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Balancing Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning in the Primary School
Michelle Hill, PhD

As a school that draws on educational research to inform our pedagogical practice, the current need to move to a distance learning model has been a testing time. Eaton (2020) reminds us that “for many teachers right now, moving online is like going back to the first year of teaching, when everything was new”  and so it is especially important that teachers continually adapt and iterate their work with the children at this time.

Although there is very little research on distance learning for young children to guide us (a U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis and review of online learning studies in 2010 found only 7 studies for Kindergarten - Grade12 classes) we are fortunate to have a wealth of knowledge and experience as educators to be able to transfer what we know about children’s learning to this new environment. Schools around the world are experimenting with this new way of teaching and learning. Hattie (2020) provides some insights and notes that,

“Distance learning shows a very low effect size, but that means that it does not matter whether you are distant or not and should not be interpreted as “distance is disastrous”. What is more important is the methods of teaching, not the media. ”

This raises one decision that appears to be a source of tension in the Primary School: when to use synchronous (‘live’) teaching and when to use asynchronous (often recorded video) teaching. In the Primary School at the International School of Zug and Luzern (ISZL) we have been considering the benefits and drawbacks of both methods for student learning. As we learn more about this new teaching and learning environment, we draw on research into older learners using distance learning and online courses, as well as the observations and experience we now have from our current situation.

What do we mean by synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning?


“Synchronous learning is any type of learning that takes place in real-time, where a group of people are engaging in learning simultaneously” (Lawless, 2020).

Synchronous teaching and learning happens in schools every day - it is what teachers are trained to do and it is a practice that fits with what we know about how Primary age students learn.

Given our current restrictions, in the Primary School at ISZL, synchronous teaching is now maybe best seen as the ‘live’ Google Hangouts with the teachers present, happening in real-time. These sessions have  a focus on:

  • Nurturing class community and relationships and emotional well-being
  • Giving feedback and offering next steps to students on their work. 
  • Providing short, targeted instruction
  • Reflecting on the learning that has taken place


“Asynchronous learning is more learner-centered. It enables your learners to complete courses without the constraints of having to be in a certain place at a certain time. In essence, asynchronous learning doesn’t hinder learners by place or time” (Lawless, 2020).  

Currently, in the Primary School asynchronous learning takes many forms and includes the short videos produced by teachers at the beginning of the day or videos incorporated into specific learning engagements presented on the daily or weekly planners. The planner itself is a form of asynchronous learning - it can be viewed at any time - and is supported by other forms such as:

  • written feedback on student work submitted through Seesaw or Google Suite
  • online resources selected to support a particular learning outcome or practice a particular skill
  • videos of class books/novels being read aloud
  • short informational or activity videos (cooking/PE etc.)

What becomes clear from the research and our experience is that learners can benefit from both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Each one offers potential benefits and potential drawbacks. 

Synchronous

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Asynchronous

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which is best for our young learners?

Given the benefits and drawbacks of both types of learning, using both synchronous and asynchronous learning is desirable. However, in the current situation there are many questions we need to consider - practical and philosophical questions as well as those more pedagogical in nature. 

What access do children have to synchronous learning opportunities?

We know that in some families devices are currently shared between all members and internet access is not always optimal. Families are also sharing spaces normally used for everyday household activities for working and learning. We know that a complete dependence on synchronous learning does not offer equal access to learning for all children and is one of several ethical questions presented by Bali and Meier (2014). Access is also dependent on the learners themselves eg. support for children for whom English as an additional language, support for children with specific learning needs, as well as the personalities of the children that we know can affect their level of participation. As Young (2020) points out, “synchronous works better for some students than for others - if we stick to one or the other (synchronous versus asynchronous), we are going to be leaving someone out.” 

How much screen time is appropriate for children?

Plowman, (2010) reminds us to consider different, often emotive, positions that are taken on this topic.  Whilst some may promote the benefits of interactive technology and a need to embrace a technological future, others may be more cautious, seeing the technologization of childhood as detracting from social and imaginative play. We are reminded that online environments can shift learning from active to passive, from participatory to transmissive, so educators must critically reflect on this when designing and reframing learning (Reggio Australia). However, research also shows us that technology is not a defining feature of children’s lives but is one of a range of activities they engage in on their own or with their families. Technology is both a part of the context which influences children’s learning outcomes and is one of the cultural tools which children make their own as they learn. 

What is it we want children to learn?

As teachers, this is, of course, a crucial question and one that guides our decision-making. Young (2020) suggests starting by teaching students how to learn online. This remote format of instruction is new for children and they need support to adjust to it. We can be guided by the PYP Approaches to Learning and consider what self-management skills children will need as they negotiate the synchronous and asynchronous learning environments? Are there particular communication skills we may need to focus on for synchronous and asynchronous environments? How can we help the children develop the social skills needed to navigate an on-line environment? 


Hattie (2020) uses the experience of school closure in Christchurch following the earthquake to remind us that, “We need to find ways to ensure that students at home engage in the optimal tasks; not just busy tasks, not just projects that keep them entertained, not boring repetitive activities. The choice of task matters critically, [...}: It is the choice of tasks relative to where students are now and where they need to go next that advances their learning”. Which brings us to the next question...

How do we assess children’s understandings in this environment?

Observation is a key method of assessment when teaching younger children. Teachers are highly skilled at observing children and noting what is important for their future learning. They do this all day, every day. This method is almost impossible to recreate as we navigate distance learning and we seek new ways of making children’s thinking visible. We can sometimes think of assessment in terms of the tool we use - eg a video on SeeSaw, but we can also reframe this question as: How are we listening to children and their ideas? We aim to provide children with choice in their learning and in the way they share their ideas and understandings. As they become familiar with the tools we want children to exercise their agency and we can then consider how we can involve children in the design of the learning offered online (Reggio Australia).

Where are we now?

As we continue adapting to this new way of working with children we can be guided by some of the findings of Zhao et al (2005) into distance learning:        

  • Interaction is key to effective distance education 
  • Live human instructors are needed in distance education 
  • The right mixture of human and technology seems most beneficial         
  • Some learners may be more able to take advantage of distance education 

We must also be mindful that face-to-face synchronous experiences are not a guarantee of a sense of community and, as reported by Bower et al (2015) in universities, “the findings of a number of studies seem to indicate that social and emotional connectedness cannot be taken for granted but rather needs to be actively encouraged and fostered by teachers in blended synchronous learning environments.” 

It seems that the creation and maintenance of a community of learners has an increased relevance for us all in this new environment for teaching and learning. 


Dr. Michelle Hill is the Assistant Principal of Early Years and Primary School at the International School of Zug and Luzern. Her professional career as an educator spans more than 30 years, having worked in London, Paris and Cardiff. She holds a Doctorate in Early Childhood Education from Sheffield University and is particularly interested in how young children develop working theories in play. 

 


Bibliography

 

  • CLP
  • Curriculum
  • Primary School

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