Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

Kresge Library, Room 430
100 Library Drive
Rochester, Michigan 48309-4479
(location map)
(248) 370-2751
[email protected]

spider web with water droplets

When Asynchronous Teaching and Learning Are Wonderful

Mon Nov 16, 2020 at 07:30 AM

Something curious has happened in the physically distanced world brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic: many of us have become more connected to those who have always been geographically distant. With not being able to see people “in person,” we are becoming more adept at video calls and group chats, which is causing us to talk with faraway family and friends more than we might have during normal times. 

Asynchronous communication increases the potential for this connection. Friends who can never seem to find a time to meet suddenly create a Slack channel that allows them to talk constantly, even if it isn’t at exactly the same moment and time (although sometimes the chatter happens in real time). This is what has been called “synchron-ish.” 

In an asynchronous course, we can have the same opportunities to cultivate connection that is at different times, from hours to mere seconds apart. We have heard that asynchronous courses are important for students with unprecedented challenges during disruptive, unpredictable times, but asynchronous teaching has often been a preferred teaching design in its own right. When done well, an asynchronous course makes all students feel more present and visible, and an instructor can be present for all and present to each student. 

In this teaching tip, OU faculty share what makes asynchronous teaching and learning wonderful. Each instructor approaches asynchronous courses differently, but all intentionally design frequent presence and feedback.

Scaffold the course, and build community (Kimmie Parker)

Asynchronous courses allow more self-pacing, which can be overwhelming. Kimmie Parker, assistant professor of Graphic Design, puts content into small pieces and creates a community space.

Studio art and graphic design courses are quite hands-on with considerable exchanges between students and instructor. I am pleased to have found this is possible in an asynchronous environment, too! Here are my tips for keeping morale high, and encouraging a sense of community in the asynchronous environment.

  • I have broken down large projects that previously would have taken multiple in-class work sessions to complete into step-by-step assignments. Each assignment includes supplementary materials such as mini lectures, demo videos, readings, and inspirational work by professional artists and designers. These bite-sized assignments keep everyone on track and feeling the momentum of making progress from week to week.
  • I am utilizing Slack, an industry-standard workplace collaboration tool, to facilitate group conversations. Students are able to “chat” synchronously or asynchronously as they see fit, without the pressure of having their cameras on. They are able to easily share in-progress work and resources with their peers, and are able to control their “meeting” times. I am able to bounce easily between groups, dipping in and out of the conversation as I would in the classroom.

One of my favorite takeaways from the Quality Online Teaching Certification Course is the idea of a weekly introduction video. These short 2-3 minute videos are a great opportunity to let students know I’m present in the course with them. I often highlight individual student work from the week before, and take the time to “say hello” to all of the students by name. It seems like a small gesture, but it helps the students know this isn’t just pre-recorded content—but content recorded this semester, especially for them.

Frequent Feedback, Personal and Programmed, in Skills Courses (Kieran Mathieson)

Asynchronous courses allow us to take advantage of what we already know about learning: we learn at different paces, and we learn better with feedback and a chance to revise. Kieran Mathieson, associate professor of Decision and Information Systems, builds courses that use these ideas.

Skill courses help students learn to do problem-solving tasks independently, like writing programs, analyzing data, or writing newspaper articles. Asynchronous blended and online approaches work well for skill courses. Well, asynchronish, anyway.

A good skill course has three components:

  • Exercises
  • Lessons
  • Relationships

Students do many hands-on exercises, where they make or improve artifacts, like programs, or articles. They work at their own pace, making things wherever and whenever is convenient. 

Ideally, students receive personal formative feedback for every exercise. That is, they get lists of what they did well, and could have done better. Students get a chance to improve artifacts that weren't quite right. This sounds like a grading nightmare, but it doesn't have to be.

Lessons are readings or videos students watch when convenient. Lessons should be tightly focused, since we want students spending most of their time working on exercises. Lessons use annotated worked examples, showing, for instance, how other students overcome mistakes. Lessons can include questions for self-evaluation and priming of prior knowledge, and much else.

Students need personal help when they run into problems. Talking to someone live is more efficient than email exchanges. Conversations can be face-to-face, or synchronous online, using tools like Zoom.

Students can also help each other. If one student explains a concept to another, both benefit. Tools like Discord and Gather.Town facilitate these exchanges.

