Centering Social Justice and Equity in Online Synchronous Learning

Beyhan Farhadi, PhD

May 11, 2020

This text accompanies a presentation available here

What I offer today is some policy and research context for the discussion we are having on online synchronous learning during emergency remote instruction. It’s best to begin with the statement that this is not e-learning, which is a formal program typically introduced in grades 11 and 12 in Ontario most often because there are barriers to accessing classes face to face.

In most cases e-learning is asynchronous, with optional synchronous learning opportunities, so the Minister’s announcement was surprising to many who have experience and expertise in e-learning, and I’m sure to school boards and unions who have encouraged asynchronous communication with students because it is the most equitable means of delivering remote instruction.

Teachers are best positioned to determine the needs of their class, including the extent to which they incorporate synchronous learning. I position this presentation in the sphere of professional development, which is a formal process of reflecting upon our practice, sharing our experience, and learning from one another.

I am grounding my contribution in the theory of policy enactment and the practice and principles of social justice and equity.

What is Policy Enactment?

Sociologist Stephen Ball has explained: “Policies do not normally tell you what to do, they create the circumstances in which the range of options available in deciding what to do are narrowed or changed, or particular goals or outcomes are set. A response must be put together, constructed in context, offset against other expectations. All this involves social action, not robotic reactivity.” (Stephen Ball 1994, pg. 19)

As teachers, we must understand that “Policy enactment involves creative processes of interpretation and translation, that is, the recontextualisation through reading, writing and talking of the abstractions of policy ideas [like online synchronous learning] into contextualised practices [like the realities of what is happening in our classrooms and schools].” (Annette Braun, Stephen J. Ball, Meg Maguire, and Kate Hoskins 2011, p. 586)

Interpretive Framework

As an interpretive framework, I invite you to centre social justice and equity in your purpose and planning because education is a right.

Equity Literacy

To take a social justice and equity approach to an interpretation of policy requires us to have equity literacy. Paul Gorski of the Equity Literacy Institute has published 8 principles that you can refer to, but those most important to this conversation, I feel, is understanding equity not just as a practical strategy, but also a lens and ideological commitment that prioritizes students impacted by educational inequality. So to re-frame our question: “How will synchronous learning impact the most marginalized members of our community?”

What is Synchronous Learning?

Synchronous learning only requires that we are together at the same time in the same place (on board approved software) but this might be too much to ask students who are not be ready to engage with their class online, especially during a state of emergency.

Our knowledge of our students should shape the content we develop, the boundaries we set on interaction, and the decision we make to archive and circulate what we teach after the session is over. Who will be left behind in the decisions we make? And how can we modify our decisions to reduce harm and increase access to learning opportunities for marginalized students?

Synchronous learning does not have to be live video. Besides video, synchronous learning can take place through one way communication with the teacher presenting visual material using audio that students watch live; it can incorporate two-way chat functions or audio conferencing as well. Certainly, when everyone is on video with audio enabled, we are accepting a greater degree of risk. It’s important that teachers, students, and caregivers understand what they are consenting to before taking that risk on.  

Research on Synchronous Learning

Research on synchronous learning is concentrated in higher education
(Finkelstein, 2006) with students who have longer attention spans and developed executive functioning skills. The research is also focused on blended or hybrid models of learning, which can include asynchronous or physical in-class time (Yamagata-Lynch, 2014). There is little research that discusses how to effectively support learners through synchronous learning (Asterhan and Schwarz, 2010)

During COVID-19 school closures, mass delivered synchronous learning is concentrated in private schools and academic programs, which presumes obligation to participate and encourages video.

Context Matters

When we’re thinking with research, context matters: Private school is not public school. Elementary classrooms are not secondary classrooms are not post-secondary classrooms. Your students are not my students.

Context is important when trying to understand the ideology implicit in the expectation that educators “embrace the use of synchronous learning during the school closure period.”

It’s not about inconsistent uptake so much as it is that teachers have always used a variety of strategies to meet their learners needs. Only now, it’s subject to a greater degree of surveillance because it’s online and archived. 

We must consider what a normal learning environment looks like, who the concept of normal serves, and who we leave behind in trying to chase normal during a pandemic that has shut down life as we know it. This directive does not centre the interests of the most marginalized members of our community.


Remember that headlines that encourage teachers to use video is an INTERPRETATION of the formal memorandum. In over 5000 words, sent to the Chairs of District School Boards, Directors of Education, and School Authorities, the word video is not mentioned. Not once.

So proceeding with the fact that synchronous learning does not have to include video, let’s look at the benefits and limitations of its use:

Benefits of Synchronous Instruction

WHEN there is access to a reliable connection, a computer, and space to work AT THE SAME TIME as the teacher AND students are ready to engage, it can:

  • Promote feelings of belonging and connection
  • Motivate students who need face-to-face instruction, including some students with disabilities, the individual needs for whom must be prioritized in our planning.
  • Engage reluctant learners with caregivers to coach attendance
  • Allow students to ask questions real-time and share ideas and concerns

Limitations of Synchronous Instruction  

For students to be ready to engage in educational learning they must have their physiological and safety needs met (i.e., “Maslow before Bloom”).

Organizing synchronous learning also requires coordinating time with dozens of students, who often arrive late, and access to a reliable connection and space to work; when there are too many pressures on the system, it can cause broadband strain that school boards may not be able to support. Synchronous learning also relies on a caregiver to coach for younger and reluctant students, and there are privacy concerns regarding the circulation of student data and informed consent. Finally, teachers are subject to unprecedented surveillance, which can interfere with professional autonomy.

Balancing Directives, Guidelines, and Policies

When interpreting policy, it’s important for teachers to balance the Minister’s directive, with guidelines by your union, school board and department, as well as those issued by the Ontario College of Teachers. In particular, the OCT asks teachers to be mindful of how data is circulated and to inform students and teachers that the session could be recorded, even without consent; teachers should also record one-on-one sessions. We have to balance all these directives, guidelines, and policies when making professional decisions, in context of our knowledge of students’ readiness and learning preferences.

Baseline for Equity

In an attempt to find a baseline, I made the following recommendation: “It might contradict our intuition, but accessible and equitable mass delivered remote instruction must be asynchronous, reproducible physically, and supplemented by optional recorded audio conferences (for low bandwidth) or phone calls. We can not compel students online, if online learning doesn’t work for everyone.”

If we are beginning with social justice and equity, this is a good place to start, and then modify according to realities of your students and classroom.

You Know Your Students

It bears repeating that you know your students: you know their attention span, their availability, life circumstances, and readiness to learn. And if you don’t, you have the capacity to reach out and have that conversation.

Caution: I will leave you with some items to consider when you are assessing and responding to the risk of synchronous learning.

  • Select board-approved software with (when possible) teacher control for chat, audio, and video.
  • Solicit formal/informed consent for recording student video
  • Explicitly state boundaries and expected behaviour to caregivers and students
  • HONOUR your professional judgement re: risk tolerance
  • And remember that comfort online comes at the cost of security.

In times of crisis, when authorities are in a constant state of catching up, we must be proactive. Share and learn from colleagues and solicit the support of your school team, which include administrators, educational assistants, teacher-librarians, special education specialists, guidance counselors, early childhood educators, child and youth workers, psychologists, social workers and speech-language pathologists.