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Published April 29, 2021 | Languages and Literature

Creating a Sense of Proximity With Your Students, Even at a Distance: Balancing Synchronous and Asynchronous Sessions (1/2)

Mastering the functionalities of digital tools and platforms in order to accomplish specific tasks is already a challenge in itself, for both students and teachers. There is another level of difficulty: how do you combine these platforms and their functionalities in order to create an interesting, motivating and effective learning dynamic? As I am already comfortable with technology and have an interest in inclusive pedagogy [in French], this aspect of the distance learning relationship is of particular interest to me. I would like to present how I tried to establish a sense of proximity with my students in the context of my Poésie, slam et rap francophones [French poetry, slam and rap] course.

  • In this text, I discuss how I balanced synchronous and asynchronous sessions in my distance teaching to support my students' learning.
  • In the second text, I present how I used the Gather platform to connect with my students. [This text will be publish next week.]

Finding a balanced approach

At my college, French classes are taught in 2 weekly periods of 1 hour and 15 minutes. So, when time came to transition to distance teaching, it was logical and easy to structure my course in a weekly format comprising 1 asynchronous and 1 synchronous class. First, the week begins with 1 asynchronous session that allows students to interact with the content at their preference and pace. This is one of the basic principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) which, when applied in this way, requires no additional effort. Moreover, with distance learning, differences in students’ realities are exacerbated, which makes it all the more important to be able to work at one's own pace. Afterwards, we end the week with 1 synchronous session to facilitate practice and exchange.

In doing so, it is important to link the 2 learning moments. To do this, we can:

  • provide preparatory questions;
  • provide preparation points;
  • introduce reflective writing practice;
  • create a virtual space for students to work together;
  • be available to students in that same space at predetermined times.

In asynchronous mode

For a few years, I have been using the GoFormative platform. This platform allows me to create exercises and to follow up, in real time, on the progress of my students. With distance learning, GoFormative has quickly become the cornerstone of my asynchronous teaching. For students, but also for teachers, I believe it is essential to create a routine. That’s why all my asynchronous courses are available on Friday, one week before the synchronous course.

Here is how I structure my classes:

  • a reminder of important information (due date, summative value, approximate time to complete the lesson)
  • a first section, often theoretical
    I insert my videos directly into GoFormative using the YouTube video link function or the embed code for other websites, like Screencast-O-Matic.
  • practical exercises, which often take the form of true or false, multiple-choice or multiple-selection questions
    When I create them, I also add the correct answers, which allows me, when publishing the course, to choose the option of automatic correction or to publish the answer key. If the concepts are more theoretical and conceptual, I ask students to do a reflective writing exercise (tell me in 125 words what they have understood or not, what they find interesting, etc.).
  • the week's texts to be studied, embedded directly as images or PDFs
    If students wish, they can consult (and annotate) the texts online. However, I always suggest that they consult the documents in paper format (to take a screen break). If it is a slam or rap, I also add a video of the song so they can listen to the music, rhythm, pronunciation, etc.
  • a reflective writing exercise for students to tell me what they understood from the text, but more importantly, what they did not understand
    To me, this is the most important part of the asynchronous session, and often my favourite one. Based on their questions and interpretations, I already know how to approach the work for the synchronous session.

I always take the time to write a little comment to each student. I believe this is important to establish a relationship, despite the distance that separates us, but also to remind them that I read everything they write, that it is not in vain, and that their words are not lost in the interweb void forever.

Finally, I always end my classes with a section called “La parole est à vous” ["Have your say"]. I always ask the same questions:

  • Do you have any comments?
  • Do you have any questions for the next class?
  • How long did it take you to complete this asynchronous session?

The responses I receive allow me to address issues related to the material being taught and to adjust subsequent asynchronous class sessions in terms of the workload required. In addition, the positive feedback is a great morale booster for me!

At the beginning of the session, I expected that most of the learning would take place during the synchronous classes, since they replicated the courses I taught in class. But I must admit that after only a few weeks, I was amazed at how much was happening in my asynchronous classes. Seeing my students' thinking form and evolve, in the form of reflective writing exercises, was a real game changer for me. To foster engagement, I believe in giving points for earnestly completing the exercises, but not for getting the answers right or wrong. By giving students the freedom to make mistakes, I believe that students are engaged in a different way and that this promotes learning.

Example of presented content, followed by self-corrected questions.

Example of open-ended responses following presented content.

It is important to remember that GoFormative is available in 2 versions. The free version contains all the important aspects (multimedia integration, self-correction, multiple choice questions, etc.). On the other hand, the premium version (paid) brings some very interesting elements:

  • ask audio-based questions in the exercises or ask questions with mathematical functions
  • allow students to respond to the feedback they receive
  • benefit from a more refined class and content management module (plan the opening and closing date of content modules, limit the time to complete exercises, detect copy/paste, etc.).

My approach can of course also be organized on other learning management platforms, for example Moodle.

"What is GoFormative and how to use it" tutorial by Julien Martineau [in French]

In synchronous mode

Once the asynchronous class content is completed, I meet with the students on Zoom for the synchronous class session. With all the work the students have done in advance, these meetings are always interesting and effective.

It is important that synchronous classes focus on discussion and interaction. Interacting with others in probably one of the things that's most important in times of pandemic, and most importantly, I don't want to waste those precious minutes of synchronous classes with a lecture that I could have presented with a video tutorial. So I am constantly looking for the right balance between the students' time and my own. Here is the formula I usually use for the synchronous classes sessions, which last 1 hour and 15 minutes:

  1. debriefing the asynchronous work/answer questions from students (10 to 15 minutes)
  2. short reading and analysis of one of the texts to be studied (10 minutes)
  3. collaborating in teams of 4 or 5 (breakout rooms) (20 minutes)
  4. feedback and sharing of answers (20 minutes)

Steps 3 and 4 are the core of the synchronous class. To be as efficient as possible, before the course

  • I prepare 5 Word documents containing the 2 or 3 questions to be worked on.
  • I add the text to be studied (which saves less-organized students from wasting time looking for the text).
  • I create a share link for each document and compile them in a list.
  • I share the document links in the Zoom chat and all students automatically have access to their team's document.

This strategy also allows me to track each team's progress in real time. I can see their answers as they write them, which allows me to target my interventions to the teams that need them most. I also ask each team to start with a different question, which ensures that when they all return to the group session, they have answer elements for the entire assignment.

In terms of feedback and sharing information, I ask the teams that were responsible for a particular question to share their answers, and then the whole class can chime in with new information. During this time, I screen-share the text and annotate it based on what the students say. Of course, I intervene from time to time to make sure that the most important aspects are covered!

So far, this method has worked very well! I believe this is due in large part to the preparation that is done by the students during the asynchronous class session. And to be quite honest, I think the best way to get these GoFormative lessons completed is to give them some points!

For my part, no matter where we are next year—at home, in the classroom, a mix of both—GoFormative will remain an important part of my teaching. I love creating courses where everything comes together in one place.

About the Author

Julien Martineau Julien Martineau has been teaching French as a second language at Marianopolis College since 2013. He loves to get his students to read and write, but even more so to teach them to reflect and use critical thinking skills. Humor, creativity and dialogue are important in his teaching. Finally, he dreams of having a career as a YouTuber #LikeAndSubsribe #ProfDeSousSol.

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