There are challenges to this approach, like grading, and helping students keep up. There are tools to help, though. A well-designed skill course can be a pleasant and rewarding experience, for both students and instructors.

You can see examples of such courses at my Learn the Web course and Programming with Excel course. They're online textbook-like-things, with the attributes described above. They're free, too. Students like that.

Work on Affective Learning Skills -- Theirs and Yours (Jennifer Coon)

While we pay more attention to the cognitive aspect of learning, the affective domain is just as important, and requires more intentional design in an asynchronous course. Jennifer Coon, special lecturer of Writing and Rhetoric, explicitly cultivates care, trust, and responsiveness.

Let’s face it. In an online learning environment, I am teaching more than just exigence, voice, and rhetorical appeals. And while I often use “walk and talks” or small group conferences in my F2F classes, such approaches must be carefully finessed into the asynchronous, digital class in order to develop a learner who learns how to learn, who trusts me, who understands transfer, and who can adapt to various teaching styles.  Developing these skills is paramount for online learners.

I continue to stress the below affective cognition skills in my Writing and Rhetoric classes for both 1000- and 3000-level students (Comp 1, Comp 2, and Business Writing). (Smith & Ragan)

  • Internalizing 
  • Organizing
  • Valuing
  • Responding
  • Receiving 

Here are a few ways I work to include affective learning.

  • Create a “Liquid Syllabus” so that students can know a bit about their instructor without you inserting personal info into the student-driven introductions. It is like a meet and greet the week before classes begin (Pacansky-Brock).
  • Utilize a parallel structure between syllabus/schedule, Moodle page, and weekly agenda of coursework directed by active verb statements. Students respond to clarity by feeling empowered. (Embedding the syllabus throughout Moodle has been discussed in a previous teaching tip.)
  • Shape language into statements of empathy. And give students the benefit of the doubt. “I know you can do it.” And  “If I were a student in this class….”   When students are offered this level of respect, they respond in kind.
  • Respond to emails immediately even if one doesn't know the answer right away.  No one likes to be left hanging and it is a particular kind of torture for students who have so much riding on these classes.
  • Collect student input with a mid-term survey in Google Forms. Ask questions such as “ What do you know about X?”  or “What do you need to know more about?” These two questions tell me about knowledge acquisition.  It’s not about what you want to teach; it’s about what students need to learn. Your class should be ever-evolving.

Without developed affective learning in online learners, the cognition can’t develop. I know it will happen---I see it at the end of the semester when students are comfortable, communicative, and cognizant of what they have done to make themselves sharper writers. 

View and save a Google Doc version of this Teaching Tip.

Resources and References

The Moment Is Primed for Asynchronous Learning. While some fear there is an equity gap between synchronous and asynchronous courses, this should be a call to improve asynchronous formats and make them “sychron-ish.” This article is a good point for reflecting on how time is used in our courses and how students and instructors connect to one another.

An Affinity for Asynchronous Learning. While written in 2014, this article is re-circulating for its important context to teaching during COVID. The authors, who are located at opposite sides of the globe, reflect on creating asynchronous learning environments that are inclusive and engaging, challenging some of our assumptions of what can only be achieved in “real time” video meetings.

Pocansky-Brock, M.  (2020, June 9).Humanizing pre-course contact with a liquid syllabus.

Smith, P. & Ragan T.J. (1999) Instructional design. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

About the Authors

Kimmie Parker is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design in the Department of Art and Art History at OU. Her research and interdisciplinary studio practice explores motion design in a live performance context. Outside of the classroom, Kimmie combs the internet for Japanese stationery, knits socks, and listens to political podcasts. 

Kieran Mathieson is associate professor in Decision and Information Sciences. He teaches programming and other geeky stuff, in the business school. Kieran has been at OU since 1991. He writes software to improve skill courses.

Jennifer Coon is a Special Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric. Outside of the classroom, Jennifer is the founding Faculty Advisor of Mission:Kindness, a student organization begun in 2013 who is committed to making OU and surrounding communities warm and welcoming places. Corresponding classes are taught in the Honors College and in the BA in Liberal Studies programs. 

Edited and designed by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NCView all CETL Weekly Teaching Tips. Follow these and more on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.