Jul 28 2023

What Are Bisynchronous Classes?

Combining asynchronous and synchronous instruction offers students increased flexibility and self-paced learning.

We are light-years beyond the initial pandemic shift into asynchronous learning in higher education, but we are still trying to identify the trends that work, weed out a few that didn’t and select the best ones to keep for years to come.

Now, all eyes are on higher education’s integration of bisynchronous learning, which combines some on-screen, real-time learning between students and the educator with an asynchronous component. This includes working through modules, watching videos, engaging in chat boards and other activities the professor has determined — on students’ own time.

Identifying the Types of Online Courses in Higher Education

Laura Pohopien, adjunct professor in the College of Business Administration at Cal Poly Pomona, participated in pedagogy training on the topic and teaches bisynchronous classes.

“A lot of us were calling it ‘hybrid’ before the pandemic,” she says, but the significant difference is that bisynchronous has “no human contact or conversations at all.”

To complicate the matter further, some educators are engaging in HyFlex learning, sometimes confused with bisynchronous.

“Bisynchronous is very similar to HyFlex, just without the face-to-face requirement and possibly without student flexibility. But the principles and guidelines associated with teaching in multiple modes are very much the same overall,” says Brian Beatty, professor of instructional design and technology at San Francisco State University and founder of the HyFlex method of course design.

EXPLORE: How instructional technology is impacting higher education.

Here are the definitions of some common class types:

  • Hybrid: This involves some in-person and some online learning.
  • HyFlex: A mix of in-person and online learning opportunities for students that gives them a choice in how they’ll participate in sessions. “Bisynchronous learning is often part of a HyFlex design but is only a part of what might be offered,” Beatty adds. It requires students to choose from face-to-face options and at least one online option (synchronous, asynchronous or bisynchronous).
  • Bichronous: “It relies on online learning tools and technology only,” Beatty says, pointing to EDUCAUSE’s first use of the term in September 2020. This is sometimes also called bisynchronous. The group’s qualitative study in 2023 highlighted a variety of promising practices in delivering via bisynchronous modality, according to Kathe Pelletier, director of EDUCAUSE’s teaching and learning program.
  • In-person: Classes are taught fully on-premises.
  • Simulcast/synchronous remote: Pelletier says this involves teaching from one location, either together with students or alone, and that class is simultaneously broadcast to another class location where other students are gathered. It’s less commonly referred to as “bisynchronous,” she adds.

Justin Lipp, director of the Center for Teaching and Educational Technology at Sonoma State University, says that at his university, “the bisynchronous definition is what we have officially adopted to include courses with this kind of classroom dynamic.”

The variations in terminology reflect a greater blurring between modalities in the future of education, Pelletier says.

“The bisynchronous learning modality adds a nuance to the online modality and is a great example of how modalities reflect both the dimensions of space and time,” she says. “Some would add a third dimension: the extent to which the learning is mediated by technology.”

How Do Bisynchronous Classes Work?  

You might find Pohopien meeting with her business communication students in a Zoom call, or you might find her students working through modules outside of class. She can choose which ones she wants students to work on through their online textbook provider.

During her bisynchronous learning training, she realized there is much more to facilitating this type of teaching than it may seem. She was trained on how to better interact online with her students and be engaging.

“I have a disco light. I have a lava lamp. I try not to do that through the class, but in the beginning to engage,” she says. “I want to be an accessible professor, even though I’m not in front of them, so I use these quirky things that break down the barrier.”

Separately, students work through the modules, as Pohopien explains that publishers have various online resources to integrate. She uses a self-paced model, and all units and chapters are open from the beginning. She gives a suggested pace to follow along with her, but students don’t have to.

Beatty says typical lesson design may include preparing for class by reviewing content; participating in a live synchronous interactive presentation or lecture; interacting with the live online class through polling tools such as Mentimeter or Kahoot!; participating in live online breakout discussions and shared not taking; or delivering presentations in live online or recorded formats.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Bisynchronous Learning

Educational design instructors and technology leaders in higher education have some serious decisions to make, given the onslaught of new capabilities that many institutions can now support — and that learners are coming to expect.

“Students want flexible options and are asking for more online experiences to give them location and schedule control in their lives,” Beatty says. “Faculty are learning how to offer mixed solutions such as these with more confidence. Technologies to support online teaching and learning are improving on many campuses, and technology and admin staff are also learning how to better support the online needs of even their traditional students.”

Cory B. Scott, a professor in the Management and Human Resources Department at Cal Poly Pomona, has seen the advantages. “This combination enables students from different time zones or with differing schedules to participate fully in the course,” he says.

He also finds that uploading materials after a live virtual session has helped students. “This gives them time to absorb the material and come up with thoughtful insights and queries,” he says.

When it comes to asynchronous learning, he focuses on providing high-quality, well-organized materials.

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“My use of the Adobe Creative Cloud suite to create engaging videos, complete with visual aids and music, has been well received by students,” he says. “They appreciate that the resources I provide are not just informational but are also designed to provoke critical thinking and independent exploration.”

Scott adds that the process isn’t without challenges.

“Balancing the synchronous and asynchronous components requires careful coordination and planning. Equity issues are a constant consideration, as we need to ensure all students have the necessary technology and internet access,” he says. Despite the challenges, Scott believes in the learning format’s potential. “I continue to refine my strategies to maximize its benefits for all my students.”

Jennifer Lillig, associate dean of academic programs at Sonoma State University, says there can be drawbacks and limitations around students having to set aside specific times for the live portion while accommodating their family or work schedules. But compared with asynchronous learning, it’s a benefit that students still get to “meet” their teachers, she adds.

Questions to Ask When Implementing Bisynchronous Learning

While there’s no definitive guide to choosing the perfect route for each class or the format that best supports learners, Beatty says instructors might have specific things to think about now and in the future. Consider discussing his list at your next planning or professional development session, to encourage continued conversation within teaching staff and IT departments on bisynchronous education:

  • Will students learn as well out of the classroom?
  • Will students be retained in our programs?
  • Will we attract new students if we offer them flexibility and more online options?
  • What will happen to our on-campus experience?
  • Will students find value in being in person on campus and living on campus?
  • What should we plan for in five, 10 or 20 years in terms of the mix of campus and online teaching and learning facilities and technologies?
  • Where should we invest our research and development capital to support student learning and faculty teaching?

Pelletier predicts that in addition to bisynchronous learning, even more learning models are yet to come. “It does appear that more creative learning modalities (i.e., different configurations of time/space/use of technology) are emerging across higher education, so I would expect to perhaps see more granular discussions and research around these nuances,” she says.

While there might seem to be more questions than answers about newer forms of learning, the unpaved road could pay off exponentially for learners, with innovative and progressive tech leaders and educators at the helm.

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