Kitchener-Waterloo

Synchronous learning both beneficial and challenging, educators say

Ontario’s push for synchronous learning is important for social connection and student success, according to an expert with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. But one Upper Grand District School Board teacher says she’s also trying to maximize students’ offscreen time. 

Ontario has set minimum standards for amount of time students spend in virtual classrooms

'You can see even midday kids sort of becoming really tired, really fatigued just being in front of the screen,' said Upper Grand District School Board teacher Jessie Davis, who sent packages home to her students so that they could do their assignments with pencil and paper. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario's push for synchronous learning is important for social connection and student success, according to an expert with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

But one Guelph teacher says that, while synchronous learning is preferable for at least part of the day, she's also trying to maximize students' offscreen time. 

As the province shifts once again to online learning in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19,  the government has set minimum standards for the amount of time spent on synchronous learning, or learning in a virtual classroom with the teacher and other students.

"The benefits are, again, about bringing the community back together," OISE assistant professor Todd Cunningham told CBC.  

"If we went to basically just asynchronous learning — that's when all students are just kind of watching videos, doing worksheets on their own — you lose classroom cohesiveness," he added.

"You lose that ability for students to break up into small groups and talk with each other and have that social connection with each other. You lose the opportunity to learn or be part of discussions and hear what others are thinking, as well as the teacher loses the ability to kind of monitor and see the progression of their students."

Concerns about screen time

There are challenges to synchronous learning, Cunningham acknowledged, such as the need for children and families to adapt to the technology involved and the need for teachers to find ways to engage students online.  

But while parents may be concerned about the amount of time their children are spending in front of computer screens, Cunningham said there's a difference between educational screen time and entertainment-oriented screen time — such as watching YouTube videos and playing games — and the former requires fewer restrictions. 

Still, one teacher says she's trying to ensure her students have plenty of time off screen as well. 

Jessie Davis, who teaches Grade 3 students with the Upper Grand District School Board, has sent packages home to her students so they can do their assignments with pencil and paper.

"You can see even midday kids sort of becoming really tired, really fatigued just being in front of the screen," she said. 

"We know that research tells us that that's not good, that it affects their learning, that it affects their attention span, so we don't want to overload them with that time that's spent in front of the screen."

What works best for students?

Synchronous learning works better than asynchronous learning with younger students, Davis said, because it allows her as a teacher to explain things to students as a class or in small groups.  

But, she noted, that doesn't require that all students be together all at once. She has the option to talk to students in small groups or one-on-one or to simply be available to answer questions as they work, and that is what she sometimes does, she said. 

"We're expected to provide 225 minutes of synchronous teaching, and so I've built that into the day," she said.

Davis has spoken to parents to find out how they feel about the amount of time their children are spending on screens for school, and they have expressed appreciation for her efforts to keep it in moderation, she said. 

Nonetheless, she added, no form of remote learning matches the experience of being in a physical classroom.

"When the kids come into a Google Meet in the morning, because there are 20 of them, I have to ask them to mute their mics," she said.

"You picture how a day starts in person, and you know, you're connecting and smiling and having these greetings in the morning and that banter and conversation, and that just gets lost, right? … For me it's kind of sad to sit behind the screen with kids with their mics off just sort of staring back at you."

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