Synchronously or asynchronously?

Asynchronous teaching can be considered “traditional online teaching.” The initial steps of online teaching decades ago were specifically based on asynchronous interaction. Only with the development of video call technology and the strengthening of internet networks has synchronous online teaching become more common. Asynchronous learning relies on individually paced interaction, where students may not work simultaneously, and teaching is not designed based on real-time interaction conditions. Asynchronous teaching can be used when a teacher or organization wants to provide temporally flexible, individually accommodating student learning opportunities. However, this does not mean relationships cannot be formed in asynchronous teaching.

With asynchronous teaching, the relationships and their development between the teacher and students alter. Building interactive relationships should be considered already during the course design phase. In asynchronous teaching, communication between the teacher and students can be often relatively one-sided, with the teacher receiving limited direct feedback on their communication. It can be challenging for the teacher to perceive and identify the learning atmosphere, making it difficult to adapt the teaching and address issues. Therefore, planning course interaction in advance is crucial.

In asynchronous online teaching, interaction and communication is designed so that relationships are built on overlapping communication acts. This communication utilizes various technological solutions, such as videos, audio, texts, and even learning analytics.

An asynchronous course does not automatically mean that the course is completed independently without interaction with other students. The teacher needs to be aware of what they mean when referring to an asynchronous course.

The asynchronous course may be:

Asynchronous for the teacher but at least partially synchronous for the students. For example, if the teacher guides students through videos, audio, and text-based instructions, but students need or want to collaborate in real time.

Asynchronous for everyone the course includes interaction among students.

Asynchronous and independent where the student completes the course primarily without collaboration and discussions with other students. In this case, interaction emphasizes the relationship between the student and the teacher and the student and the online environment.

When the teacher wants to support the formation of relationships in an asynchronous online course, it’s essential to consider what types of relationships support learning in that particular course:

  • When during the course are different interaction acts encouraged and communication situations exposed?
  • How does asynchronous communication create a coherent path of communication and interaction in the course?
  • In what order do interaction situations occur, who participates in them, and to whom are they open to access?
  • In what communication forms do both the teacher and the student communicate? Options include audio, video, various text-based messages, and combinations of these.
  • How should group tasks be instructed to students if they are not done at a specific time (e.g., during a class) but on a flexible schedule (e.g., during the week)?
  • How is the work and learning documented?
  • What kind of feedback do students receive, how often, and from whom (each other, the teacher, themselves)?
  • What is the pace of the teacher’s presence and the communication acts?

Online teaching may require various interaction situations, whether synchronous or asynchronous. In digital education, it is crucial to establish suitable places and channels for interaction. The key factors defining the channels are who publishes on the channel, who can see the channel, and what communication purposes the channel serves. By using and modifying these constraints, various interaction spaces are created, such as:

  • Teacher’s information channel for the entire student group
  • Common discussion channel for the whole group
  • Common discussion channel for a small group
  • Channel for communication between the teacher and a student, for example, in the form of a task and feedback

It is always essential for the student to know who can see the content produced on the channel and for what communicative purpose the channel has been created.

The learner’s interaction path in an online course consists of more than just communicating with the teacher or fellow learners asynchronously. The online environment itself plays a significant role in the student’s activities on the course: the student seeks information, content, and reinforcement for their learning from the online environment.

A good online learning environment is, above all, clear. The student does not waste time searching for instructions, interpreting, or understanding. Task submissions, schedules, communication channels, and instructions are found in clearly labeled sections. The logic of the environment, which may be based on chronological or thematic progression, remains the same throughout the course.

The implementation of accessibility regulations is essential. It is also important to remember that an overly ornate online environment may not always be the best to follow.

The online environment is the student’s primary source of information in an asynchronous online course. All the information a student needs related to both the learning content and the completion of the course should be easily found in the online environment, and it should be consistent and unambiguous.

The online learning environment is always designed and built for its primary users, the students. Finally, it is good to go through the online environment “through the eyes of the student,” ensuring that the instructions are clear and sufficient in all sections and trying to identify which aspects may be more challenging than others. In addition, the online environment plays a crucial role in supporting timely learning, so the coherence of the teaching should be reflected in how the environment is built.

The online environment itself communicates and teaches. The student relies on the online environment; how the online environment is built reflects the student’s experience. Therefore, it is essential that the environment also contains instructive, encouraging, and language and communication teaching content, as well as content that guides the student on how to use the online learning environment.

Parasocial interaction relationship between the teacher and students

A parasocial relationship refers to a relationship where the teacher communicates asynchronously through videos, audios, messages, and created teaching materials. The student forms an impression of the teacher through the emotions generated by this communication. By receiving the teacher’s messages and exposing themselves to teaching materials, the students’ relationship with the teacher strengthens. It can be thought that the more students consume the content produced by the teacher, the stronger the parasocial relationship becomes. However, the teacher does not receive much feedback on their communication, and they do not feel they know the students personally. From the perspective of the teacher and students, the parasocial interaction relationship does not become symmetrical.

How can a teacher plan the construction of a parasocial interaction relationship?

  • What kind of parasocial relationship do you want to build with the students?
  • How regular and predictable is your communication in the course?
  • On what communication channels do you aim to communicate, and how often?
  • What communication style do you use? (formality, professionalism, familiarity, humour, addressing, use of the passive, etc.)
  • What kind of teaching material, task assignments, learning environment, visual choices, course messages, and ways of giving feedback support your goals?
  • How do you create expectations about the course, for example, how do you explain what the course entails and what is expected of the students?
  • How do you respond to expectations as the course progresses, reducing uncertainty and strengthening trust?
  • With what communication acts and methods do you show empathy and support?
  • How do you build a trusting and safe learning atmosphere?
  • How do you communicate feelings, inspire, motivate, and encourage?
  • How can students contact you? Is it permissible to ask for help?

In a technology-mediated learning environment, the teacher makes choices about presenting themselves, thus creating a hyperpersona. The hyperpersona is a constructed figure that develops between the teacher and the students. The teacher can make conscious and unconscious communication choices and actions to influence students’ interpretation and impressions. The feedback communication between the teacher and students also builds the hyperpersona.

The teacher should disclose information about themselves because it reduces the student’s perceived uncertainty and strengthens the teacher-student relationship. The teacher can consciously choose what they share about themselves. Self-disclosure can be limited to the teacher sharing thoughts related to their work, such as what kind of teacher they are and what pedagogical choices they have made for the course. However, it can also include more personal narratives.

Self-disclosure can reduce the uncertainty perceived by the student:

Students may feel uncertain, especially at the beginning of the course. Reducing the student’s perceived uncertainty can strengthen the parasocial interaction relationship between the teacher and the student.

You can try to reduce a student’s experienced uncertainty through pedagogical solutions by providing opportunities for the student to:

  1. passively observe the teacher’s communication,
  2. actively ask questions to the teacher, and
  3. reciprocally share information about themselves.

The teacher can think about:

  • How do you present yourself? Do you create an introductory video about yourself?
  • Do you speak directly to the camera, ask rhetorical questions, address the viewer? What kind of photograph do you have, for example, on Moodle, Teams, email, and Zoom? What impression does it create about you as a teacher?
  • What professional and course-related things do you tell about yourself? What else do you want to share?
  • What kind of impression do you want students to have of you as the course progresses? Do you aim to increase approachability, or do you want to remain distant? What communication acts help you achieve your goals?

Ending the parasocial interaction relationship:

When the course ends, the parasocial relationship can also be terminated. The teacher can do this by sending a message after the course that summarizes what has been learned and thanks students for their work on the course.