The sudden shift to all-online teaching has led many educators to wonder if they should avoid synchronous instruction altogether

To sync or async: Considerations for access in virtual learning

The sudden shift to all-online teaching has led many educators to wonder if they should avoid synchronous instruction altogether

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the health and economy of the world. The higher-ed landscape has seen a significant impact, as instructors are overwhelmingly utilizing remote conferencing services and are charged to meet students where they are. The question is: “Are we truly meeting them where they are?”

First, let’s consider the students who have been abruptly uprooted from their traditional college experience and told that their only option is to do online learning. Enduring a transition like this can be daunting and unsettling. It is safe to assume that many students chose brick and mortar colleges with the expectation that they would only engage in face-to-face instruction.

Related content: Do students feel prepared to learn online?

Secondly, one must consider the faculty in this equation. This pandemic has challenged faculty to adopt pedagogical approaches that they may not be used to and are not in favor of using. Although this paradigm shift has forced institutions to embrace online learning environments, it is not preferred by all instructors and can be challenging to implement across individual disciplines.

Although these dispositions and preferences are known, the unfortunate reality is that the move to embrace online delivery was the only option for many institutions. This quick shift has exposed obstacles and a lack of resources among students that would otherwise not be revealed in the traditional college setting.

As institutions navigate this change, it is essential to consider the following outlined access barriers to ensure a smoother transition among faculty and students: defining access, acknowledging internet services as a luxury, navigating learning management systems, and avoiding synchronous instruction.

Defining access is imperative

The definition of the term access tends to vary, but in this case, access to resources is essential. One may assume that providing laptops is the solution to this problem. Although providing devices for students is a noble gesture of access to students, it is only half the battle. Students can encounter additional obstacles that prevent seemingly ordinary resources from being available to them, such as socio-economic status and rural housing.

The internet is a luxury that we often take for granted

Modern society is hard to imagine without Wi-Fi, but in some cases, students do not have access to reliable internet. The idea of no internet may seem peculiar to some, but in some rural areas, networks are not very strong, and for some, the internet is limited to one provider. This becomes a more significant problem when the specs of one’s internet service are consumed by multiple devices that interrupt the bandwidth of the service, causing slower and disrupted connections. A detrimental example occurs when students are expected to take a quiz or exam with a single submission requirement, and poor-quality connections cause the student to earn a failing grade due to an incomplete assignment.

Know your learning management system (LMS)

What is the interface of your institution’s learning management system? Is it mobile or tablet friendly? It can be assumed that in the age of digital natives, students are savvy enough to navigate a robust learning management resource. Uploading documents, typing discussion posts, and navigating modules may require orientation and coaching for some. This level of direction is also the case for some faculty who may have used their institution’s LMS minimally or not at all.

Avoid the temptation of synchronous instruction

For some, the question is whether to sync or async? Synchronous instruction assumes that technology is available when the instructor deems it as necessary. Students may be in a household where they share one computer; some may operate with only mobile devices such as tablets or phones; others may not own a device at all.

Synchronous instruction provides a space for an instructor to see students and engage in lectures and possibly dialogue. The downfall of this approach is the expectation that all students log-in at the same time. This assumes that a student has a computer and is in an environment that is free of distraction at the allotted class meeting time. The reality is that no one time is convenient for all students in a class. If the instructor desires synchronous sessions, they should make them optional and record the meetings to share with those who are unable to attend.

If instructors are forced to engage in online learning, asynchronous is the most equitable approach. Asynchronous instruction offers choice to students, allowing them to log-in when they are ready and available.

This crisis has exposed a multitude of equity and access barriers among students that would otherwise remain unknown under the confines of the traditional learning environment. Without access to valuable resources such as libraries and labs for students, the gap widens and can leave room for failure and frustration among students.

Here are a few closing considerations for instructors as they navigate online instruction:
Rethink online office hours or virtual chat sessions – These optional sessions may have to be on the weekends or after traditional work hours. For students who work full-time during the week, this may be the only way to provide them meaningful access to instructors.
Prioritize assignments of curricular importance – All tasks may not be necessary to achieve student learning outcomes. Quantity does not always equal quality, and all assignments and assessments do not translate to online instruction.
Take student feedback and apply it – This is a best practice in any instructional environment, but to best meet the needs of students in a class, conduct a pulse check or assessment to see what works and what does not. This level of transparency can be mutually beneficial to both the instructor and students.

Rather than thinking online learning is not for everyone, there must be a shift to welcome and support all students in this new space. Nevitt Sanford’s (1967) theory of challenge and support resonates during this time that if faculty increase the level of challenge, so should the degree of support increase. Instructors must challenge their pedagogy and strive to be both caring and accessible during this unprecedented time.


Sanford, N. (1967) Self & society: social change and individual development. New York, NY: Atherton Press.

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