Please Don’t Require Synchronous Work in Your Remote Classes

Asynchronous work is the standard in undergraduate courses that are designed as fully online courses. In a high-stress situation in which faculty who typically teach F2F classes now have to teach remotely, they are necessary.

It’s tempting to think that our students ought to be able to synch up to our classes remotely just as they were able to come to class in person. But that’s not reality. Here’s why:

  • They are now in different time zones. It’s not only unreasonable to ask them to wake up in the middle of the night to attend your class (or even just at 5 am in California for an 8 am class in New York)–it’s contradictory to what we all need right now, which is regular sleep to help us stay healthy.
  • They are often sharing digital resources with parents, roommates, and their own children. They have no obligation to have a laptop and webcam dedicated to their college work, and even if they do, that doesn’t mean that others in the household can share the broadband with them.
  • Even if they have broadband, it may not be sufficient to engage in a video conference. This is true in rural areas but also in urban areas where we might think that broadband is readily available.
  • They have new duties, including caring for ill relatives and children now out of school (in many places, for the remainder of the school year). Many will be working new shifts at work, especially if they are nurses or others in fields that are experiencing an increase in demands.
  • They might be ill.

Add to this the stressors you are likely to be facing in the next weeks, including illness and care for aging or ill relatives as well as children. If you don’t face those challenges, that’s great–but you can’t guarantee that you won’t get sick, and it’s better to plan now for that than to have your semester fall further apart later.

Above, a neon sign outside a storefront says “Internet Cafe Open 24 Hours.” We can’t expect our suddenly-remote students to have ever-present access to the internet, especially when public libraries and coffee shops are closing.

CC BY-SA 2.0,

But what if I have synchronous discussions with some students and record them for students who can’t make them?

I get it. You want to have connection with your students, and you probably do a great job of fostering good discussion. But now isn’t the time for that.

If you set up a two-tiered system in which some students get to engage you in conversation and some get to watch those conversations later, you are disadvantaging your students who cannot attend synchronous sessions. And those students are ones who are most likely to be people who are care giving, which means they are most likely to be parents and women, and people who live with extended family. Your students who live in their own apartments might do just fine with this system, but you are choosing a system that leaves your more vulnerable students behind.

I think that’s unethical; it contributes to further inequity during a time of crisis.

The good news is that there are teaching methods that work better anyway to foster discussion–and that include all students. Asynchronous work, including discussion, gives more students the opportunity to engage. Your students with fewer responsibilities and more resources will not be burdened by it, and your students with more responsibilities and fewer resources won’t be left behind.

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