Over the last year, many classes at the University have been forced into online synchronous formats, which is meant to replicate an in-person lecture with students and professors present on Zoom at the same time. However, defining what a synchronous class is has not been easy, causing the line between synchronicity and asynchronicity to be blurred for both professors and students.
Deputy University spokesperson Wesley Hester provided some statistics for synchronous and asynchronous classes over email to the Cavalier Daily, stating that “47 percent of our classes and 53 percent of our undergraduate classes were online synchronous, meaning the instructor is meeting with the students at a set time.”
“The decision to employ asynchronous learning is usually based on the subject matter and weather or not self-paced learning has been seen to be more successful in that discipline in a virtual environment,” Hester said. “However, even those classes that meet asynchronously can offer opportunities for students to connect, such as virtual discussion sections, group projects, and forums or chats.”
For classes with lectures that have hundreds of students, professors have realized that recording them to be viewed later is an easier alternative for both themselves and students than lecturing live online. Assoc. Religion Prof. Heather Warren can attest to this experience.
“My lecture classes have over 100 people, making anything like a regular class difficult,” Warren said in an email to the Cavalier Daily. “With that many people and an online format while lecturing, it is too much for me to track raising hands or chat questions.”
Having pre-recorded lectures is beneficial for some students because it allows for quality lectures from professors alongside the flexibility of watching the lectures at a time of the student’s choosing.
First-year College student Sophia Lee believes that the benefits of having pre-recorded lectures outweigh having synchronous ones.
“I think the best would be pre-recorded lectures with more office times available or discussion sections for additional questions for classes with a lot of students,” Lee said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.
However, this also creates potential for students to fall behind and go about the course at different rates — resulting in potential concerns about the experience being inequitable.
“[Pre-recorded lectures] are definitely harder to keep up with especially when everyone is going at a different pace,” Lee said.
For many students and professors at the University, having asynchronous lectures for synchronous classes can make it more difficult to distinguish between synchronous and asynchronous classes, as pre-recorded lectures are typically associated with asynchronous formatting.
According to Hester, there are 9,463 undergraduate students enrolled in online asynchronous courses, and 16,533 undergraduate students enrolled in online synchronous courses. For Warren, the difference between the two class types is not a useful distinction.
“The choice to make a class synchronous or asynchronous is a false one, because my class is both,” Warren said. “My approach to synchronous or asynchronous is not so different because my learning goals are the same.”
However, despite synchronous large lectures taking what seems like an asynchronous form for many classes, classes with weekly discussion sections continue to allow for active participation and interaction with other students and teachers in smaller groups.
In addition, professors have provided resources such as office hours, email accessibility and spaces to post comments and questions for assistance with the difficulties that come with the transition to an online platform for classes.
“[Professors] have provided a lot of flexible office hours and have been pretty lenient with grading and the workload,” Lee said.
At the end of the day, however, many professors and students agree that online classes, whether synchronous or asynchronous, cannot match the same atmosphere and level of intimacy between students and professors provided by the in-person experience.
“The transition to online teaching was abrupt — I tell people that I was catapulted into the 21st century,” Warren said. “There is no way to replace person-to-person, in-the-flesh teaching.”
Lee also agrees that learning online as opposed to in person has made it difficult to connect with others the same way she would be able to in an in-person environment.
“Online classes have made it harder to meet new people and get to know my professors on a more personal level… the amount of participation in activities and discussions are really lower for online classes,” Lee said. “I think professors and students are a lot more enthusiastic about being in the same room as everyone and learning that way.”
With the new hurdles that arose with the pandemic, professors and students are both doing their best to make the most of the situation and adapt to the new online formatting of classes nonetheless. Warren believes she is doing the best trying to adapt to technological challenges while still managing to teach, and has been impressed with the efforts by both her students and her colleagues.
“I am so impressed with student effort, initiative, creativity, and persistence, that it is incentive to expand my technical reach in service of teaching despite the other pressures of being a faculty member,” Warren said.