The Magic of Synchrony in Coping with Remote Learning
As fall 2020 draws to a close, the reactions to remote learning are reverberating loudly. They include not only outrage and despondency but also gratefulness and appreciation. Student surveys taking the pulse of learning experiences look very much like the evaluations of teaching we in higher education are used to seeing. The comments go both ways, but there is one unique element. We glimpse the value of synchrony—the opportunity for live synchronous meetings, even if they’re remote.
First, the recap. One group of students does not like how learning management systems (LMSs) were set up, the frequency with which faculty respond to emails, the amount of work assigned, and the lack of flexibility and compassion displayed in the face of coping with a pandemic. Another group of students praises faculty for how LMSs were set up, the frequency with which they responded to emails, the amount of work assigned, and the flexibility and compassion displayed in the face of coping with a pandemic. Given the variance in importance placed on teaching across departments and campuses, the level at which it is evaluated in promotion and tenure, and the corresponding instructor training and faculty development, the spectrum of comments should surprise no one.
From a pedagogical standpoint, the story remains the same: be clear, compassionate, organized, multifaceted, flexible, and engaging (CCOMFE; Gurung, 2020). There are clear, evidence-informed principles for teaching that should be followed now as always. What has changed is that faculty and universities in general are paying more attention to the student experience. This is a good thing, and we need to capitalize on it. Before COVID-19, it was predominantly online courses that were scrutinized even after requiring instructors to first take significant training before teaching and working with an instructional designer. Remote teaching reminds us that all teaching, especially face-to-face teaching, needs the same attention, training, support, and reward structure. A critical element of face-to-face teaching is the amount of contact time and in particular the synchronous nature of class time. This is a good time to consider the value of synchronicity.
I taught general psychology remotely this term to nearly 300 students. I read all about different ways to optimize Zoom, use breakout rooms, and structure each class period (all courtesy of some great work from the staff of our Center for Teaching and Learning, Academic Technology, and Ecampus). Near every class period, I used most of the tools available including well placed polls and Google Docs to make student collaborations visible (and allow me to provide participation points). I urged students to turn cameras on if they were comfortable and use the chat for questions and comments. I did not penalize lack of camera use, and I recorded and posted lectures for those who could not make it or who wanted to go over points again.
So how did it go? Some days were a comedy of errors. I would share the wrong screen (my notes rather than the slides), have camera fails and sound lags, and feel like I was not connecting with students, technology aside. We also had many good times. We shared pictures of our pets and discussed good streaming shows during breaks, and sometimes childcare went on simultaneously. Attendance was high, and even as it dropped, by midterm over 70 percent showed up before going to 60 percent the last few weeks of school. Ironically, this pattern seemed even better than in some face-to-face terms. Did I benefit from a general need for connection? Perhaps. Students reported coming to class to see each other and, in particular, take part in the live chat. They knew when they could see friendly faces and engage in intellectual exchanges—the benefits of synchrony.
Delivering live lectures via Zoom at first seemed daunting. The first day of having rows of windows of cameras on screen and participants in the high three digits was a wild ride. The abundance of live students (mostly) sitting there while I stood in my home office, alone in person but virtually mobbed, was a surreal experience. But it made a difference. It felt electric. It felt vibrant. Because we were all there together. Even a class session peppered by questions in chat, the occasional voices on mike (either on purpose or by mistake), and by the tangents allowed by being present together, all underscored the benefits of being live. The cadence of my speech, the pacing of delivery, and the very existence of discussion made possible by virtue of synchrony, provided much of the semblance of what education is when face-to-face. As students attested, having a live lecture also helped them focus and pay attention, akin to sitting in a physical classroom. They felt like active participants in the creation of knowledge.
Midterm evaluations suggested many students were having a positive experience. Scores on my first exam were similar to my first exam scores pre-pandemic. Of course, this does not mean I or students want more remote teaching. Most do not, and many have significant reservations about it. Research conducted by my applied cognition lab in real classrooms this spring show that students’ perceived levels of self-efficacy for remote learning significantly predicted their exam scores. In a paper in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, my coauthor Arianna Stone and I show that in addition to the problems with expecting one will not do well, the mismatch between one’s preferred modality for learning (face-to-face or online) is a significant predictor of less learning (Gurung & Stone, 2020). This does not mean students in general learn less during remote learning. A comparison of spring 2020 and fall 2019 exam scores did not show significant differences.
Nobody wants the pandemic to go on. Yet teaching during a pandemic has revealed a lot about how higher education works. It has laid bare course design and technology shortcomings (especially in the case of LMSs) in some areas, resulting in student and faculty distress, while highlighting these same strengths for students with positive experiences. Both faculty and students have missed the concrete reality of meeting face-to-face and all that goes with it, even the daily commutes, the squeaky chairs, the sounds of metal thermoses rolling along floors, or the crinkle of a neighbor’s snacks. We have all needed new routines, and while we made them, they came with fewer changes in scenery, with those at both ends of the screens often limited to the confines of the same four walls. But in all this we have had each other. Faculty and students meeting live multiple times per week have still had that chance to create knowledge via mutual interaction. The magic of synchrony is what will help us make it through to the end.
Gurung, R. A. R. (2020, June 10). Pandemic teaching prescriptions. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/10/six-factors-best-online-experiences-faculty-and-students-share-opinion
Gurung, R. A. R., & Stone, A. M. (2020). You can’t always get what you want and it hurts: Learning during the pandemic. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000236
Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is a professor of psychological science, the director of the general psychology program, and interim executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.