#32: Virtual Versus Non-Virtual

Welcome to Wired Ivy Footnotes!  Clippings from a previous episode, mulched with commentary from Dan and Kieran, to help your online course design and delivery skills grow. 

Now that the majority of higher education faculty have had at least some experience with virtual instruction, returning to a physical campus has caused many academics to ponder how to apply the lessons we learned online to our non-virtual courses – in other words, are there benefits to using some combination of synchronous and asynchronous content and, if so, how do you decide what needs to be done in real-time?

Carey Borkoski, our guest from Episode 29 – Activist Educators, shared some insights on this dilemma:

We started asking ourselves questions that, I think, as educators we should all be asking ourselves, and that is, when you bring a group of individuals together — whether it’s an hour, or a half hour, two hours — what is it that you want to do with them? Like, why do you need to bring them together?  And so we were evaluating… Is this goal something they could do asynchronously with a video? Or does this require us to be together? 

And by really focusing on that question we were able to come up with what I think was a much more fruitful and productive and shorter residency this past year. What’s going to be great is, hopefully when we’re in person next year, we’re going to use that very same question even though we have the luxury of being together for two and a half days. We’re still going to ask that question.”

KIERAN: Dan, what’s your reaction to Carey’s approach to synchronous versus asynchronous?

DAN:  I love this clip. Really, it should be a mantra for all things professional, in my opinion. In this case, Carey was really making a point about synchronous online or in-person orientation programs. The pandemic had underscored the reality that face time was a specific and somewhat expensive commodity, but really if we think about it, a good default in learning modalities is to use the most flexible, least expensive option, unless there’s some compelling reason that we have to use a more expensive or more constrained alternative. Course effectiveness is the most important, compelling reason. 

So what is it that we need to get accomplished in orientation, for example? We have a certain number of hours that people are going to be online together. What is the best use of that time? My sense is that there’s a real default in the, you know, the age of Covid that was like, let’s just do it all in Zoom. We all know that those Zoom meetings can become insufferable at times. It’s like, no, no, if we don’t have to do this that way, then let’s really think about what’s effective and what do we have to do?

Maybe that’s not very specific. I love the point so much that I think I’m talking too much on it [laughing]

KIERAN: [laughing] Well, even before the pandemic, I remember having conversations with you and some of our other colleagues about this idea that the younger generations – and, you know, you and I are at the point now where there’s a lot of those generations that are younger than us… 

DAN: Like, all of them.

KIERAN: But this idea that you earn face time interaction. It’s not the default. That virtual is the default. And I think there is something really important to learn about that from the standpoint of education. Right? 

And this comes back again to another concept that we’ve talked about many times, which is that the learning objectives need to inform what you’re going to do in order to achieve those, right? If we only have a limited amount of time that is synchronous or face-to-face, then the things that we need to prioritize for that time should be the ones that, really, the only way we’re going to meet those objectives is real time, face-to-face interactions with people.

And how many of those are there going to be? Well, it depends on the subject matter. It depends on the learning objective.

DAN: I think the other thing, this underscores is there are actually different media, or different forms of face-to-face, that can be deployed here. In some cases, you have a Zoom session that’s synchronous, and I know a lot of places will do that. I know faculty who schedule one-on-one consultations with each student, often at the beginning of the term – 15 minutes or so, just to sort of make sure they understand where the student’s coming from, and if they have questions.

Something I’ve tried very recently, based on a suggestion from one of our other guests on Wired Ivy, is having students have small group sessions where they work synchronously together. I’m not present, but they’re present with each other and they really value that face-to-face opportunity. In our program, we have one opportunity to do an international field experience… so what are we going to do in that 10 day period?

These are different ways that not only might you think about how you optimize the outcome, but you actually can engineer and design what it even means to be talking synchronously, remotely, face-to-face, in-person, and I think that opens up a different way of thinking about what you’re doing.

KIERAN:  Well, and if we think about it not as face to face, but as virtual versus non-virtual… well, now we’re talking about things that, for example, our guest, Jim Egenrieder (Episode 15 – Field & Screen), does in his classes, to have students go out into the world and take a water sample, or talk to people at a Watershed Board.

It’s not face-to-face with him as the instructor, it’s not face-to-face with the other students, but it’s doing something active. It’s, it’s an opportunity to learn in a space where you’re not looking at a screen… or maybe you are, but the screen is a portable tablet that you’re carrying along with you as some tool. Right? And so if we, if we broaden that, not just face-to-face but virtual versus non-virtual, what things can we do to meet the learning objectives in a virtual space, and what things would be better served by letting students interact with that content in a non-virtual space?

Of those, what does that non-virtual space gonna look like? Is it going to be meeting with the other students in the class and the instructor in a more formal, traditional kind of setting? Or is it going to be going out to interview somebody in industry? Is it going to be learning how to use a particular kind of tool in a lab? So many different things that we could do.

But maybe that’s, uh, a helpful way for people to think about this is that virtual versus non-virtual of which face-to-face is one potential non-virtual.

DAN: I have nothing to add.

KIERAN: [laughing] Okay. Okay.

DAN: I could reiterate what you just said, but no, you’ve got it.  I mean, I think that’s yet another example of a different mode of, of interaction, and we have this wide array of options to choose from.

And, yeah, Jim’s, Jim’s example is great. There’s a very specific reason to make the investment to get out in the field and meet these people. There are very specific learning objectives attached to that so it’s not just a casual expense of resources.


KIERAN:  Let’s hear what you have to say!  Send us your questions, comments, and suggestions. You can leave a voice message at speakpipe.com/wiredivy, or send us an email to kieran@wiredivy.org —  Kieran is spelled K-I-E-R-A-N, or Dan@wiredivy.org  —  Dan is spelled D-A-N.

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Dr. Carey Borkoski is an Associate Professor in the Johns Hopkins University online EdD program and the Interim Director.  She also has a joint appointment in the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Borkoski’s research focus includes an examination of the culture around teaching in higher education institutions, and the benefits of service learning for faculty, students, and the community. Carey is also the author of a new book that will be available next month, October 2021, titled Dancing with Discomfort: A Framework for Noticing, Naming, and Navigating Our In-between Moments.

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Wired Ivy is wholly owned by Kieran Lindsey and Daniel Marcucci, and we are solely responsible for its content.   Views expressed in this podcast and affiliated media are those of Kieran, Dan, and our guests, and do not represent Virginia Tech or any other institution.  Our audio engineer is Star Path Images, and a license for our theme music, Breakfast with You, was purchased from SmartSound.

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