By Joshua O’Brien (Class of 2022)
March 11th was the one day, more than any other, that crystallized the effect of the pandemic on American life. For starters, that was the day the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. It was the day that the United States confirmed 1,000 cases, and the day that the stock market entered bear territory. It was also the day UNC announced the extension of spring break and preparation for remote instruction.
I was heartbroken—Chapel Hill is like home to me. So, it wasn’t until the final days of the extended break that I chose to think about how my classes would be conducted remotely. I vaguely figured that coursework would be done largely on our own time, via Sakai, with instructional material to read and listen to on course websites. This was the model that made sense to me, since I took two asynchronous, online Latin courses in high school. These were online courses that did not regularly meet through teleconference, unlike synchronous courses, which require all participants to be active at the same time, usually through a regular telecommunication component.
Half of my UNC courses would follow the asynchronous model—we were not going to meet on Zoom, and lectures would be recorded. The other half of my courses were synchronous, with Zoom meetings at our normal class times. While this made sense for classes like French and the discussion sections in HIST 207: The Global Cold War, where speaking is vital to learning, it didn’t make sense for most other courses.
In my experience, synchronous courses are often built on a well-intentioned but misguided premise—that in-person classes could easily be replicated in online learning through teleconference. Unfortunately, this doesn’t truly account for the change of circumstance. When students move home, professors cannot count on them having access to the resources, schedule, and environment that they would normally have on campus.
Twitter threads and op-eds (also here and here) across the internet have accounted for the equity issues in synchronous education—time-zone differences, internet access, sharing resources with family, caring for loved ones, etc. There are so many anecdotes on all of these, and they are important to read and understand. But even for me, with my internet access and laptop in suburbia, I found asynchronous courses more fulfilling than my synchronous ones.
In the History department, my asynchronous course was HIST 207, with Professor Michael Morgan, on the Global Cold War. Professor Morgan recorded his slides with voiceovers on Warpwire, and I could listen at my own pace. I found this beneficial—I could take breaks or pause to contemplate the material. The recordings also allowed me to take more notes than I could in a synchronous course, since I could pause to think and write.
This combination was helpful—while note-taking is not a problem in lectures, it was an issue at home. In lecture halls, the uncomfortable chairs, the notebook on my lap, and Professor Morgan’s fast-paced lectures helped me to focus. At home, this didn’t work at all. Professors talk more slowly over Zoom, and they don’t always have the same visual aids. Plus, my brain found more distractions in my spinning chair, laptop, and room decor than it ever would in the lecture hall. These things weren’t debilitating—I still did my work well. They did, however, complicate my learning. The change in environment was enough to require my brain have a little more time to process, write, and stay on course. If this was true for me in quiet suburbia, then it has to be true for people with spottier internet connections or family obligations.
In the Public Policy Department I had a similar experience. The YouTube lectures Professor Rebecca Kreitzer provided were easier to digest than synchronous meetings. Professor Kreitzer’s course had the added benefit of a Slack channel. A group-based communication platform, Slack can roughly be described as the professional lovechild of email and Reddit. It allows group discussion as well as one-on-one interactions with other members. The course’s Slack channel provided a way for students to ask questions openly and discuss the class’ concepts. It was a creative way to integrate discussion-based-learning with asynchronous teaching. And it fostered more participation over time than my synchronous sections could.
One of the main arguments for synchronous courses is direct interaction between the student and the professor. I can appreciate this argument, and I did genuinely enjoy interacting with my professors in synchronous courses. But while I value the interaction I got to have with my instructors, I am not convinced that it made up for the other difficulties in synchronous learning—I still had a harder time internalizing material. In addition, I am not sure that interaction can’t be implemented in other ways, such as through Zoom office hours, course slack channels, and the smaller discussion sections that HIST 207 used. Even with interaction, I simply learned better in asynchronous courses.
My observations of my courses—the ease of asynchronous versus the strain of synchronous—boils down to one fundamental difference. Synchronous courses force people’s bedrooms and Zoom servers to be classrooms. That shouldn’t be the goal. Classrooms are special places, and while it’s unfortunate that we’ve lost them, it is unreasonable to expect us to find virtual replacements. Asynchronous teaching doesn’t make this assumption. Instead of forcing students to learn like we are somewhere we aren’t, asynchronous allows for the flexibility students need to control our learning outside the classroom. This puts all students in a greater position to be successful. I speak from personal experience—I took much more away from my asynchronous courses this semester than I was able to from my synchronous courses. With at least some courses slated to be online in the Autumn, I hope that professors will seriously consider using asynchronous models. The online classes we might have in the Fall will be more productive if they are.