Best Practices for the Asynchronous and Synchronous Communication

Beyond the principles of classroom management that apply to all distance-learning environments, there are some particular considerations for asynchronous versus synchronous classrooms. Read the following "Best Practices" for further guidance on when to use asynchronous or synchronous collaboration [3].

Asyncronous Best Practices

  • Keep it organized

    Most asynchronous discussion environments allow for threaded discussions, in which replies appear below and indented from the original comments. Threads make it easy to tell who is responding to whom; you can follow a complete dialogue among several people simply by reading down the thread.
    Example of a asynchronous discussion
    Threads are easier to follow if the participants change the subject line when the direction of the dialogue changes, but even seasoned users are apt to forget this detail. Some coaching for students just getting started in online asynchronous discussions may be needed. This can be as simple as letting them know they are on the right track and directing them to repost their message in a designated thread so the class can stay on top of who is involved in the discussion and ensure that no one's contributions get lost in the shuffle. A document offered prior to the first discussion of student best practices for posting and participating in online asynchronous discussions will also be useful to both the student and the facilitator.
  • Use the Features

    Each asynchronous discussion environment has different features. By exploring the features and becoming familiar with them you can save yourself a lot of time. For example, If you want to know who has been participating and who hasn't, set your viewing options to sort by contributor and date. Or if you can't remember who made that thoughtful comment last week, do a keyword search.
  • Summarize and Send

    Asynchronous discussions can mean a lot of reading. Both the students and the facilitator can experience reading overload. As the facilitator you can help students by summarizing the key points raised and discussed in the classroom for each topic or week of the course. When you do so, invite them to add to the summary and ask students their reflections on how they will apply these key points to appropriate areas of their lives. Another strategy is to have the students work in groups, no larger than 5 students per group, to discuss the topic. The group than summarizes the groups discussion. This way if the class consists of 30 students you have 6 summaries to read rather than 30+ posts.
  • Keep an Eye on Everything

    It is best to let teams of students work on their own, but monitor discussion in those spaces for appropriate, professional behavior and redirect the conversation if interpersonal conflicts are going to arise. You may also want to direct them to the netiquette guidelines that hopefully you provided and reviewed with them at the beginning of the course.

Synchronous Best Practices

  • Have an Agenda

    No matter how often you have presented on a topic, go into the synchronous classroom with a detailed agenda: so many minutes for introduction and "house keeping," an opening attention grabber, first key points, question solicitation, and on through the final sign-off. The agenda can keep you grounded, on topic and on track. You may feel that you will out grow the need of an agenda. Think of the agenda as a safety helmet that is worn each time you go on a bike ride -- the think that will keep your head in one piece if your bike should crash.
  • Break up the Presentation

    It's a challenge when instructing through a synchronous classroom to stay focused on the students rather than the content. There's plenty of material to cover (there's always more to cover than you really have time for), so there is a temptation to talk, talk, talk. Students can maybe only absorb a third of it all. When synchronous classrooms take on this character, they mimic the worst elements of the traditional classroom. Break up your presentations. Don't make your students listen to you 50 minutes straight.

    Fifteen minutes is a good chunk of time to allot for each segment of your classroom session. When you create the lesson plan, break up your material into single-topic chunks that you can cover in these briefer periods of time. Between topics offer opportunities for students to discuss their reactions, present brief case studies and even engage in a game or poll the audience for feedback.

  • I know these activities are eating into your precious time for presenting content. But the truth is that you will have more success teaching content if you break up your time and allow students to stretch their mental legs and actually participate with the course content, students and instructor.
  • Keep to One Topic or Purpose at a Time

    Between getting started, breaking up presentation with activity and discussion, and responding to questions, you don't have much time to present material. When you include synchronous sessions in your course, plan them so that you can cover a single topic or purpose in a short period of time during each session.
  • Keep Your Cool

    Unlike asynchronous communication, where you have time to reflect on a response, synchronous communication begs for a more immediate response. If someone pushes your buttons or crosses the line of the respectful learning environment that you are creating you may want to consider a moment of silence before responding, or better yet, have an idea about how you might respond if something goes awry. This seldom happens, but in the interest of preparedness and keeping a respectful learning environment it is a good idea to think about what would be an uncomfortable discussion to have and how would you respond in this situation.
  • Summarize and Send

    Students benefit from a summary of key points from the session and an invitation for additional input. This can be done as part of the closing comments within the synchronous session, or following the session via an email, or posted in a discussion board.