Live class time should be devoted to office hours and collaborative assignments

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Lectures on Zoom will (unsurprisingly) never be like those in real classrooms. Simply knowing that one is a click away from making an online lecture vanish from sight can make the lectures feel like impenetrable YouTube videos where creators and viewers remain separated. In fact, frequent technical difficulties never fail to remind us of that distance.

Fortunately, though, online classes do not have to feel this way. By devoting live class time to office hours and collaborative assignments, while allowing students to “watch” lectures on their own time, professors can reduce this distance. One of the main arguments for this is that asynchronous lectures are not necessarily inferior to synchronous ones — in fact, they offer unique advantages.

Of course, when not watching a lecture in real time, it is impossible to ask questions or answer those of professors, who like to keep students engaged by encouraging them to brainstorm techniques to spark rich conversations with diverse viewpoints. Undeniably, this interaction is key to students’ ability to retain the course material. However, it is also true that asynchronous lectures allow students to pause the lecture to take detailed notes, absorb the material and rewind parts that weren’t clear. 

Besides, asynchronous lectures let students fast-forward sections they are comfortable with or when professors speak rather slowly. This not only saves time but can also help increase focus as pauses and lengthy bits are eliminated. Additionally, they can be watched in small increments at a time, which means that students won’t miss them because of a doctor’s appointment or other commitments.

As for questions concerning the lecture, it is sometimes better to let information sink in and search for answers on one’s own time (usually through a quick re-read or internet search), and write down questions to ask the professor next class if further help is needed. After all, many crucial questions can arise after applying the course material in assignments, which is a good way to test one’s knowledge. 

Yes, synchronous lectures can also be recorded and posted on Blackboard. In fact, it’s already being done for international students in different time zones, demonstrating that asynchronous lectures can do the job, too, while leaving time for more interactive activities. By recording lectures, live class time could then be allocated to the completion of assignments and office hours, both of which increase engagement and social contact.

It could go something like this: Most homework assignments take place during half of a class’ total weekly time, leaving the remaining half to office hours that could take place either right after in-class assignments or during the next class of a given week. In this format, students would be able to work on assignments individually or together in breakout rooms and subsequently share their answers and discuss with other students and groups. 

For students, such active learning environments are beneficial because they encourage critical thinking and offer exposure to a variety of perspectives. They also help students comprehend, retain and apply new teachings in practical situations. Indeed, reviewing the work of fellow classmates is a chance to compare problem-solving methods, learn new knowledge and reflect on mistakes. 

Socially, ensuring that students can interact with anyone in their class is a great way to compensate for the absence of a physical campus, not to mention that it can be useful during group projects when group members face difficulties with scheduling and chasing disengaged classmates. Also, for students who tend to procrastinate (especially when they are at home), having to log into Zoom to complete assignments is a great incentive to start early and represents an opportunity to be more time-efficient. 

This format has benefits for professors, too. A common issue with online learning is that it is impossible to prove whether or not a student is really doing their own work. Depending on professors’ objectives, in-class assignments could be graded or simply used as practice exercises. For example, a graded assignment might take up the whole class time on a given day and leave the remaining class time for the week to office hours. In the case of a practice exercise, however, the professor could use the rest of the lecture to go over students’ answers and take questions.

While office hours could remain optional, it is safe to say that students are more likely to attend with this method than when office hours are random or appointment-based. With more students showing up, one can imagine that professors might have fewer emails to respond to as a whole. This system could also be easily adaptable to international students, who could be grouped together by time zone to complete assignments together on Zoom.

Incorporating more interaction and engagement into the online class model is no novel idea. In fact, General Education requirements and some other classes already incorporate discussion sections, acknowledging the need for more interaction and group exercises. With online classes, communication is made more difficult and social contact is reduced, so teaching formats should reflect this change. Otherwise, the quality of learning will be reduced.