Sync and async remote learning

cog-wheels-2125180_640I have seen a number of posts on twitter pitting Synchronous and Asynchronous remote learning approaches against each other.   Sadly, this kind of binary viewpoint is all too common, if not specifically catered for and encouraged on social media platforms.    As I have often said, sadly the world is not that simple.   So, I thought I would add some of my views:


If we take the SAMR model and the first element of it, substitution, using live video as a substitute for the classroom experience seems to make sense where the classroom experience is not an option.    At a basic level it looks like a simple swap.   Through live video students continue to get access to some of the visual ques present in face to face communication.   They also have the opportunity to engage in the more social side of learning with quick feedback and two-way communications allowing discussion points or ideas to be explored and clarification to be sought where confusion arises.   I believe the social benefits of video-based communication in particular are very important as learning is very much a social activity so the more similar we can make it to “normal” social interaction the better.

The challenge with the above being access to high speed internet to support video plus issues around latency of sound and video which cause problems as soon as multiple people try to talk or where people try to interject with their thoughts or comments.  These issues don’t exist in real time face to face situations in a classroom, or at least they don’t where good classroom management exists.

Another synchronous option might instead be the use of real time discussion or chat solutions.  This doesn’t have the same issue in relation to a need for bandwidth or in relation to video/audio latency.  That said, I believe that typed comments, thoughts, ideas and questions are simply a proxy for spoken offerings, and as a proxy lose some of the detail which exists with face to face real time communications either in real life or via video.  As a result, you can expect higher rates of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Probably the biggest concern with a synchronous approach is that of workload, stress and strain.   Delivering either real time video or chat isn’t normal when compared with how lessons are generally taught.    This means teaching this way represents a cognitive load in terms of using the technology tools, considering pedagogical approaches and adjusting these, and managing to get feedback from students as an activity or lesson progresses;   Never underestimate the feedback a classroom of students provides through comments, body language, the groups attitude, etc, all of which are more difficult to gather remotely via a screen.  This departure from the current established norm therefore represents an additional load on teachers.


This focusses more on providing content with students able to work on it in their own time.   From a teachers point of view this is likely to be less stressful as they can plan and develop the required content, including repurposing already produced resources for sharing content.   As it doesn’t put the students directly in front of the students the cognitive load isn’t as significant, as teachers have time to think before responding to students or before posting the next activity.

The challenge here however is that in asynchronous learning the social aspect is lacking.   There isn’t the same interaction between students and teacher or between students and their peers that there is with synchronous or real time activities.    There is also a greater reliance on intrinsic motivation as it requires the students to complete activities in their own time without the teacher prompting in real time.

Sync vs async?

We would never suggest that learning in a classroom, in real time and face to face, was either synchronous or asynchronous.   The teacher might lead a class through some content or a discussion in a synchronous fashion then later in the lesson provide students learning activities to work through in a more asynchronous fashion.   The teacher may then review learning with students back in a more synchronous style.     We would never suggest the teacher just provide resources for students to work through in classroom lessons, or that the teacher and students spend their lessons all working together.

So why is this even being discussed in relation to remote learning?    It doesn’t make any sense to me!

Learning is a complex process best nurtured by experienced educators who know which tools to use and when, who know when they need to work in synchronicity with students or when to empower students to work on their own or in groups in a more asynchronous approach.    It isn’t a question of synchronous versus asynchronous learning.   Its, as is often the case, about finding the right balance between the two extremes, the balance which suits the teacher, the students and learning which is taking place.


Football and learning

The World cup has started and I am sure classrooms all over the world will be seeing football related themes, examples, etc. in use as teachers seek to engage students and contextualise learning.    As I sat watching the Spain vs. Portugal game I identified one particular opportunity where football could be used to share an important piece of learning.

It was the 88th minute when Ronaldo stepped up and stuck his free kick round the wall and into the top right corner of the goal.   The Independent described the goal as “sublime”.    I suspect throughout the tournament, and beyond, we will repeatedly see re-runs of the television footage of this goal.

The learning point for me lies in a fact which the commentator shared after the initial shock and awe which immediately followed the goal.    This attempt, this free kick in the world cup, a major tournament, was Ronaldo’s 45th attempt to score from a free kick in a major tournament.   Ronaldo had attempted and failed to score on 44 occasions.

I take two things away from this.

