Please read this longer piece by Dean Susan Lawrence on our evolving thinking about the choice between synchronous and asynchronous remote instruction: document Musings on Asynchronous and Synchronous Remote Instruction and Online Courses (194 KB)
Tools like Webex and Big Blue Button make it possible to provide real-time synchronous instruction, even while everyone is confined to their homes. This can provide students and faculty alike with an invaluable sense of connection, continuity, and structure in the face of a traumatic and rapidly changing experience.
However, feedback from Rutgers students about the diverse situations they find themselves in has made it clear many students face obstacles to participating in remote synchronous instruction. Many of our students:
- Are now confined to households that lack the bandwidth or computer equipment needed to participate in real-time video instruction.
- Must share their internet connections, computer equipment, or study space with other members of the family.
- Are managing an overwhelming set of competing pressures and stresses, including working—sometimes at risk to themselves—caring for children, caring for sick relatives, and caring for themselves.
- Have returned to their homes in distant time zones. This particularly affects international students; for an international student who has returned to Beijing, for instance, a 3:20 PM course would meet at 3:20 AM.
Any of these factors can make it difficult or impossible for a student to participate in a synchronous course that requires participating at a specific time.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to create a sense of connection and engagement in an asynchronous course!
Forge connections in an asynchronous course
Many of these suggestions are drawn from contributions to the “What We’re Learning About Teaching Through an Emergency” SAS discussion forum. Please visit and share your tips!
Use the basic building blocks of engaging asynchronous courses
- Regular instructor announcements: posting announcements on a predictable schedule (for instance, every Monday afternoon) is a way to provide students with important information and demonstrate that you’re present and engaged in the class.
- A space for students to ask questions: a “water-cooler” discussion board is a space for students to share general questions, comments, or ideas that may benefit the entire class.
- Discussion forums: combining student-student and student-instructor interaction with course content, texts, and activities, discussion forums are a central element in most asynchronous courses.
- Timely feedback: plan to provide timely feedback on student work.
- Opportunities to hear from your students:
- Give students clear instructions for contacting you directly (e-mail? the LMS messaging system?) and set an expectation for how long it will typically take for you to respond.
- In a discussion forum, ask students to describe something surprising or challenging that they’ve encountered in the class.
- Distribute a midcourse survey to get input on what’s working for your students and if there are any adjustments you can make.
- Reach out directly to students who aren’t engaging or participating in the course. See the Keep Teaching FAQ question on identifying and supporting disengaged students for specific guidelines.
- Optional, recorded, flexibly scheduled synchronous sessions: optional synchronous sessions, like videoconferencing or live chat office hours, provide an opportunity for students to connect with you as needed. Schedule these in a way that works for you and your students (for instance, if you have a large number of students located in China, a 9 PM Eastern session will happen at 9 AM China Standard Time). Record these sessions and make them available to students who aren’t able to participate. (See the resources section of the main Keep Teaching page for links to instructions for specific tools.)
Provide engaging materials
- Aim for lower production values in recorded materials. As long as students can hear you and comprehend text or images on screen, they’ll respond better to immediacy and authenticity than to high production values. Let your enthusiasm about the subject matter come through.
- Chunk your videos into 10-minute or shorter segments. (6 minutes or less is ideal.) Studies have shown that student attention drops significantly after about 6 minutes of viewing a video.
- End each video with a question for students to think about—one that prompts them to think more about the topic, or connects to the next topic.
- Let your personality come through. Add a picture to your profile; write in a conversational way for announcements; add references to movies, current events, sports, etc., to your interactions with students.
- In your announcements, highlight student contributions from discussion boards or other aspects of the course. Literally highlight student names to make it easier for students to find their mentions in announcements, and look for opportunities to recognize different students each week.
- Record audio or video feedback on assignments. Some instructors also find this quicker than providing written comments.
Use discussion forums to create engagement
Discussion forums are the cornerstone of many online courses. There are a number of ways to use discussion forums to encourage student engagement.
- Create open-ended prompts that connect with your learning goals. These may involve asking students to discuss a recently introduced topic, apply a course concept to current events, analyze a reading, etc.
- In quantitative courses, create more conceptual prompts (e.g., “what is the next step in this problem?”, “explain why this hypothesis in the theorem is necessary”, or ask students to identify an error in a proof or computation).
- Encourage student engagement by setting two deadlines for each discussion, an earlier one for initial posts and one a day or two later for replies. Repeat this schedule each week to create a weekly routine.
- Provide graded incentives for participation. Clearly communicate expectations using a rubric for online participation; grade discussions based on several components, including meeting deadlines, replying to other students, and meeting expectations for length and quality of posts.
- Take advantage of LMS features that allow you to hide other students' posts until a student has made their own initial post. Doing so fosters originality in students' initial posts.
- In larger courses, divide students into groups (Canvas, Sakai) of 6–8 students for discussion forums.
- Consider requiring audio or video posts rather than text. (In some courses, for instance language courses, this may be an essential aspect of the course.)
- Demonstrate that you’re engaged with the discussions. This may involve posting in discussions yourself, or calling out student contributions in announcements, lectures, or other materials that you post. Be sure to do so regularly and look for opportunities to highlight different students each week.
Many of these suggestions are derived from Flower Darby, Small Teaching Online (2019).
Making Synchronous Courses Accessible
Real-time sessions with students still provide a number of benefits, including combatting the stresses of social isolation and helping students to structure their days. If your course includes mandatory synchronous sessions, the tips below will help you to get the most out of those sessions while accommodating students who encounter the obstacles described above.
Tips to make synchronous sessions accessible and engaging
- Record and post synchronous sessions. If you record a course through Webex, download the MP4 recording from Webex, upload it to Kaltura, and use Kaltura to post it to Sakai or Canvas. This will allow Kaltura to automatically generate captions. It is also more FERPA compliant to distribute these recordings through the LMS. (See the resources section of the main Keep Teaching page for links to instructions for these tools.)
- If you use notes or other materials, post those materials separately as well.
- Open your course meeting 20 minutes before class starts for an open “catch-up” time when students can chat with you or each other. Try playing music so you can sit “together” listening and commenting.
- Keep a text-based chat running during a synchronous session. Many instructors report more engagement through the chat than they experience during an in-person lecture. In both Webex and Big Blue Button (Canvas or Sakai), session recordings will include the chat transcript. If you upload your recordings through Kaltura as recommended above, you will need to copy the chat transcript and post it separately. (This also gives you the chance to edit out any inappropriate comments, if you wish.)
- Ensure that activities and other asynchronous portions of your course also provide opportunities for connection (see above for suggestions).
- Remember that students who can participate in synchronous sessions also benefit from all of these measures!
For more suggestions about building community, engagement, and presence in the online environment, see these resources:
- Faculty Focus: A Checklist for Building Community in the College Classroom
- How to Reconnect With Students and Strengthen Your Remote Course
- Community of Inquiry Model Online Teaching Checklist
- How & Why to Humanize Your Online Class
Regular instructor announcements: posting announcements on a predictable schedule (for instance, every Monday afternoon) is a way to provide students with important information and demonstrate that you’re present and engaged in the class.