Friday, 6 June 2008

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Technologies

"We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are." Max DePree

This essay will present the advantages of synchronous and asynchronous delivery technologies in the Saskatoon Catholic Cyber School's e-learning strategies. Synchronous is "where the instructor and participants are involved in the course, class or lesson at the same time." While asynchronous is "where the instructor and participants are involved in the course, class or lesson at different times" (Wikipedia, 2006 ¶ 1).
In 1999 Saskatoon Catholic Cyber School was designed as an educational option for the students of the Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools. Since its inception, flexibility was one of the guiding factors in the decision making process. Many of the challenges that were expressed by the face to face schools in the division was their inability to venture from the rigid structure of their scheduling within the 5 day school week, the school day and in the one hour period systems. In order to create a program which would complement the status quo it was deemed necessary to try to promote flexibility. This would then allow the cyber school model to fit the largest number of interested students' timetables and learning styles. When developing the Cyber School it was necessary to choose a learning management system, delivery mode and communication tools which would allow for this flexibility. In 2007 the Cyber School provided courses to 24 percent of the grade 9-12 students in the Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools. The chosen learning management system was WebCT. The deciding factor in choosing this system was the ability for the system to be adapted to fit any approach that we deemed necessary for us to complete our mandate. WebCT, at first glance, seemed to be rigid and dictated the educational approach by its design. But upon further exploration and training it was found that it could be changed and adapted to work in most scenarios and was very flexible when used in a creative fashion.
The delivery mode and communication tools made it necessary to select a synchronous or asynchronous approach. The Cyber School courses were designed to be an option for students in all eight of the face to face high schools. Students would take some of their courses face to face and then one or two courses with the Cyber School. This approach meant that geography is the first barrier that needed to be breached. Both synchronous and asynchronous approaches have the ability to breach the geographic barrier. The students being slotted into the rigid schedules in the face to face school create a temporal barrier which can only be breached by asynchronous. For this reason most approaches used in the Cyber School are asynchronous but this status is ever changing and driven by education's need to reflect the reality of the students living in the information age. An information age with connected students having instant information, communication, multimedia and entertainment and social networking tools is a new era that no teacher can realistically compete with using the current education approaches. In the past, technology has been used as a supplement to education. As teachers get more comfortable with technology it becomes a support for education but until it becomes integrated with education we will not be preparing the students for their world. We need to connect to our students and connect them to their world by using both synchronous and asynchronous tools.
The semester system was used by the SCCS for the first years of operation. The semester system divided the school year into two equal semesters. Each semester consists of between 90 and 100 hours of classroom instruction per course. The students attend the face to face classroom for an hour a day for approximately 100 school days. The flexibility of seven days a week, twenty four hours a day availability offer through the Cyber School did not match a system which was designed for an hour a day, 100 school day system.
So it was necessary to design a unique system of course delivery which would better fit the flexibility of the Cyber School. The 150 day calendar system was devised to solve the issue of low student success with the Saskatoon Catholic Cyber School students who started the courses after the semester had begun. The success rate of students who started their courses at the beginning of the school year or at the beginning of the second semester was 86% (Climenhaga, 2004). These students were not the issue. However, the majority of our students were beginning their courses a week or longer into the semester and registrations happen continuously throughout the school year. There was never any time when there were no registrations.

The students registering late had a disengagement rate of 40 percent, largely due to the student feeling of not being able to complete the course in the time allotted. A student who started the course online three weeks into a semester was still required to complete the course by the end of the semester. This was not giving the students the best scenario for success. By eliminating the end of the semester barrier, the main reason for students disengaging would be removed. The 150 day system will at least remove the time barrier created by the semester system and give the students adequate time to complete the 100 hours of course material. Courses would still be based on the curriculum standard of 100 hours set forth by Saskatchewan Learning.
A student could register at any time of the year and would have 150 calendar days from that time to complete the course. One hundred and fifty calendar days is approximately the same number of days a standard school dual semester system gives for a student to finish a course.
The 150 day system allows flexibility for the students by allowing them to register at any time of the year. A student will be given 150 calendar days to complete the course. There will be no semesters recognized within this system. Each teacher in the Cyber School will teach 30 students at any given time. Once a course is filled, a waiting list will be created and when a spot opens, the next student will be placed into the course. Midterm grades will be submitted 75 days from the day the student started or the closest work day to that date. Final grades will be submitted 150 days from the day the student started or the closest work day to that date. The Cyber School teachers will not be working during the summer months of July and August. During this time no access by students will be allowed. Any students who register later in the school year and their 150 days would normally include time during July and August will have 60 days or a portion thereof added to their course. The 60 days or any portion thereof will be added to their active course time after the summer. This asynchronous 150 day system created individual course timing for each student which breaks both the temporal and geographic barriers as well as improves their success rate.
Of the four e-learning communication tools provided within the WebCT learning management system the most used is the asynchronous discussion board because it matches the delivery system closer than the other while still creating community. It is used as a private journal system, a group discussion tool, peer counseling, and sharing of current events. The asynchronous ability to remove the temporal barrier means the students have the time to consider the posed question, research, check spelling and form an argument which in turn tends to elevate the quality of one's responses.
Course mail is the other asynchronous system which is used quite extensively because it is more of a private one-to-one communication tool than the group nature of the discussion board.
The chat and whiteboard are the two of the synchronous e-learning communication tools which are also used by the teachers. The chat is more widely used than the whiteboard because of the strength of each of the designs. The student to student's dialogue tends to be the communication which occurs within these systems more than teacher to student. However some teachers do use the chat tool as a method of being available for "office hours" where the teacher will be available for synchronous chat. The white board although weak in design is used by some of the math teachers because of its graphic nature.
The telephone is another electronic synchronous tool which is used by the teachers in the Cyber School when it is necessary to contact students outside of WebCT. When used, the phone connects the teacher with the students in their busy lives but often it becomes asynchronous when the answering machine clicks on. This just reinforces the need for a flexible e-learning system which allows these busy students' access.
Overall, the Saskatoon Catholic Cyber School has been recognized as a success on a variety of different levels. Since its inception, enrollments have doubled each year. Staff reports satisfaction and professional pride in the work they are doing, "I love the flexibility of being on the 'cutting edge' of developments in education" (Cyber School, 2008). Students surveyed show that real learning is taking place in an atmosphere of positive and meaningful communication and interaction. According to Tunison and Noonan (2001), online education "had a positive impact on student's perceptions of their own abilities to learn and encouraged them to take responsibility for their own learning" (p. 15). These positive results, however, serve more as a challenge to take a critical look at the past, and set a course for the future which encompasses positive system, institutional and personal professional growth, than as permission to accept limitations or grow stagnant.



References
Climenhaga, S. (2004). Data collected from students. Unpublished raw data: Saskatoon Catholic Cyber School.
Saskatoon Catholic Cyber School. (2008). Course Survey. Retrieved February 3, 2008, from Saskatoon Catholic Cyber School Student Survey: http://www.scs.sk.ca/cyber
Tunison, S., & Noonan, B. (2001, April). On-Line Learning: Secondary Students' First Experience. Retrieved February 10, 2008, from Canadian Journal of Education: http://www.csse.ca/CJE/Articles/FullText/CJE26-4/CJE26-4-Tunison.pdf
Wikipedia. (2006). The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 2, 2006, from Wikipedia: Http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia

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