1) Never give up.    Ronaldo had made attempt after attempt and failed to score yet with 2 minutes left in the game which Portugal were losing, he still decided to try a difficult shot despite 44 failed attempts.   He could have gone with easier options such as crossing the ball.   He could have considered the likelihood of success having failed 44 times and judged a direct attempt on goal too risky or too unlikely to success however instead he went with the attempt and saw his 45th attempt sail into the net.

2) Beware of your memory.    We will remember the quality of this goal for time to come.  We will hail Ronaldo as one of the best players in the world if not the best but do we remember the 44 failed attempts?   I doubt it.   This is simply the availability bias at work, in that the goal was recent plus it had a positive outcome, hence it comes easier to mind than the 44 failed attempts.    Students need to be aware of this bias.    One test result or one piece of feedback, whether positive or negative, is not a measure of our ability, knowledge or skill, despite the fact it will come easily to memory.   We need to take care and avoid such strong memories influencing decision making or our perceptions of ourselves and our abilities.

I am sure the World Cup will continue to serve up opportunities for learning as well as providing entertainment.   For now I will get back to watching the Croatia vs. Servia game.


References:, June 2018,  Ronaldo finally scores major tournament set-piece at 45th attempt,

Luke Brown, Independent, June 2018, Cristiano Ronaldo World Cup 2018 hat-trick goal: Portugal star makes history with stunning free kick against Spain,

Image link:



Hard Evidence

There is now a strong push on the need for “hard” evidence to prove the impact of technology but also of teaching strategies and other things within education.    Firstly, I wonder what is “soft” evidence however lets park that for now.

Thinking about this I can see where the emphasis on the need for standardized tests has come from as this is hard evidence of the impact of the  educational strategies a given country has undertaken.    But we know it is not that simple as I and many others have previously blogged.

Another impact of this need for “hard” evidence is that teachers seek to ensure they have proof of what they have done.   This leads to the need for forms, checklists and other documents to be created and completed which in turn leads to an increasing workload, another issue which is constantly under discussion.    The need for evidence results in the increased administrative workload.

beakersTaking a scientific standpoint “Hard” evidence, in my opinion, relates to something which is provable by repeatable experiment, however I admit that this is very simplistic and that a full blog or even book could be dedicated to the discussion of hard evidence.

My issue here is that of the number of variables which go into the use of learning technologies, or a particular learning strategy, in the classroom.    These include prevailing national culture, national views on education, available resources, school leadership aims and approaches, teacher qualifications, teacher experience, technologies being used, purpose for the use of technology, etc, and this is just the very tip of the iceberg.   How can any evidence therefore be considered as hard?   It may be that it is “harder” than another source of evidence however, especially where we are looking at generalization on a world or even national level, there will never be any certainty of the ability to replicate a given study and its results.    Having read Talebs The Black Swan I realize it is highly likely that it would be possible to disprove any given study with little effort after all it takes a large number of common studies with the same outcomes to prove something however requires only a single study with contradictory outcomes to disprove it.

Now I am not suggesting that we should stop examining whether given approaches have provable impact.    We must try and check that the actions we take are having a positive impact as otherwise we may undertake initiatives which have no impact or even a negative impact on student learning.   We must however accept that there are unlikely to be educational practices which are so generalizable as to have truly hard evidence which supports their impact.


Percolating on thinking!


Peculation is the term used by Benedict Carey when discussing how ideas form for writers.    He suggests that big projects or more extensive assignments are best dealt with through having the bigger task in mind throughout, but with smaller related build up tasks contained within the lead up to the main task.   The idea here is that this makes use of Zeigarnick effect where mental goals, such as completing the main assignment, leads to greater awareness of ideas, concepts or objects related to the goal even when we are doing a separate or even unrelated task.   As a result of this effect we may pick up and even learn things while about our main goal while undertaking and intermediary task.

He also suggests that, linked to this, we should start with a bigger task rather than smaller tasks.    My normal approach has always been to start with smaller easier tasks such as reading a variety of literature during my Masters study from a few years ago.    I always felt this helped my confidence and eased me into the bigger task in hand.   All my reading and note taking then led to tackling the actual writing part towards the end of the time window I had allocated for completing my Masters study.      The reality of the matter is that when it came to the writing part I struggled long and hard to get everything done and often not quite to the standards I would prefer.   Carey suggested that I should have started with a larger writing task as this would have focused me and made me more perceptive of linked or inconsistent ideas or observations within the literature as I read through it.  As such new ideas related to the topic in hand would be more visible to me plus would prove to be easier for me to link to existing knowledge.    This is turn may have made it easier for me to build my final dissertation.   So maybe I could have read only a couple of journals before writing a more lengthy summary document or analysis, then going on to read further as opposed to trying to do all the reading up front and leaving the writing until the end.

