Synchronized swimming (or drowning)?

synchronized swimming

When my eldest son was 5, he participated in the North Brandywine Swim League (go Sharks!). This involved the rest of us sitting by the side of local pools for many hours waiting for the highlight of our summer evenings, the under-7 backstroke, or as I called it, synchronized drowning. Twenty yards of tense excitement (for the lifeguards).

Over on Twitter, our British and Canadian #tleap (teaching/learning English for academic purposes) colleagues have shortened synchronous online teaching to synchro, and it’s hard not to think of synchronized swimming. Or possibly drowning.

Synchronous instruction is a mode of online teaching in which students are present “live” at the same time in the same virtual space, usually with the teacher, which for us now means a Zoom class.

When we moved to remote learning at short notice three months ago, our instinct, like that of many other universities and language programs, was to replicate as much of our classroom as possible on Zoom. Synchro teaching has mostly worked in our context — it’s not perfect, but we weren’t aiming for perfect! However, its limitations have become evident: nearly half our students in the spring reported experiencing technical difficulties, and we have all discovered Zoom fatigue. The learning curve has been steep and bumpy: colleagues are still asking me how to create and manage breakout rooms, and every week it seems a computer develops a new gremlin, Zoom disables a feature we’ve been using, or the WiFi packs in as a thunderstorm passes overhead. And of course more and more students are taking classes from their home countries, with internet restrictions and time differences as great as 12 hours.

There is an alternative to synchro: asynchronous learning. In the asynch mode, instruction is self-paced through modules in a learning management system (LMS). Asynch learning is self-paced and includes anything from 50-minute recorded lectures (yawn) to carefully crafted multi-media modules with short videos, readings, discussion boards, collaborative writing, online projects, and formative quizzes. Asynch fits different schedules, childcare commitments, time zones, and can run on lower bandwidth. For some institutions, although not really ours, there are also serious equity issues around access to high-speed internet, computers, and quiet spaces to work. Good asynch has to be carefully designed, which is time-consuming and requires specialized training by instructional designers, which we’ve been fortunate to participate in recently.

Although there are voices proclaiming that we should beat our Zoom rooms into Canvas modules, we’re not going to do that. Instead, our goal-like many universities-is to strategically blend synchro and asynch, using the affordances of each to compensate for the limitations of the other.

Specifically, we’re shooting for about a 60/40 ratio, with more synchro than asynch. Don’t yell at me (yet)! Here’s where I see some of the opportunities:


Interactive instruction of complex topics

Pair/group work with teacher monitoring and feedback

Group meetings w/out the teacher at times convenient to participants to prepare for class or complete online tasks

Seminars and discussions

Interactive modeling

Collaborative writing

Pronunciation instruction and practice

Tutorial meetings with instructor to revise written and oral assignments

Discussing readings and listenings


Mini-lectures and teacher modeling: instruction that can be watched independently

Annotating readings

Listening practice and notetaking

Discussion boards (including group discussions)

Preparing presentations

Drafting and revising writing independently

Asynchronous written and oral feedback on assignments

Brainstorming (e.g. Padlet)

Vocabulary study (eg., Quizlet)

Speaking practice (discussion boards or Flipgrid)

I want to highlight two forms of synchronous learning which don’t require everyone to be on Zoom at the same time: groups of students can meet and hold discussions synchronously but on their own schedule as long as there’s some product to share or task completed. Another way I’d like to see more synchronous teaching is reviewing writing with pairs or small groups, much like the British university tutorial model. If I can spend more time working with small groups while the other students work on asynch modules or independent writing and revision, I think we’ll get more done than in our traditional five classes per week.

The temptation is to look at an existing F2F course and ask what we can push into asynch modules. But perhaps a better approach is to ask how we can best use out limited synchro time and organize everything else asynchronously.

That way, we might just make it out of the deep end.

Image credit: o.did via Flickr

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

2 thoughts on “Synchronized swimming (or drowning)?”

    1. Although to be clear, this article slightly misrepresents our position: our courses can be up to 40% asynch, but some will be less. And we have no plans for fully asynch classes at this time. The article suggests it would be simple to switch from 60/40 to 100% asynch, which is incorrect. It would be simple to switch to 100% synch/in-person, though!

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