern? These tools are basically ways to teach huge classes better, to bring in the interactivity and communication aspects difficult to achieve in the large class setting – kind of a “large class tax” on students. (I’ve used Lecture Tools for several terms – see my previous posts here, here, and here.)


I’d hoped to gain some clarity,  maybe spark some conversation with colleagues about the issues relating to using a WBCRS at a cost to students. As part of my thinking, I considered some of the other ancillary items we routinely ask students to purchase (i.e., not usually included in their tuition, but required for a course). I was originally thinking that a teaching tool is really different from a required textbook, dissection kit, safety glasses, or a lab coat. Now I’m not only concerned about the ethics/fairness of asking students to purchase licenses for a WBCRS, but also requiring textbooks and disposable lab coats! Continue reading “Ancillary fee anxiety”

Tips from Tanya: Some points for students about technology in the classroom

I wrote this for my students (after Tamara Kelly and I facilitated a session on student devices in the classroom at the Western Conference on Science Education 2015) and am sharing it here, in hopes it may be of interest/use to others! Please note that my classroom policies about device use are specific to the courses I currently teach.

Almost everyone has a smartphone, laptop, tablet, or combination of these devices with them during their waking hours (and beyond, in some cases). There is huge potential for distraction using these devices – which is fine if you’re waiting in a long, boring line or on the bus, but can be problematic in the classroom*.

While a few profs ban these devices in their classes, I’m taking a different approach. In much of the world, including most work-places, these devices aren’t banned, and people are expected to be able to manage work/life and various distractions. That being said, I can understand why some instructors have different policies for their own classes.

Some of our in-class activities will make use of online resources, so I’ll encourage you to use them, if you wish to do so.  I’ll be using LectureTools, which allows me to ask you questions that you can answer on your device … and for you to ask me questions in the system (without raising your hand).

If you don’t want to use a device in our class, that’s fine! One way to avoid distraction is to keep these devices out of sight (and hearing), and I’m happy to support those who take this approach. There will be alternative activities for students who don’t use the in-class system.

If you do want to use your device(s) in class, there are some things to be aware of:

Continue reading “Tips from Tanya: Some points for students about technology in the classroom”