Carey’s comments focus very much on the subconscious side of things in that we don’t actually perceive our increased perceptiveness relating to the goal or outcome in mind.   I also believe there is a part to play for the conscious mind.    I think this is best summed up by Coveys comment, “start with the end in mind.”    Students need to know where they are going with their learning.   Linked to this they also need to know where they have been, their previous knowledge and how this links together and how this might link to the new learning at hand.    Only then can students truly understand the route taken in their learning journey.    I am particularly fond of Microsoft OneNote as an app for keeping a live mind map of learning although I will discuss that further in a separate posting in the coming weeks.

The more I think about how we learn, and the more I think about thinking, the more possibilities arise for how learning might be modified or changed to hopefully bring about improvements in the quality of learning.



Carey, B. (2014) How We Learn, MacMillan Publishing

Covey, S. (1989) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press

On Demand Learning?

I have had a reasonably relaxed weekend for once, running a few errands, watching some rugby and watching some football.    All this has meant that some of the things that I had planned to do were put to the side including getting involved in #appsharelive and also in #sltchat.

Thankfully though this is not a complete loss.   Through the wonders of technology I can see what happened in #appsharelive via the youtube via of the event.   I can follow what happened in #sltchat via Storify.    It is not the same as actually being there in the moment, and of being involved however it is far better than having missed the events altogether.


We now live in an “on demand” world where we can preview and review events as and when we see fit.    Yet in education we continue to have lessons which occur with set hours within the day.    Each lesson focuses on a specific subject.

The question is how can we use technology to leverage the need for “on demand” content?    Flipped leassons may be one approach however I am sure there are others.


Tinkering with learning

Day 3 of #29daysofwriting and I sat down to write my post for today and initially was met with a blank.   Not a great start with only 3 days done and 26 days remaining.   Hopefully this is only a temporary road bump in a successfully 29 days of posting, however only time will tell.

For today’s contribution I would like to discuss “tinkering”.    I haven’t given much thought towards tinkering until recently and my recent consideration of tinkering is a direct result of recent events.   Before I discuss tinkering further let me first recount the events.

I have a large storage drive on which I backup my files at home including work files, home files and a variety of other files and file types.   When I purchased the device I purposely picked a RAID device as it has 4 drives and is resilient to single drive failures.   I thought this was a good way to keep my files safe from loss.   Sadly the actual truth is not that simple.   Basically what occurred was that the cooling fan within the unit failed.   As a result of the failure the unit automatically shuts down to protect the drives and data contained on the drives thus making the unit unusable and the data inaccessible until the unit could be prepared.   Should have been straight forward however, as expected, the unit was outside warranty as is often the case.   I therefore asked for info about replacement parts to be told that the unit doesn’t have user serviceable parts.   So at this point it looked like everything was lost.


Not so as out came the screwdrivers and I started tinkering.   I started removing screws to see if I could get to the fan.   A fair few screws later plus a slightly deformed chassis and I had the fan out.   Next it was onto the internet to order fans which although not direct replacements appear similar in nature to the unit contained in the NAS drive.    I expect the new fan to arrive in the next few days to be met with more tinkering as I try to fit it back into the NAS drive and get everything back up and running.

I enjoyed my tinkering and look forward to more tinkering when the fan arrives.   I knew what I wanted to achieve but was problem solving and experimenting to get to it.   Some of my approaches were unsuccessful however no-one told me I was wrong.  I just realized this myself when confronted with a dead end.   Some of my approaches such as bending the chassis to get the fan out weren’t perfect although they got me to the solution.   I had to do my research to search for new fans seeking out a part with limited information available to me.

I wonder how we might get students tinkering more in their learning.   If they enjoy and are half as engaged as I was then it is bound to be a success.


Learning like its Christmas.

My son is getting ever more excited by the day as we get closer and closer to Christmas Day and the promise of opening the currently unopened presents to find out what is inside.   His excitement is built up of the expectation of receiving plentiful (and often expensive) gifts but also of finding out that which is currently unknown; what is inside the currently wrapped boxes?

What if learning could be about finding out the unknown, about a learning journey as opposed to a fixed set of outcomes determined by a curriculum document.

