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11 Bringing Out the Human in Synchronous and Asynchronous Media for Learning

Maha Bali

Abstract

This practical-focused chapter discusses the affordances of synchronous versus asynchronous technologies that can be used to make online learning feel more personal and human. While I consider the pros and cons of various approaches, I offer small vignettes from my own experiences to further convince the reader how each approach can be crucial to bringing out humanity in online learning. The chapter tackles the spectrum of learning modalities from synchronous to asynchronous and from text-based to audio and video, to highlight the affordances and limitations of each modality. I have extensive experience with each approach as a learner, a facilitator, and a supporter of other teachers.

Introduction

It is extremely difficult, but also unhelpful, to make any statement about online learning without referring to context or tools. When we talk about what “works” in online learning, rather than refer to unhelpful universal best practices (DeBaise, 2014), it is often more meaningful to describe how something works (or doesn’t) in a specific context and using specific tools. For example, what works for a fully online course for undergrads may not work for a MOOC taken by adults. Statements about asynchronous learning cannot be generalized across discussion forums made for different purposes, nor would they apply to other mostly-text-based mostly-asynchronous tools such as Twitter. And even when we describe Twitter as text-based and asynchronous, we know that Twitter can integrate multimedia and allow for synchronous conversations.

Having said all this, educators know that different approaches work for different learners. So even when one approach is successful with a majority of our learners, we also need to remember that it may not work for others.

The strategies mentioned in this chapter are meant to give ideas from my own personal experiences that have worked for me in some context. I leave it up to the reader to judge how well it might transfer or be adapted to other contexts. I suggest readers consider these ideas and ask themselves:

  1. Is this an approach I am willing/comfortable to try? Would it be worth going outside my comfort zone to try it? Why is it worth trying? What are the risks?
  2. Would this approach fit within my teaching philosophy or at least one I aspire to?
  3. Would this approach require rethinking other aspects of my course or can it fit within my course as is?
  4. Would this approach work for most of my learners (including is it accessible to all?)? What alternatives can I offer those for whom it wouldn’t work?
  5. Might this approach result in differences in learner access or comfort that need to be handled by the instructor/facilitator?
  6. What would plan B be if this does not work well for me in a particular context?
  7. How is the context described here different from mine, e.g., types of learners, the formality of the learning experience, duration of interaction?

In what follows, I discuss some of the affordances and limitations of synchronous and asynchronous learning online.

Why would you consider a Mostly-Asynchronous Text-Based Online Course?

I have a strong preference for mostly text-based asynchronous learning experiences online. In Bali & Meier (2014) I explain why and cite results from a small survey conducted during a MOOC. There are pre-pedagogical reasons for choosing such an approach (summarized from Bali & Meier 2014):

  1. Timezones and cultures: If you have a geographically dispersed set of learners, any synchronous events will introduce timezone bias; additionally people may have variant weekend days, national holidays, and other important days they cannot meet
  2. Families and busy people: If you teach mostly non-traditional students who have either jobs or families, their time may not be as flexible and they may struggle to commit to synchronous meetings. Recording meetings for them to watch later could work BUT they would have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and you would lose their active participation in those meetings
  3. Technical: If some of your learners have infrastructure issues (e.g., live in remote/rural areas or developing countries where bandwidth is low or unreliable) then audiovisuals will discriminate against them, more so if this is live audiovisual interaction. Even those with relatively stable infrastructure occasionally struggle with connectivity and/or with mic/headset working properly every single time they connect
  4. Language: If some learners are not native speakers of, or not fluent in, the language of instruction, then they may prefer the additional time needed to interpret and reflect before responding

Of course, pedagogically speaking, asynchronous learning promotes deeper reflection, provides opportunities for learners to conduct and contribute research, and creates almost unlimited space for every individual to participate (as opposed to the more limited time available for synchronous interaction where inevitably some will participate more than others). Asynchronicity of course allows for a continuous conversation across space and time, something impossible to do with synchronous online or face-to-face interaction. Conversations are easily archived and searchable (whereas audiovisual conversations can be recorded, they are not as easily searchable), which can be great for learners to refer to later. It is also important to recognize the importance of the fact that an asynchronous conversation cannot be interrupted (McConnell, 2002), and as such, offers potential for equity among participants: minority/shy learners cannot be interrupted by dominant or highly talkative others. As one of those “talkative” people face-to-face, I appreciate how online asynchronous communication allows others to speak without me taking over their space – and allows me to listen better as a learner and as a teacher. Of course, this unlimited uninterruptible space also means some highly talkative people could take over space, e.g.,  by overloading a hashtag on Twitter, making it difficult to find others’ tweets, or by posting very long forum posts. But these things do not silence others the way they would be done in a face-to-face context.

The main reasons, in my view, that asynchronous text-based communication can seem to be “less human” are:

  1. Formality & Length: Asynchronous text-based communication is often not conducted with dialogue in mind. When I first started my Masters degree online in 2003, I noticed that while some of us (participants) used a conversational tone in discussion forums, others would write essay-length, essay-tone text. This makes one feel like they are reading a scholarly article rather than having a discussion, and these posts are often so crafted, they do not invite a response.
  2. Absence of non-verbal cues: This can make text-based communication feel dry and can result in misunderstandings.
  3. Lack of immediate response: This can feel disheartening and can result in misunderstandings if someone receives a delayed response to an important issue raised asynchronously. This is a situation where “social absence” is important, which I will discuss later.
  4. Fear of Being On-the-record: Some learners feel self-conscious that their writing will remain visible and feel the need to be more careful about what they write.
  5. Information overload. In all kinds of asynchronous text-based online interaction, one needs to discover ways of dealing with information overload, particularly when one has been away for some time and others have been active.

Why (Then) would you consider having Synchronous Video-Based Elements in an Online Course?

About a year after writing Bali & Meier (2014), my life changed via Virtually Connecting (VC) which I co-founded with my friend Rebecca J. Hogue (see Bali & Hogue 2015; Hogue & Bali 2015). I realized that when I could not physically attend a conference where I had so many close friends, and interacting via Twitter was just not enough (more about VC later).

Over time, I had gotten more comfortable with synchronous events for several reasons:

  1. My child was sleeping better so it was less stressful to join in
  2. Egypt’s infrastructure improved so we no longer had regular electricity cuts
  3. I became more relaxed about synchronous meetings and less anxious over how stupid I would sound
  4. I realized that some people found it difficult to be personable in just writing. I collaborated with different people and some needed to meet synchronously via text or video. I also realized that this was often conducive to reaching decisions faster and bouncing off ideas.

So I feel that synchronous video conversations have their place if people involved have the stable infrastructure and circumstances as well as comfort with the environment. My current stance is that if pre pedagogically, synchronous communication can work and people prefer it for certain things, I would do it. The larger the group, the less likely it is for all of these pre pedagogcials to fall into place.

Vignettes of Human Touches in Online Learning

When people assume online learning is not as good as face to face, I think what they think they will miss most is the human touch. While we cannot physically touch online, I have felt warmed and comforted via my online friends and supported and mentored by online teachers and mentors. What follows are some strategies I learned from different contexts.

Café Forum in an Online Graduate Course

My first experience with fully online learning was my Masters of Education in eLearning which I did in 2003. The course was fully asynchronous and all official interaction took place in small groups on discussion forums. One of my favorite places was a café forum which was a place we were not required to use but which we could use for informal discussions beyond our study group. It gave us opportunities (all of us educators of some kind). Even inside our study group, the person who was my tutor most of the two years I did my Masters modelled the difference between forum-speak and formal writing. His posts were shorter and informal in tone, and it made many of us comfortable not to write overly long, academic essays. These were early days of Elearning and people were still negotiating the kind of writing voice you could use in these settings. Those who continued to write in academic essays eventually dropped the masters. Some people built relationships outside the LMS, meeting synchronously on MSN Messenger (audio worked well enough on dial-up at the time, believe it or not). Those of us who continued kept building relationships. I met my tutor synchronously for the first time about 5 years after I finished my masters. We are still friends today…all based on asynchronous discussion forums and staying in touch via email. I have met one of my masters’ colleague in person. We had never met online synchronously but stayed in touch via Facebook and email. Our meetings were never awkward.

Synchronous vs Asynchronous Feedback

I worked with two different Ph.D. supervisors. One of them was well able to convey his feedback clearly and supportively via text, whereas the other was much better able to express his feedback constructively in person, on the phone, or via Skype. As soon as we realized that we worked better together synchronously, we scheduled synchronous meetings after each piece of writing of mine was reviewed by him. Some faculty offer students asynchronous audio feedback which they feel is more personal and holistic than written feedback.

Making Student Blogging Personal

I have been teaching an educational game design module which is part of an undergraduate course on creative thinking and problem-solving. It is not an online or blended course, but I have used Twitter and blogs. We tend to talk about face-to-face as the most personable, human interaction and we forget that very often when facing a class even as small as 20 students, we are not facing them as individuals each time – we face them as a group. Conversely, when we read their blogs (or other individual assignments) we interact with them one-on-one. Blogging is particularly helpful here if you encourage student voice and an informal writing style. Moreover, I try to assign personal blog assignments for the first week or two. Successful ones include “Write your unofficial CV” (based on an activity I had co-developed for #DigiwriMo) and “Write about your favorite game and whether you think it can be educational.” I learn a lot about who my students are and what they care about and am also able to tell them if we share interests. This makes for a much warmer in-class environment and I get to know my students quicker.

Personal and Private within Massive and Open

How do some people survive the potential chaos of a connectivist MOOC with hundreds of others talking on multiple platforms? My personal approach is to develop personal and private relationships as I meet new people in MOOCs. This involves following some blogs more closely than others, using Direct Messaging on Twitter, and in some cases private messages on Facebook or even friending.

It is more difficult to explain how I build trust relationships online and is beyond the scope of this chapter.

Virtually Connecting – the Pre and Post

Virtually Connecting is a way to enliven virtual participation in academic conferences, widening access to a fuller, interactive, conference experience for those who cannot be physically present, with emphasis on conversation and connection rather than content (Bali & Hogue, 2016).

We expand access to hallway conversations such that a small group of virtual participants can have a conversation with those onsite at a conference, including high profile people such as keynote speakers. Lisa Hammershaimb (2016) says:

Seeing the kind of “unplugged” version of people I’ve previously only encountered in highly polished + edited perfection is so refreshing. Perhaps it’s just me but…I think this modeling of open sharing and community amongst participants as all are willing to jump into an experience that is fully unpredictable and emergent is so inspiring because it reminds me that behind all of these ideas are humans who actually aren’t all that different than me.

People who watch a Virtually Connecting hangout miss out on the relationship building that occurs behind the scenes. First in our invitations to speakers. Then in our team collaboration on Slack and Facebook messenger. And with participants just before hangouts go live as we make small talk. Often, after we go off the air we continue chatting and friendships form. We are not just faces on a screen to each other. My Virtually Connecting friends have a relationship with my 4 (now almost 5) year old daughter. They send me physical gifts. We talk as a group and privately most days. It does not get more human than this. And yet many of those relationships also developed asynchronously first and the hangouts strengthened them.

Soliya – Tangents and Humor

I facilitated synchronous video meetings as part of a cross-cultural dialogue program for undergraduates called Soliya. This was pretty serious dialogue on hot topics related to politics and/or culture across undergraduate participants from Arab/Muslim countries and those from the U.S./West. What built the relationships amongst participants and allowed them to have deep, critical discussions, was the tangential discussions we had getting to know each other, and opportunities for humor and sharing personal anecdotes. Some of these were actually built into the curriculum as online icebreakers and helped learners feel comfortable discussing more difficult topics later.

Collaborative Writing

I have been involved in multiple collaborative writing opportunities, and what I find most interesting about collaborative writing (often via Google Docs) with people I have never met, is that while a lot of the work is visible on the document itself, much of the power that enables this collaboration occurs in the comments on the margins, and in private email, or Twitter DM conversations as we negotiate how to move forward. I have had arguments and declarations of deep love happen in those discussions. I have delighted in finding a collaborator writing synchronously with me and at comments, I woke up to find a collaborator had left overnight. An example you may find useful is the playful Untext written by rhizo14 participants and described by Hamon et al (2015) – the combination of article and embedded messy document makes this process almost transparent because we never resolved the comments on the Google Doc.

Conclusion  

What I think lies at the heart of all of the above-mentioned approaches is a de-centering of mode and format and a focus on the importance of the social, informal, affective aspects of the environment to bring out the humanity. It is not exactly about nurturing social or emotional presence per se, but about providing third places where these can flourish. In a face-to-face environment, such places exist naturally: the University often has a café or restaurant or lounge or several such spaces for people to bump into each other socially, or even to make planned outings. In an online environment, one needs to intentionally design such spaces, craft out time for them, and invest time in making them warm and welcoming.

References

Bali, M. (2014). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? The challenges of web-based intercultural dialogue. Teaching in Higher Education, 19(2), pp. 208-215. DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2014.867620

Bali, M., & Hogue, R. (2015, May 8). Virtual, hybrid, or present? The #et4buddy Conference experiment. Hybrid Pedagogy. Retrieved from: http://www.digitalpedagogylab.com/hybridped/virtual-hybrid-or-present/

Bali, M., & Meier, B. (2014, March 4). An affinity for asynchronous learning. Hybrid Pedagogy. Retrieved from:  http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/affinity-asynchronous-learning/

Collins, M. & Berge, Z. (2001). Resources for moderators and facilitators of online discussion. Available online at: http://www.emoderators.com/moderators.html

De Baise, J. (2014, April 22). Best practices: Thoughts on a flashmob mentality. Hybrid Pedagogy.  Retrieved from: http://www.digitalpedagogylab.com/hybridped/best-practices-thoughts-flash-mob-mentality/

Hammershaimb, L. (2016). On blank spaces, bring human, and the amazingnes of Virtually Connecting. [weblog post]. Republished on Virtually Connecting. Retrieved from: http://virtuallyconnecting.org/guest-post/on-blank-spaces-being-human-and-the-amazingness-of-virtually-connecting/

Hamon, K., Hogue, R. J., Honeychurch, S., Johnson, S., Koutropoulos, A., Ensor, S., Sinfield, S., & Bali, M. (2015, June 4). Writing the unreadable untext: A collaborative autoethnography of #rhizo14. Hybrid Pedagogy. Retrieved from: http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/writing-the-unreadable-untext/

Hogue, R. J., & Bali, M. (2015, June 15). Beyond Twitter: Virtually Connecting at conferences. Prof Hacker blog, Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved from: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/beyond-twitter-virtually-connecting-at-conferences/60339 

McConnell, D. (2002). Implementing Computer Supported Cooperative Learning, 2nd Ed., London: Kogan Page.

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Bringing Out the Human in Synchronous and Asynchronous Media for Learning by Whitney Kilgore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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