To Synchronise or not to Synchronise?
written for Blutick by Simon Armitage, The Perse School, Cambridge
Remote learning and teaching facilitates a more personal, adaptable approach to lesson scheduling than a conventional school set-up can.
The word ‘asynchronous’ has now emerged in the education dictionary with far more prominence than ever before — spurred on by Covid-19 closures, lockdowns or circuit-breakers (depending on where you are in the world). For clarity, here we are defining asynchronous learning as a situation where the student is learning at a different time or a different pace than the delivery of a live lesson. It could be that the lesson or part of the lesson has been pre-recorded as audio or video or it may be that the lesson is a set of resources and instructions that is part of a wider learning plan. Essentially, it is simply an alternative to real-time teaching.
Why asynchronous teaching is valuable
The world of remote learning has some obvious challenges that mean that synchronised, conventional approaches to teaching may not be wise or even viable. Take for example these scenarios:
- Sophia’s internet connection is a little variable, especially at peak lesson times.
- Sonya’s family don’t have enough computers — they usually share.
- Mohammed is still completing some English reading and it is an unhelpful time to stop and change to something else.
- Gladiz has been indoors for a week and the weather has been awful. Suddenly the sun is out and there is an hour when it is possible to go for a walk.
- Mr Song the maths teacher has three children of his own, all under 10 years old. They need helping too.
- John has been learning on his own via his computer for 5 hours already today and has hardly moved — he is losing concentration.
Even the teacher of 20 years’ experience is having now to rethink for remote learning. What are the exact outcomes that are the focus of the lesson? How will I set these if the class isn’t in front of me? How will I be able to see not only what the students are doing but how they are learning? Is this the most effective way of engaging them? Am I facilitating the growth of knowledge or am I delivering information (there is a place for both)? Sharper thinking like this should enable better scaffolding within the lessons.
What the evidence says
The Education Endowment Foundation has published a report, dated April 2020, “Remote Learning: rapid evidence assessment”. Whilst studies about the effectiveness of remote learning are taken from very different circumstances from those of Covid-19 closures, the conclusions reflect the view that the synchronicity of learning is not so significant for outcomes:
“Ensuring the elements of effective teaching are present — for example clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback — is more important than how or when they are provided. There was no clear difference between teaching in real time (‘synchronous teaching’) and alternatives ‘asynchronous teaching’.”
The reality, of course, is that a blend of both types of teaching is likely to be the most advantageous. Having this in mind when planning lessons and considering using new technologies is a wise idea.
How we weigh up synchronised and asynchronised methods
Teachers at The Perse School, Cambridge have been helping to develop the Blutick Maths teaching system for the last two years. It is now coming into its own and is free for the closure period with a premium and a free option for continued use thereafter. So, here is a checklist to help us as we weigh up synchronised and asynchronised methods, with particular reference to Blutick.
- Are the resources clear and is the instruction that those resources contain clear and with suitable scaffolding to allow the student to grow in knowledge and be supported? Blutick wins here with c.600 differentiated videos plus worked examples but space to try 3 million + questions.
- Does the medium of asynchronous learning allow you to check the process of learning? Is the learning made visible? Yes, you can see summaries and also every line of working on Blutick. You can also watch students work real-time.
- Does the resource support and help your students to gain confidence by nudging them in the right direction and offering stretch and challenge and also support where appropriate? Smart feedback on students’ working and clever AI do this on Blutick.
- Is the resource and the teaching methodology created by people who understand and have the practical experience of being teachers? Yes, all Blutick videos and pedagogy is from mathematics teachers past and present at one of the UK’s leading schools, The Perse School in Cambridge. The CEO of Blutick, Rob Percival, is also a former mathematics teacher!
- Does the teaching encourage flexibility in how the student might sequence their learning? On Blutick, students can listen to an explanation and see the mathematics written out and drawn in the video, they can see worked examples and they can ‘have a go’. They choose what they do and in what order.
- Can your students revisit the lesson content and watch / hear again? Absolutely, a win again for Blutick.
Technology now allows interactions and approaches that are far different from that which we could have imagined in the past. A system such as Blutick actively checks the progress of students and prompts them with intelligent feedback, encouraging them to show their working and not just give the answer. That is an enormous step forward and it is getting smarter all the time.
Put that together with short, highly focused and differentiated videos from mathematics teachers and also worked examples then you have an intriguing package that could be used independently of the teacher or (perhaps more likely) with the teacher’s guidance and task setting. This is a partnership. Some online, some offline. Some real-time, some asynchronous.
If we allow students some flexibility about when they learn we will almost certainly get more out of them — for some this is essential because they simply cannot conform to the standard timetable. For many it will also be about having the choice to explore and develop at different speeds as well as at different times. As long as learning and teaching has a clear framework and the resources are high quality then we should not fear. This is an opportunity for learning more, more smartly and for learning to equip this generation for life’s challenges.
Do explore new ways and new resources that are there for your synchronous and asynchronous learning and teaching. Give Blutick a try, for sure.