Now previously I believed in the need for three things within learning:

1)      That students know where they have been in their learning journey.   What have they learned so far and how does it relate to what they are learning now?

2)      That students know where they are in that journey.  What are they learning now and why?

3)      The students know where they going in the journey.    What will they be learning next and how does it relate to current and previous learning?

I believed that the above provided students with an appreciation of the big picture and that this was important to successful learning.

Considering my sons enthusiasm for Christmas, I wonder whether the application of the above rules may actually be limiting and may result in potential learning opportunities being missed.    My son is excited because of what might be in those presents, and because of the upcoming act of opening the presents and finding out what is inside.


If we created learning opportunities built around investigation and experimentation where students work with teachers to find out new things; is this likely to be more engaging and result in better learning?

I think my key thinking is that there isn’t a single magic recipe for learning and that different approaches work at different time and with different students.    Unlike Christmas, learning does not benefit from an adherence to tradition and tried and tested methods but instead benefits from dynamic teaching and learning constantly changing to meet the needs of the learners, available resources and the content being taught.    Now I am referring to those “but that’s the way we have always done things around here” methods as opposed to up to date research based methodologies however I also accept that today’s current research may be tomorrows debunked research and as such the comments may stand for both.   Effective student learning benefits from teachers who are reflective of their own practice and who are constantly engaged in seeking out new and alternative approaches to try in their own classrooms.   Like Christmas, learning does benefit from true engagement of students where they are excited and involved, and where there is passion focussed on new learning and discovery.   I think everyone will agree that learning is more effective where students are enjoying and excited about what they are doing.

Considering again the theme of Christmas, what better gift can we provide students than the gift of new learning.     I think the key thing is that there isn’t a standard approach or strategy that will result in this gift, we as teachers need to breath a little bit of teacher magic into things, whether its Christmas or not.

Differentiation in a world of increasing Standardisation

I spent this morning working with some UAE teachers examining the ethical and moral issues surrounding the increasing use of technology both within and outside of the classroom.    During the session we digressed into a range of other subject topics including that of differentiation.

Differentiation continues to be a hot topic within the schools I am involved with within the UAE where school leaders continue to look for evidence that the teachers are providing learning opportunities which meet the needs of the individual students within their classrooms.     Where teachers are perceived to be providing all students the same teaching and learning, they are judged to be unsatisfactory.     Good lessons must involve activities, resources and teaching that caters for students as individuals with their own needs, interests, experiences, etc.

criminalatt from freedigitalphotos

This is where the contradiction becomes clear, as after all this differentiation and individualised and personalised teaching has occurred how do we then assess our students?     We put them in an exam hall together with other students of the same age, and they all sit the same test.    We teach the students as individuals however when we measure what they have learned we consider them all to be the same.    We then use this data of student performance to make judgements as to the quality of the teaching and learning, and therefore of the teachers themselves.

Now I do not profess to have an answer for this apparent contradiction however I would suggest that it needs to be given some consideration.   Are students individuals and as such should they not get individualised teaching and assessment, or are they all the same in which case common teaching and assessment should be the order of the day.    Now it may be the answer lies somewhere in between however I would suggest that an individualised teaching system combined with a standardised testing system sends mixed and confusing messages.


Photo courtesy of criminalatt at



Learning Platforms: Over 10yrs of VLEs, MLEs, Learning Platforms and still no joy!


I met with a Learning Management System vendor today in Dubai and for once I managed to get into and out of Dubai without getting lost, although I do suspect I got at least one motoring fine, although that’s another story.   Basically I was in the meeting to see a company’s system as demonstrated by a woman from Norway who had significant experience using said system in the classroom.    Now I went into this meeting not being a great fan of learning management systems (or virtual learning environments or learning platforms or whatever else you want to call them) as in my experience I have seldom seen them used such that learning has been positively impacted upon.


During the course of the meeting my viewpoint was changed as I was regaled with stories and examples of how this particular learning management system had been used by this particular teacher.   I was shown specific examples of materials plus was shown the system from a teacher, student and parental standpoint.   I began to see how the system could have a positive impact on student learning however I found myself wondering why the learning management systems I had seen in the past had not had a positive impact.   Was it that this new learning management system was significantly superior to systems I had seen in the past?  I wasn’t sure this was true however I should make it clear that the system being demonstrated to me had some good features with the ability to share course content with other users across schools and even countries through their network being most significant.


