There’s no right answer in the debate over synchronous and asynchronous classes

Many classes this semester are taking place over Zoom. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

Over the past several weeks, the University of Maryland has shifted an increasing number of its classes online, following a pattern from other colleges and universities across the country. In doing so, the university gave each department and course instructor the ability to decide whether their classes will be synchronous or asynchronous — that is, whether a class meets online at a specific time on a platform like Zoom, or if new lessons are uploaded each week for students to watch on their own time. 

Neither synchronous nor asynchronous learning will fully meet the needs of the entire student body, meaning professors will have to adapt and provide accommodations if they want students to get the most out of online instruction.

These methods, while both suitable for online learning, provide vastly different learning experiences that present their own unique opportunities and obstacles. Perhaps the most obvious benefit of an asynchronous schedule is its ability to accommodate students’ schedules and allow them to learn at their own pace. But this flexibility comes at the cost of interactivity, as synchronous classes still resemble a classroom setting and allow for instant feedback from a professor or classmate. Synchronous classes also offer a more structured approach to learning, as opposed to the self-motivated learning required for asynchronous classes. 

What these differences suggest is not that one approach is better than the other, but rather that each method varies in its effectiveness for different kinds of learners. Students who prefer learning at their own pace may appreciate the flexibility of asynchronous classes. This would also likely be the better option for students who prefer to learn independently. Students like myself who value structure and consistency in their class schedules can find asynchronous classes to be more challenging. A more blended option would be beneficial for students who want the opportunity to form relationships with their professors and peers, as fully asynchronous classes make it more difficult to have consistent interaction. 

When considering these distinctions from the student’s perspective, it’s clear these limitations are significant — they could mean the difference between success and failure for some students. If the university is to make every effort to provide a positive online learning experience for all students, it needs to recognize these limitations and find new ways to accommodate students who learn differently. 

Fortunately, these kinds of accommodations would be relatively simple. For those who hold class synchronously, giving students access to class recordings — or offering alternative assignments in lieu of actual attendance — would provide students a more flexible plan. In addition to standard office hours, professors of asynchronous courses could choose to hold optional study periods where students can receive more immediate feedback from their instructor. These additional meetings would ideally include multiple students, giving each person the ability to share ideas and information in what would feel more like a classroom setting. 

While there will certainly be other issues regarding online education, a successful plan begins by providing common sense accommodations for students before larger problems arise. These kinds of accommodations won’t happen, however, if we don’t understand the different ways in which people learn, and how certain changes affect that process. A full semester of mostly online instruction is going to be a challenge for much of the student body, but the university can help ease that burden by understanding that no class format will be right for all students. 

Evan Crum is a junior government and politics and psychology major. He can be reached at ecrum42@umd.edu. 

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