Beyond Synchronous and Asynchronous: Elastic Proximity

This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

by Ross Peters | Vice President of School Strategy (Incoming)

To read more of Ross’ writing, visit his blog.

Educators love words—knowing them, using them, stretching them, and even at times, creating them. There have been instances in our work that we have created so many words, or stretched existent words so far away from their original meaning, that we cannot always understand each other. Even more, when we have created such esoteric language, language meant for a relatively small group of those initiated into a particular lexicon or dialogue, we have cut others off from understanding what we are talking about. This use of vocabulary creates a kind of fog around meaning, and it creates needless mystery. It creates a club at the moment we most need inclusion. In such cases language that should connect us to others through shared meaning can, somewhat ironically, separate us from it.

Conversely, we can use language to over-simplify something dynamic. However, creating a short-hand way to describe complexity, while it can make general concepts clearer, is often just as likely to lose necessary nuance in a striving for expedience. Groups of people are likely to slip into representing something as monochromatic when it would be better represented as a spectrum. Importantly, this has happened as a result of our sprint to online teaching where we have adopted “synchronous” and “asynchronous” as the defining categories to encompass online teaching.

When we talk about teaching synchronously or asynchronously, we are describing what teachers are doing, not what students are learning or skills they are developing. Students don’t learn synchronously or asynchronously.

My advice: don’t think first about the approach you want to use—synchronous or asynchronous. Instead think about the learning need you are trying to meet. Even better, plan classes with an idea of what PROXIMITY to the learning and the learner you need to best serve their progress and skill growth. It strikes me that the synchronous/asynchronous dichotomy can frustrate our ability to find the best teaching strategy.

As a result, of my thinking in this area, I have come to believe that the words synchronous and asynchronous are not only confining as silos to describe online teaching practice, but the limits they create may limit novice online teachers in particular from developing the complete toolbox they will need to be effective in online or in hybrid classes.

In order to challenge myself, I created along with Dave Hamilton, Director of Programs for EXPLO Elevate, a list of various online teaching strategies. None of the strategies needs the words “synchronous or asynchronous.” While it is in no way exhaustive, it does reveal that there is nuance that we can work into if we steer clear as much as possible from language that tends to make a spectrum of choices appear to be comprised of either/or decisions.

We can better describe ideal online teaching as elastic proximity, an approach to teaching in which the teacher makes decisions about delivery, student guidance, and student skill development based on the ideal proximity of the teacher to students, of the students to other students, and of the individual student to the teacher. By approaching the planning for teaching and learning in this way, teachers will focus on students first rather than a “this way or that way” idea of what the teacher will be doing. Thus teaching strategies become elastic based on student learning and skill development needs rather than strategies existing in a sort of hyper-simplified delivery methodology.

I think this started bothering me when I noticed that when we talk about teaching synchronously or asynchronously, we are describing what teachers are doing, not what students are learning or skills they are developing. Students don’t learn synchronously or asynchronously. Students learn and grow…and they learn and grow in varied proximity to teachers and to each other. 

Opponents of this language may understandably argue that the strategies will remain the same no matter the vocabulary. True to a degree; however, we need to help teachers deepen the fluidity of their work with students, and an either/or approach seems to push back against the requisite nuance of teaching strategy needed to meet the highest goals of any class. 



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