Choosing a Teaching Mode

Synchronous & Asynchronous Instruction

When teaching remotely, instructors can employ two primary modes of instruction: synchronous and asynchronous. Instructors should plan to use a combination of both to best support student learning.

Synchronous Instruction: It is recommended that instructors and teaching teams consider what needs to be done synchronously to achieve learning goals and build a sense of community, and to decide what elements of student participation and learning can be achieved using tools and materials that can be accessed asynchronously.

Benefits include:

  • More opportunity for responsiveness and improvisation

  • More student contact

  • More real-time opportunities to dispel confusion or misunderstanding

  • More scheduled structure to support student learning

Drawbacks include:

  • Student technical/scheduling challenges

  • Student attention challenges

  • Unstable internet connections

  • Challenges of managing a real-time virtual classroom

  • Zoom fatigue

When opting for real-time, synchronous learning, instructors should create alternatives for when students are unable to attend (such as recording the synchronous instruction).

Asynchronous Instruction: Instructors prepare instructional materials for students in advance of students’ access. Students may access the materials at a time of their choosing and interact with the materials and each other and complete activities over a longer period of time (e.g. with a deadline at the end of each week in the quarter).

Benefits include:

  • More temporal flexibility for instructor and students

  • Potential for more cognitive engagement since students often have more time with materials (especially pre-recorded lectures)

  • Enables holistic course planning (from beginning to end)

  • Increases personalization in learning environments as students can self-pace through material

  • Potential for greater integration and sharing of applied learning, such as fieldwork (photos, interviews, research) based assignments

Drawbacks include:

  • Decreased real time engagement

  • Increased potential for misunderstanding if there isn’t immediate feedback

  • Increased need to communicate often with students by providing reminders, updates and announcements

  • More front-end work to plan and set up instructional tools

  • May require more flexibility with office hours and communication practices given that there will be fewer real-time interactions

immediacy & bandwidth

Adapted from the Integrated Course Design for Remote Instruction (ICD-RI) course at UC Santa Cruz. Click here for access to the course or to sign up for a facilitated cohort offering.

Now that you are considering asynchronous and synchronous instruction, this matrix (adapted from Daniel Stanford’s original) is extremely helpful. It compares immediacy and internet bandwidth, which are important considerations for course design that takes into account students' various situations during remote instruction and learning contexts.

Immediacy is how quickly you can expect your students to respond when interacting with you and their peers. This is typically thought of as a good thing, and it is clearly woven into the fabric of face-to-face instruction. For many instructors this spring, shifting classes to synchronous Zoom-based instruction was a way to preserve immediacy in a somewhat comfortable instructional space. One of the biggest advantages of online learning, however, is that it often provides you and your students with more flexibility, as well as time to engage with instructional videos (watching and rewatching videos).

Bandwidth is just what you expect, and it’s measured by the maximum rate of data transfer of an internet connection. For those of us living at or working on a university campus, we enjoy the benefit of a very high bandwidth internet connection. For students studying from home, the same may not be true. Using high-bandwidth technologies, while gaining immediacy through them, may exclude some students from being able to fully participate. It’s important for you to consider how this may impact the success of these students, as well as their sense of belonging, in your course.

Highly technical details: Your internet speed should be 800kbps/1.0Mbps (up/down) for high quality video. Click here for more system requirements for Zoom.

Green. The standards of instruction while teaching online or in-person. These aren’t flashy, but they are necessary and effective ways to teach and communicate with students.

Blue. These are standards of online teaching and learning. Collaborative documents, in particular, have a function in all courses, even if that’s just as a running list of FAQs that are compiled in a Google Doc. Slack is a popular and free software for group communications that can allow students to communicate quickly without the need for scheduling their day around a synchronous class session.

Yellow. Don’t underestimate this quadrant. Yes, it is high bandwidth, and yes it is low immediacy. However, this is where pre-recorded video or audio lectures and demonstrations are captured. With flexibility built into your course, students with low bandwidth can choose times of the day to watch or download your lectures. (We’ll talk about the tools to create pre-recorded materials later on.) We’ll come back to this in a later module, but for pre-recorded video, keep things short (no more than 15 minutes) and sequence your instruction over multiple videos that build upon each other.

Red. This quadrant is intentionally red. You should proceed with caution and consideration for your students circumstances. Using Zoom for synchronous classes or office hours will provide some of the highest opportunities for immediacy in an online course, but they are the most inflexible and bandwidth-intensive activities that students can be asked to do.

There are tradeoffs in each quadrant, and most courses will combine approaches using methods from different categories. We encourage you to be imaginative in considering how each week’s assignments and activities can fit into the green quadrant. This category, which Sanford calls the “underappreciated workhorses,” will provide foundational tools (file sharing for readings and data, email, and discussion boards) that can be used to create fantastic courses. Using them also ensures that you are creating an inclusive and effective environment for learning. Finally, starting from the lower-left quadrant (green), will allow you to be more intentional and informed as you choose from the other quadrants.

Click here for an excellent article by Mike Caulfield that considers a variety of green-quadrant approaches.