When should we choose to teach live rather than asynchronously?

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In an earlier article, I dissected a sophisticated learning design for live online active learning, with responsive teaching, peer-learning and group work in breakout rooms. As the example demonstrated, this is a relatively complex approach, when compared to live on-campus teaching, and compared to asynchronous methods. There’s a lot of technical, cognitive, communicational and social complexity involved, and plenty of scope for things to go wrong. The simplest form of live online teaching, the live-streamed lecture, reduces these risks, but at the same time has little additional value over sharing a pre-recorded lecture. We can combine pre-recorded lectures with other kinds of asynchronous collaboration, including discussion forums and tasks, as well as shorter, less risky, live Q&A sessions (as in this example). We can also use a hybrid-flexible (hyflex) approach, in which some students attend live, and others access recordings and other means of interacting in their own time. But are there still cases in which we want the main medium for learning to be large and long synchronous online events?

To answer that question, and then to formulate better advice for teachers, we need think about why and when live interaction matters. The easy answer points to the sense of presence and community that we feel in live teaching. However, we might argue that if used well, less-synchronous mediums like discussion forums can achieve this. Although a discussion forum is not dependent upon immediate communication, to the extent that a live lecture is, we can interact quickly and interweave our developing understandings with each other’s responses. If we consider how that kind of working has become the norm in many industries, and has replaced large synchronous events without a loss of community and presence, then we have less of a clear justification for live lectures.

We’ve already mentioned the higher risks involved with live, online teaching. But are there different risks that arise with asynchronous forms? And how do the risks balance out? If we think about this from a teacher and student perspective, we get a different answer to that we see from a technology perspective.

Teaching and learning is about transformation. The teacher and the students operate with an appreciation of how students should be different as an outcome. Their appreciation is different. The teacher usually has a clearer understanding of what success should look like. But students have a right to their own version of this, and increasingly the co-constructed, emergent, nature of education is being recognised and valued. Regardless of the details of what success looks like, everyone involved in educational activity shares an interest in achieving success. And consequently, they are conscious of the need to reduce risk. In reality, the management of risk is an essential capability for all parties. Students learn by making mistakes and improving. If, as in higher education, we hope that students develop individuality and originality in themselves, then risk, failure, learning are even more important.

But the management of risk doesn’t run at the same level throughout a course – and this is a critical point in understanding teaching, and empathising with the psychology of teachers. For example, there are points in time when we want to set-up the conditions for student learning very carefully, and ensure that those conditions are met. We might want to model behaviours, establish concepts, define challenges. And we want to do this quickly and efficiently. In return, students want to establish these foundations and be certain of themselves before they diverge into individual or group learning.

Engagement is a key aspect of this. Teachers operate with what we can call an “expected engagement profile” – often tacitly in mind. Students will have a sense of how well they can sustain engagement, and the means by which they succeed in doing so, or drift-off into daydreaming or scrolling through Twitter. Teachers have a sense of how their students might engage and disengage, and they design and adapt teaching to manage that engagement. At points this will involve strategies to reduce the risk of disengagement, and to increase the likelihood of success.

The social aspect may also be essential to this. We may need to quickly and securely establish community and presence, a sense of supporting each other and confidence. We want to guarantee that these conditions are established, get them right quickly, respond and adjust if needed. The social and emotional cues that we get in a synchronous setting, especially through voice and body language, are key to this.

There is then, at least sometimes, justification for live synchronous teaching, as a means of reducing risk and guaranteeing success, at the start of a learning activity. But it doesn’t stop there. The high degree of complexity and difficulty encountered in higher education learning, the interdependency of many parts (knowledge, processes, actions etc.), may require many more times at which this intensive synchronous interaction is necessary. Thinking about my own teaching, in Design Thinking, students progress at an astonishing rate over ten weeks, and even in a single three-hour session. The value we add is in feeding this learning with “content”, selected using an agile design approach to meet the emerging needs of the students. But also, in responding to them quickly, in helping them synthesise and test their understanding. To do this in a live teaching situation, we actively seek continuous feedback: we listen, observe, interpret, infer, think, respond. Teaching is as much about listening to the students as it is about talking. And sometimes, to guarantee that it works, we have to do it live.

So, when choosing methods for teaching online and on-campus, teachers will naturally be aware of the risks of students not progressing, not “getting it”, and will want to use more immediate methods to lower those risks. In return, technologists must find ways in which that may be done with fewer risks resulting from over-complex designs and systems. It is a compromise. Perhaps the most important design challenge in learning technology development.

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Academic Technologist, IT Services, University of Warwick Fellow of the Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellow Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence

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