Throw Out the Bathwater But Keep the Baby: A Case for Synchronous Class Sessions

Concurrent Session 4
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Brief Abstract

Despite widespread availability of online synchronous tools, only 4 percent of faculty integrate regular sessions in their online courses. When faculty limit course delivery to asynchronous formats they risk “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” Institutions can build a new vision of online learning that includes more synchronous interactions.


Sarah Cheverton has been an administrative and instructional faculty member at James Madison University for 20 years. For much of that time, she led a large and talented group of instructional technologists and designers, media experts, classroom technologists, and system administrators whose focus was supporting faculty and students in their use of various online learning technologies and strategies for successful teaching and learning. Since 2016, she has served as the Assistant Coordinator of Online Learning in the Office of the Vice-Provost where she oversees state authorization compliance, participates in strategic planning around online learning, helps to coordinate various services and support for online learning, and teaches for JMU's College of Business.

Extended Abstract

For nearly two decades, the campaign for online learning has emphasized “convenience” and “flexibility,” implying, among other aspects of the online learning environment, that “online usually means asynchronous.” Even now, when a plethora of virtual meeting tools are available, current marketing materials for online programs and courses and popular online course development guides have largely reinforced this notion (Cheverton, 2019, unpublished, “What’s the Message in Online Program Marketing and Quality Guides?”). Accordingly, 71% of online instructors report teaching in an asynchronous format, while only 4 percent report integrating regularly scheduled real time sessions in their online courses (Jaschik & Lederman, 2018, “The 2018 Survey Of Faculty Attitudes On Technology”). 

Some might argue that “asynchronous” is the point of online learning, since a primary benefit to the student is the ability to “take classes anytime and study at your own pace and convenience” (Mittal, 2017, “Benefits of Online Learning For College Students”). And many would agree that asynchronous teaching and learning activities allow for students to “spend more time refining their contributions, which are generally considered more thoughtful compared to synchronous communication” (Hrastinski, 2008, Asynchronous and Synchronous E-Learning). 

That being said, when institutions and faculty overemphasize the flexibility and convenience aspects of online learning by limiting its delivery to an asynchronous format, they risk “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” In other words, they risk inadvertently throwing out some of the best learning opportunities (the baby) when they eliminate regular required “seat” time (perceived as part of the bathwater). For example, the asynchronous format excludes the valuable pedagogy of spontaneous discussion. As one instructor stated to Cheverton in a workshop for online course development, “My best teaching is when I’m facilitating a real-time discussion and there’s spontaneity and I can ask deeper questions and students can hear each other in the moment. I’m afraid of losing that in the online environment.” Restricting formats to the asynchronous approach also requires a steeper learning curve for traditional faculty who must learn both a completely different pedagogy and a plethora of technology tools; increases their preparation time as they record lectures and complete other tasks; places greater demands on media and other institutional support resources; and leaves faculty and students fatigued by reading and typing. 

Cheverton proposes that institutions can build a better environment for the “baby” by integrating
more synchronous sessions in its online learning environment; they can mitigate some of the challenges of a completely asynchronous format and achieve the potential benefits of the synchronous experience. For example, by enabling faculty to use live interaction in the online environment as they do in the on-campus environment, institutions could reduce faculty work load and ease their transition from a traditional on-campus classroom to the online classroom. Furthermore, institutions could more easily meet compliance regulations and quality expectations. For example, regularly scheduled synchronous sessions will enable institutions to more easily measure attendance and demonstrate “regular and substantive interaction,” required by the Federal Higher Education Act for institutions to receive Title IV financial aid funds and a concept that is difficult to define (Kronk, 2019, “What Is Regular And Substantive Interaction? The Term That Has Defined Online Learning Still Lacks Clear Definition”). Similarly, synchronous sessions could help course designs to more easily meet the Quality Matters General Standard 5, which requires certified courses to include activities that “facilitate and support learner interaction and engagement” (2018, QM Higher Education Rubric, Sixth Edition).   

Integrating regularly scheduled online synchronous sessions may also help students by enabling closer student-faculty and student-student connections. For example, Weissmandisser (2017, “Evaluating The Effectiveness Of A Synchronous Online Environment In Establishing Social, Cognitive, And Teaching Presence) found that synchronous technology and its associated teaching style provides “the mechanisms by which connections can occur that otherwise may not in the asynchronous environment. These connections promote proximity and the connections allow teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence to build a community of inquiry.” In fact, evidence shows that students want this kind of connection. For example, Zotti (2017, “The Implementation Of Web Conferencing Technologies in Online Graduate Classes) found that, “the primary driver [of using web conferencing] is a strong desire by a vocal percentage of course participants for real-time interaction and a more ‘real’ classroom experience.” According to Clinefelter & Aslanian (2017, Online College Students 2017: Comprehensive Data On Demands And Preferences), 72% of online students indicated that they would be willing to login to a virtual session with their instructor and other students at least 2-3 times per course and as many as 5 times per course; 76% found the idea of virtual office hours attractive or very attractive. And, according to a 2018 survey of 207 James Madison University students conducted by JMU’s Online Learning Coordinators, 57% selected “Lack of interaction with my online instructor” as a reason for NOT taking an online course. Furthermore, Cheverton’s own course evaluation results indicate that the students enrolled in her online courses enjoy the weekly required synchronous session through WebEx. One student wrote, “Other online classes I have taken are strictly through an online program. The professor does not actually hold a meeting time. I liked this class much more because it feels less like an online class when the professor holds class meetings and teaches the material.” 

Finally, integrating regularly scheduled synchronous sessions in online courses will help prepare students for the modern work experience. According to Gallup’s 2017 report, “The State of the American Workplace,” from 2012 to 2016, “the number of employees working remotely rose by four percentage points, from 39% to 43%, and employees working remotely spent more time doing so.” Stolzoff (2018, “Why all work meetings should be video meetings, even the in-person ones”) proposes that “with the majority of work in many offices already happening online, maybe meetings should be no different.” Even one of Cheverton’s students indicated that his experience with WebEx through her course, “helped me gain the skills of using WebEx, which I have never used before this class. A recent job that I applied for, in the required skills it mentioned that the individual should be knowledgeable in WebEx, as there will be many online meetings using this program. Now I can say that I am very knowledgeable in this program because of this class.”

Considering the abundance of synchronous technologies that are now available, the known and potential benefits of synchronous interaction, and the increasingly virtual nature of the modern work environment, higher education should insist that institutions build a new vision of online learning that includes more online synchronous interactions. Institutions should examine their assumptions about online learning and, if necessary, adjust their expectations. They should encourage faculty to consider integrating synchronous sessions before automatically designing their course in an asynchronous format. They should provide ample training and support for faculty who need to learn how to use synchronous meeting tools. Lastly, institutions should help create expectations and build faculty confidence by reimagining the online teaching and learning environment, sharing examples of excellence, and promoting best practice.

In the first part of her session, Cheverton will share evidence to support her view that integrating regular online synchronous sessions into online courses will benefit students, faculty, and the institution, and that many institutions should adjust their perceptions and expectations around the online learning environment, including the popular assumption that “online means asynchronous.” She will then ask attendees to reflect on the assumptions about online learning that seem to be present in their own institutions and how institutional expectations and practices reflect those assumptions. Finally, she will invite attendees to discuss the various opportunities and challenges around moving towards a more synchronous-inclusive online learning environment.