How can I provide the best possible learning experience for students who remain split between in-person and remote settings? This is a question that is top-of-mind for educators and administrators around the country as they continue to leverage flexible online learning options for their students.

Traditionally, teaching has taken place in-person, and synchronously, with everyone involved in the same room at the same time. Technology has changed that.

Even when students and teachers need to be physically apart, technology offers ample options for providing an engaging and productive learning experience. Teachers can choose from three general approaches to online instruction: synchronous online teaching, asynchronous online teaching, and hybrid teaching.

Aki Murata, PhD, is a former professor at Stanford University and UC-Berkeley and the author of Reopening better Schools: Unexpected Ways COVID-19 Can Improve Education. “As teachers around the country at both the K-12 and higher-ed levels seek to find new ways of effectively connecting with and teaching students during the pandemic, many are experimenting with various options,” says Murata.

Here we look at the pros and cons of each of these and offer some tips for making the experience as engaging and effective as possible.

Synchronous Online Teaching

Synchronous online teaching can be thought of as being about the same as traditional teaching, except participants are not physically located in the same location. They are, though, participating and interacting with each other at the same time. It’s an option that attempts to, as much as possible, replicate the in-class experience.

Dianna Taylor is a high school educator who has experienced all three forms of online learning since the pandemic began. Synchronous learning, says Taylor, is great for real-time, interactive learning. “Students log on with the teacher, and they’re able to ask questions. The pro to this method is that the students are held accountable, as are the teachers.”

That real-time interaction can be positive. Still, a singular focus on synchronous teaching can also be tedious, for students and teachers alike.

“When we quickly shifted to remote teaching in March 2020, many teachers simply tried to teach their lessons in front of cameras, while students watched them remotely,” says Murata. Unfortunately, she says, students quickly became disengaged and without the ability to “feel” how students were doing, teachers were challenged to build engagement.

Asynchronous Online Teaching

Asynchronous online teaching takes place online, but students and instructors engage and participate in the course based on their own preferred timelines. Night owls can log in and read or watch a lecture late at night, early birds can engage early in the morning. Whether or not they’re engaging at the same time as others are doesn’t matter. Instead of live interaction, students and teachers can read and post messages on chat boards, share and post video and audio, complete assignments, etc.

Dr. LaTasha Adams is assistant professor of education/coordinator of middle grades education at Clayton State University. One of the advantages of asynchronous learning, says Adams, is that it allows independent students who are ready to move on to a new module while other students continue on with earlier modules. It does require, though, that students are independent learners. In addition, she says, asynchronous instruction can be challenging from a relationship-building perspective because students are not online at the same time.

In addition, one of the challenges with asynchronous learning, says Taylor, is ensuring that they’re understanding the material. “Sure, they will get the material from the teacher, but without live instruction, will it make any sense?”

Hybrid Teaching

Hybrid teaching recognizes the pros and cons of both synchronous and synchronous online teaching and attempts to make the best of both formats. Sometimes students and teachers are participating and engaging online at the same time; in other instances, they’re doing work on their own.

“A hybrid version of the two allows for students to complete work online but also see a teacher each week,” says Taylor. “This sounds perfect, but it comes with its own difficulties. For instance, if students don’t complete the work at home, they will be lost when they come to school.” For teachers, says Taylor, the hybrid option requires more work. “Not only do they need to post material online, but they also need to prepare in-class lesson plans.”

Making the Most of Virtual Teaching

During the pandemic, says Murata, we have learned that “online learning platforms are wonderful but needed to be used differently and purposefully.”

Taylor agrees. Any of these options can work, says Taylor, but it’s important for both teachers and students to remain positive and present. “If they are on the same team, ready to work together and engage in learning, they will be successful.”

Virtual teaching has quickly become an important element in the ability to ensure ongoing education to students of all ages, especially when they’re not able to gather in-person. Different options offer different benefits and drawbacks, but through technology, teachers can create a learning experience that is enriching and impactful.