An Online Field Course: Synchronicity

You’ve probably already seen 27,000 posts about teaching synchronously vs. asynchronously, so I’ll contribute post 27,001!

Though I already make heavy use of our online learning management system (currently Canvas at UBC), prior to the COVID-pivot, I’d never taught an online course, and I hadn’t even considered the terms synchronous and asynchronous in a teaching context. In this post, I’m not going to discuss the details or advantages of each approach, as others have already done that quite well (see this solid, concise breakdown from the University of Waterloo). Rather, I’m going to reflect on my own experience.

In March, I had two days warning before pivoting my face-to-face courses to online. I went 95% asynchronous, not as a deliberate pedagogical choice, but out of necessity and desperation. With a 3- and 6-year-old suddenly without school or daycare, my wife and I both desperately trying to fulfill our work responsibilities, and a rough case of strep throat circulating through our household, I was barely treading water. Being able to deliver class live on a set schedule was simply not possible. (Thanks, TAs for helping me keep it together, you were awesome!)

I was already quite familiar with using Camtasia to record and share lectures, so I had no learning curve to go asynchronous, just the extra time that it takes to edit, process, and post a lecture. Many colleagues who weren’t familiar with lecture capture stuck with synchronous delivery (quite reasonably) because it was an easy switch for them to simply deliver their lectures almost as normal via zoom.

As I looked into online pedagogy a bit more, I learned that traditionally, online courses are almost exclusively asynchronous. This is their appeal. It allows students with full-time jobs, kids, or other responsibilities to learn on their own schedule. But now, we were delivering online courses to students who didn’t choose to learn online. When I polled my students, they were split about 50-50 in preference for synchronous vs. asynchronous.

While I appreciated the flexibility of an asynchronous approach, I really missed the interaction with my students. Posting videos and announcements felt like sending them off into the void.

With this upcoming field course, I once again need to make a decision on synchronous/asynchronous delivery based on circumstance rather than strategy or pedagogy. All (or nearly all) of my students will be in China during this course. China Standard Time is 15 hours ahead of PDT. So my 8:30am – 4:30pm workday corresponds to 11:30pm – 7:30am for my students. On top of that, Friday for me is Saturday for them, and their Monday is my Sunday.

Vancouver TimeBeijing Time


With my evening family responsibilities, asynchronous is my only option. I’ve never even met these students. How will I build rapport? How can I establish a presence in the course if I’ll literally be asleep while the students are learning?

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Next: An Online Field Course: Establishing An Asynchronous ‘Presence’

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