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If lecturers have learned one thing from teaching two and a half semesters in the age of COVID-19, it is the importance of flexibility in the classroom. For instructors like Andrew DeOrio, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science lecturer, this flexibility comes in the form of an asynchronous alternative to in-person class.

“I want to give students choices during this pandemic semester,” DeOrio said. “I’m okay with it if some students can learn the material better with good videos, and I’m also okay with students who can learn the material better by coming to class.”

LSA junior Andrew DeBruin is among the many EECS students asynchronously enrolled in DeOrio’s EECS 485 course. DeBruin said he chose to take the class asynchronously because of the adaptability it affords.

“I registered for the asynchronous option because it didn’t take a slot in my class schedule when registering,” DeBruin said. “It’s a huge advantage for a college student with a busy schedule to be able to watch it when you want, where you want, for how long at a time you want.”

Asynchronous lectures are nothing new to most EECS students, as many lecturers have always offered a hybrid option. In EECS classes, these asynchronous components often came in the form of recording live lectures or answering questions on anonymous forums like Piazza.

“We use Piazza heavily — that’s something that lots of classes in the computer science department have used for a pretty long time,” DeOrio said. “Even before the pandemic, many classes recorded their lectures that were live.”

The main difference between DeOrio’s pre-pandemic and current asynchronous lectures is that he now records and edits videos with detailed visuals specifically curated for an entirely asynchronous section.

“For the remote asynchronous section, I have studio-produced recordings that I made over the last year and a half, and I update and maintain those from semester to semester,” DeOrio said. “A normal video is based on what I would do in a normal lecture, but I broke it up into segments.”

These short recordings are useful for students trying to navigate the return to a mostly in-person semester, DeBruin said. 

“It’s nice to have the option of pushing lectures back if I don’t finish them in time, or if I have something else that’s a bit more of a time crunch,” DeBruin said. “Then, I push it to the next day, or I watch half and pick up right where I left off.”

However, DeBruin found that even the most informative and immersive asynchronous lectures inherently come with drawbacks. 

“The asynchronous lectures are typically not as engaging as in person, no matter what professors do,” DeBruin said. “It’s just a lot tougher behind the screen instead of face-to-face interactions.”

Similarly, LSA junior Lindsey Fleis said she finds it difficult to remain focused while watching her asynchronous lectures.

“When I go to listen to these lectures, I’m not paying attention at all because now I’m in the mindset of going to in-person class,” Fleis said. “I take notes on the lecture slides, but I’m not really listening to what the professor’s saying, and if I realized he’s not saying anything important, then I’ll just speed through it.”

DeBruin said he also misses the vibrant atmosphere that defines in-person classes. He echoed Fleis’ concerns in saying he has trouble fully absorbing the course material in an asynchronous environment.

“It’s easier to get distracted when you’re not in a classroom with a bunch of other students,” DeBruin said. “Plus, having the social atmosphere of being in person is something I miss when watching the asynchronous lectures from home.”

In the absence of in-person interactions, DeOrio created semester-long project groups to help asynchronous students meet one another.

“We have a webform with some relevant information to help put people together that are going to work well together,” DeOrio said. “We didn’t need to do that as much in the past, but that became super necessary last year, and I think that’s still important …  with the asynchronous section.”

The advantage of hybrid classes as a whole, DeBruin said, is he can still receive weekly one-on-one instruction alongside other students due to the in-person labs.

“I go to the in-person lab every week, so it’s kind of nice to have a little spot where I can catch up in person and see some people in the class,” DeBruin said. “It’s especially great to meet other students in the class as additional resources, which would be tough if the class was all asynchronous.”

DeBruin said he hopes lecturers will continue to incorporate asynchronous alternatives to in-person learning in the future.

“The asynchronous classes are a great option to have, but I don’t think they work as well, especially if it’s the main method of instruction,” DeBruin said. “Students should have the option of asynchronous classes in the future, so they can catch up if they have to miss for any reason.”

Daily Staff Reporter Evan DeLorenzo can be reached at evandelo@umich.edu.