Last updated 7/14/2020
What is the difference between an asynchronous and a synchronous course? What are some of the advantages or disadvantages to either model? And which one is right for your classroom and your students?
In a synchronous course, students meet with the professor and with each other in real time. The professor might lecture, facilitate a discussion, or organize activities for students to complete in break-out rooms. For courses listed as synchronous on CUNYFirst, it is assumed that students will be available to attend the class at the times listed (i.e. Tuesdays from 1-2:15pm). The attendance policy of the “synchronous” session is similar to a face-to-face class. Students should not assume that synchronous class meetings will be recorded for later viewing.
In an asynchronous course, students may have a window of time for when they are able to access and complete assignments (i.e. between Monday and Friday of this week). However, rather than meeting at the same time, students can complete the work when it is convenient for them. One student might do the work on Tuesday, and another might do it on Thursday.
This means that the attendance policy of the asynchronous course is different from a face-to-face class. While instructors can expect that the student will engage in an asynchronous activity (i.e. watching the recording of the synchronous class meeting, participating in a discussion board, completing an alternative assignment, etc.) to “attend” the class, an asynchronous class cannot require students to “show up” to class at the same time.
In an asynchronous class, faculty do have the flexibility to schedule optional synchronous class meetings to help students who have different learning styles. However, since this course is asynchronous this means that attendance in any synchronous class meetings must be 100% optional and can have no impact on a student’s grade.
Below, we’ve given some examples of the way that faculty might organize classes: from fully synchronous to fully asynchronous. These course organizations are more detailed than a CUNYfirst listing, and are concerned with how you develop your pedagogy beyond how it is listed. Whatever course organization you choose, you should share your intentions with your students. Here’s some guidance from CUNY Central on what and how you should be communicating your plans.
While there are plenty of other options beyond the ones we list below, these organizations are meant to help you understand some of the key differences between asynchronous and synchronous learning so that you can choose a design that best suits your students and needs.
Which one is right for your classroom and your students?
As you choose a course organization that works for you, here are some items to consider:
- Department/program policies. Have you discussed your options with your course coordinator? Does your department require any amount of your class to be held synchronously or asynchronously?
- Class composition. How do your students currently engage materials in your class? Is your class primarily discussion-based? Is it primarily lecture-based? A combination? Does your class typically rely on peer review, group work, or pair work?
- Class time. Which of these styles of engagement would require students to meet synchronously? For example, if you typically have discussions in class, what are ways to shift those discussions to an asynchronous online forum?
- Class rhythm: Just like in the face-to-face class, students will want to know about how frequently they are expected to engage in the various components of your course. Creating a predictable and consistent weekly rhythm can help. For example, if students must respond to a discussion question and also respond to their peers’ contributions, you might want to assign two due dates that reoccur each week (i.e. Answer the question by Thursday, and respond to another person by Friday for a class that meets synchronously on Monday).
- Assessing course changes. What might be lost or gained in this shift? For example, students might participate more in asynchronous conversations where students have more time to formulate their response. But you might have more to read and assess.
- Maximizing accessibility. Some students might have limited access to technology or privacy. Others might be juggling various schedules and competing needs. People have different learning styles. Are there any course organizations that lend themselves better to making your course accessible to as many students as possible?
- Choosing a recording policy. Will you need to record your synchronous class and make the recording available to students who have technical difficulties, who are ill, or who have other reasons that they cannot join a synchronous session? If so, how will you inform students and get their permission to record? How will students access the recording?
- Facilitating peer interaction. How can your design facilitate a classroom culture of sharing and interacting between students? Could you organize peer groups for the course? Students in peer groups can also share course information/content with each other if they miss a live session or need clarification, which could reduce your correspondence workload.
- Instructor presence. Just like in the face-to-face classroom, students will expect to be able to interact with you in an online course. How can you excite students about what they will learn in your class while also orienting them to your expectations? How will you provide ongoing feedback and support so that students have understood what they have learned and what is still unclear? How will you answer students’ questions in a way that feels manageable and consistent?
The CTL favors course organizations that offer a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning to meet the needs of different learning styles. These course organizations easily incorporate the best practices of instructor presence and offering flexible access to the course content.