Most instruction at community colleges remains remote this semester as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on.
Some are concerned that remote instruction will further widen equity gaps among students. Previous research shows that students who take courses online are less likely to persist than their peers who take courses face-to-face, and underrepresented minority students have lower performance than other groups, like Asian American students, in online courses.
But experts in online learning argue that it's the way a course is designed, not whether it's synchronous, that determines whether a student will succeed.
"For community college students in particular, because they’re usually nontraditional students, asynchronous learning is really useful," said Sean Morris, senior instructor of learning design and technology at the University of Colorado at Denver and director of the Digital Pedagogy Lab. "In our current situation, asynchronous learning is the way to go."
The Instructional Technology Council, which does research at community colleges, doesn't collect data on how many colleges are using an asynchronous model versus a synchronous model, but its board members said their colleges are using a combination of learning models, with asynchronous being the most commonly used.
Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a network organization of community colleges, said their members don't choose between the two, but rather use both depending on what they're teaching.
"Most colleges we work with are offering both but ensuring faculty have the professional development they need to deliver effectively whether using asynchronous, synchronous or a hybrid," Stout said in an email.
Asynchronous learning does provide more flexibility, she said, which is helpful for community college students, who are already more likely than students at residential four-year colleges to have several responsibilities outside of their classes. Many are older, 15 percent are single parents and more than half work at least part-time jobs. The pandemic adds another layer of burdens, as parents may have to help their children learn at home or take on extra jobs to make up for a family member's lost income in the recession.
"In those situations, the concept of showing up at a certain time is unthinkable and discriminatory," Morris said.
What it comes down to is how the course is designed. Simply moving a lecture-based class (which can be ineffective for some students even when done in person) to an online format is not going to work for more vulnerable students, said Jessica Rowland Williams, director of Every Learner Everywhere, a network of organizations aiming to improve teaching and learning with technology.
"What we need to start asking instead is, how do we distribute the benefits of learning across a broad range of learners?" Williams said.
Community colleges may typically serve adult learners who are better at self-motivation, but they may start to see more traditional students enroll to save money during the pandemic. First-time freshmen may not have the skills necessary to do well online.
But there are solutions, Williams said, like peer support groups so students can help each other build those skills while building community along the way. Faculty should also give students options. They can make synchronous class events optional and provide a recorded version, Williams said. This way, students who need to work or care for children or family won't fall behind because of scheduling conflicts.
It's similar to webinars for professionals, which are often recorded and provided after the event so that people can view them on their own time, she said.
"We need to afford students the same luxuries that we afford ourselves in our professional lives," she said.
Student engagement is another key factor for success, Morris said. He advocates for "synchronish" remote teaching, where students learn at the same pace but don't work together at the same time.
"So everyone feels like they’re part of something, but it doesn’t have to happen at a single moment," he said, adding that faculty can also use chat tools so that students can reach out with questions and feel connected to their teacher.
For example, people from 20 different time zones attended the Digital Pedagogy Lab's annual event, making it impossible to host synchronously. Instead, the event used discussion forums so people could connect.
Faculty can also use tools like Google Docs and Hypothesis to let students annotate documents or websites. Their peers can then respond to their annotations and build conversations, he said.
Above all, faculty have to avoid making online learning feel transactional.
"The idea of 'post once, reply twice' needs to die," Morris said, referring to a popular assignment for courses that use discussion boards. Faculty should ask open-ended questions so that students can have a dialogue that produces knowledge, rather than reproducing it to prove they did the reading, he said.
Faculty can also choose when synchronous learning is necessary, said Jennifer Mathes, CEO of the Online Learning Consortium. Rather than requiring students to show up each time, faculty can instead use synchronous learning for especially complex topics that would benefit from real-time discussion.
It's also up to faculty members to build their presence when using asynchronous learning styles, Mathes said. They can do this with videos welcoming students to a new week, sending announcements via video or reaching out individually to students.
And while research exists arguing against asynchronous or online learning, saying that it can broaden equity gaps and leave students less engaged, there's also research supporting the model, Mathes said. Online courses have been shown to boost outcomes for community college students, and other research shows that taking steps to build community or humanize online learning raises the chances of student success.
"I’ve talked with faculty who saw asynchronous learning as being totally on your own. That’s what you have to careful of," Mathes said. "You can have an asynchronous class, but you’ve got to make sure that the teacher is also present in that class in different ways."
Providing meaningful feedback to students, beyond a simple grade or comment of "great job," is one important aspect of this, she said. Faculty should also participate in discussion forums along with students.
Faculty need training and professional development to learn these strategies and improve their online teaching, Mathes said.
While that could mean more time, money and effort for colleges, it's worth it, because asynchronous learning can increase college access, Morris said.
"When you’re asking people to do something that looks more like our idealized vision of what college is -- living on campus, not working -- that ends up being discriminatory, because so many people can’t participate in that," he said. "Asynchronous online learning has to be available to anyone who needs it, and it absolutely needs to get better."