My viewpoint as to being generally against learning management systems had by this point changed as I had seen a concrete example which, although anecdotal as opposed to research based, was enough to suggest to me that learning management systems could have a positive impact.  At this point I considered the common factors in the previous systems I had seen which I had judged as unsuccessful and identified one particular issue: learning management systems which were mandated for use and applied to all in a school.    In each of the previous learning management systems I had seen, they had been applied to the whole school with staff mandated to provide content.    This struck me as being a significant problem as teachers are all individuals, like students.   Some will be happy using a particular learning management platform, whereas others will prefer another system, and some may not like learning management systems at all.    As school leaders and teachers we talk of differentiation, yet here we have an example of where leaders say one thing and then do something else, at least in terms of their teachers.   Why should making all teachers do the same be any more successful or acceptable than making all students do the same?


So this brings me back to my initial feeling with regards learning management system, in that they are generally bought for a whole school at significant cost, which therefore encourages school leaders to “mandate” use in order to ensure an appropriate return on investment.   The problem being that this single system, no matter which system, is unlikely to meet the needs of all or even most teachers.   As such for a small few, such as the Norwegian teacher who presented today, learning management systems will have a significant and positive impact on the learning of their students however for others these systems become nothing more than another bureaucratic task which teachers are mandated to undertake.


In terms of an alternative to learning management platforms there are plenty of solutions with the most likely to be the approach of “app smashing” where teachers use multiple different apps to achieve their aims as opposed to looking for a single unified platform.  This might involve the use of Edmodo, ClassDojo or Classjump along with GoogleDrive, DropBox and Box .Net, or it might involve Survey Monkey or Google Forms, maybe some use of Evernote and Youtube.    Basically a teacher selects the apps which suit them and the students they teach.   For some teachers this may be a single app while for others it could be 10 or 12 different apps used in combination.   This is the feature which the learning management system does not include; the ability for teachers to choose and to differentiate according to their needs, experience and skill level, as well as to adapt to their students.


It is about time we gave up on learning management systems, at least as they appear now.    The system I saw today had one feature I did particularly like being the ability to share teaching content within the system.   Maybe this idea may provide a starting point for a new kind of learning management system.




Image courtesy of jscreationzs at



Time Lapse video and Lesson Observations

It has been a while since I last blogged, a fact which has found me disappointed in myself however more on that in a future post.   For the moment I find myself returning to blogging as a result of a recent tweet which introduced me to the LapseIT app.

Today I found myself, having been introduced to the app, deciding to try it out so, much to my wife’s bemusement, this afternoon I bluetak’d my mobile phone to a window to time lapse video the sun going down over the land and housing to the rear of where I live.  The results were a little disappointing due to the fact the app sucked the battery life from my phone resulting in just over 1 ½ hours worth of real life being compressed into 10 seconds or just over 140 frames.  But I digress….

The video despite being disappointing got me quite enthusiastic about the app and the ability to compress time.   This idea of viewing the sum of the events which occurred across 1 ½ hours within a 10 second video got me thinking.   An initial idea was to time lapse video a professional development session and then to replay it at the end of the session as a brief way to recount the activities of the session.   Then it hit me:  The parallels between time lapse videoing and lesson observation as a method to judge teacher quality.

Across the educational world, teachers still often have their ability judged based on a handful of “formal” lesson observations of maybe up to an hour in length.   So that’s four hours of teaching if they are observed four times.   Using the timelapse video analogy that would be a four hour video to watch.    In terms of real time if we consider that a teacher may teach 5 hours per day (and this is a very rough estimate so apologies to the many teachers who teach more than this) over around 180 days (again another rough figure) that equates to a real time period of 900 hours.   So using the time lapse video analogy we get a ratio of 1:225 meaning that for every single hour of formal lesson observation undertaken a teacher teaches another 224 hours which are not observed and are not counted.   This clearly seems to illustrate the flaw in reliance on “formal” lesson observations for judging the quality of teaching.     Judgements of teacher quality therefore need to involve data gathered from a number of sources beyond just these “formal” observations.   Now this need for other data to be considered has been discussed by a number of others in their blogs such as the discussions of @teachertoolkit (read two of his posts here: The role of lesson observations and Can observers spot good teaching ) and as such I will not repeat what others have already covered.    I will leave this post here.   If lesson observation is akin to time lapse video then we are cramming one years work of teaching into four hours!!!    How can we consider this to be an acceptable method to judge the quality of teachers?

%d bloggers like this: