Reflections on asynchronous online learning (part 2)
By Aimee Kelly, Reed Garber-Pearson, Sara Vannini, UW Integrated Social Sciences
Structured course design
Paradoxically, more flexibility in terms of schedule to learning and instructing translates into more structure in terms of course design and lesson planning. A well-developed asynchronous learning experience usually requires significant work before the quarter begins. It is critical to align the overall course objectives, the individual lesson objectives, and associated course materials and assignments to create a coherent structure. Establishing a “pattern” or a predictable flow of content, assignments, and associated due dates is another crucial component. As a result, the ability to modify the course “on the go” is reduced, though not completely removed.
Without transparent course objectives and a predictable flow of materials students can struggle identifying what they need to be doing and when, and as a result, may miss assignments or find it difficult to make sense of the course content. Predictable due dates can help students who need to coordinate their use of a shared device with others. It is critical that asynchronous courses be organized and that the expectations for success are clearly communicated.
In order to maximize accessibility and reduce the need for retroactive edits to the online course, universal design principles should also guide development.
Asynchronous course design requires an entirely different way of thinking and approach than that of synchronous in-person courses (though we have found it helpful to apply lessons learned from in-person courses). We have found it helpful to do this type of course design through active collaboration with program colleagues. One of the hallmarks of the Integrated Social Sciences (ISS) program is our truly integrated approach to design, instruction, and student support. Instructors, academic advisers and the librarian together design core courses and even teach portions of the courses. For example, the advisers comment on and grade an assignment where students create their own learning plan. In the second week of their first quarter the librarian facilitates and grades a module on information literacy. Students see that we are collaborative and integrated and know that there are always multiple pathways for support.
It can be difficult for students to find the help they need in an online environment; integrating advising and librarian support makes these resources more visible and it helps students have some experience of what “campus life” offers. Staff are additional resources that can help students who are falling behind. Though this type of collaborative course design might be difficult under the present circumstances, it may be useful to look at spaces in your course where you can build in support from or connections to other student services.
Instructor presence and communication
Another important piece of successful asynchronous design has to do more with how the instructor develops their “online presence” when they aren’t meeting with students. While students navigate the asynchronous course independently, students should still feel as though their instructor is guiding them through the course. Otherwise, students have a tendency to feel as though they are teaching themselves. The instructor presence in an asynchronous course can be established through communication expectations, announcements, and robust assignment feedback.
- Students need to know at the start of the quarter how and when they will receive communication from their instructor. Basic information to share with students includes your preferred mode of communication for questions about the course, your estimated response time for responding to questions, and when you plan to respond. Without clear expectations for communication and response time, students may expect the instructor to respond 24/7, or if they don’t hear back might assume the instructor is not present in the class. Setting these expectations at the start of the course can prevent a lot of student frustration and by extension, save the instructor stress and time.
- Announcements, whether delivered through the learning management system or via email, work well if they are sent on a regular schedule to provide guidance for the week’s lesson. These are also a great opportunity to integrate current events or tips for completing the assignments. We find that these create a space for instructors to weave in a bit of their individual personality and humanity. Announcements are also a space to address common challenges with assignments. It’s helpful to think about these as opportunities to keep students on track and personalize tips and reminders based on the overall progress of the class.
- Instructors need to provide robust and timely feedback in the discussion forum or on individual assignments in order for students to develop confidence that they are on the right track. This is especially important in courses where assignments scaffold—early, consistent feedback helps students feel prepared to tackle the next assignment. And of course, this feedback is important for steering students on the right track. As with responses to student questions, it is helpful when instructors let students know at the start of the quarter what their goals are for getting assignment feedback.
Social learning and community building
Social learning and community-building is probably the biggest challenge for online learning. As interaction will always be different in the online medium, we cannot expect it to replace face to face classroom experiences. However, if designed carefully, an asynchronous online course can develop community and leverage social learning in valuable ways. The key is to not equate it with that of an in-person class. With asynchronous education we are not trying to replicate a traditional classroom, but building something altogether different that will meet students’ learning needs and break down barriers to learning.
- An online, asynchronous class can offer the opportunity to create an environment of dialogue, openness, and respect, particularly for students that may find it challenging to speak up in a face to face course. One way to do this is to develop required, graded discussions where everyone must participate. Setting expectations for what safe and authentic communication should look like can encourage students to share very deep questions and thoughts. This can be done by including spaces for introductions in each course and setting discussion norms. The instructor may also model this through their announcements and participation in discussions.
- Peer to peer learning and relationships can also be encouraged through the inclusion of opportunities for small group work. The design can also develop assignments that ask students to draw from their own “outside the class” experience, which can also foster getting to know and learning from each other. This peer learning model not only encourages students to get to know one another through continual dialogue, but also helps students to use their own experiential knowledge in sharing information.
With their intrinsic differences from face to face classes, participating in asynchronous online classes might even teach students important skills for their everyday interactions. Social connection through digital environments, even before the move to remote work and learning, is increasingly a part of our everyday lives. Many interactions outside of school that already happen in an online environment—whether professional or personal—are also asynchronous (e.g.: work email exchanges). Asynchronous education is, then, an opportunity for students to improve skills that might be valuable in their career and elsewhere in their life.
Technology-enabled technology issues
Finally, it is important to remember that we are talking about courses mediated by technology, and that the technology will inevitably have issues. Technology that does not work in online courses has the potential to completely halt learning. This causes stress for students and instructors.
- Instructors should specify minimal technical requirements that students have to have at their disposal in order to participate in their courses. Many of the initial resources that were shared at our institution to help instructors quickly move their courses online encouraged designers and faculty to limit the number of new technologies they put in front of their students. This advice is helpful for thinking ahead—limiting the variety of technologies students need to use, and testing the course environment to make sure that resources are linked properly and are accessible will reduce frustration.
- Instructors should specify how students can resolve technical issues, be it in the form of technical support, a IT helpdesk contact, or alternative ways to complete assignments. To encourage students to reach out the campus support early on—tutoring, writing help, librarians, and IT—we have built in small extra credit assignments that allow course credit to students for making connections and asking questions.
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See the other posts in this series:
About the authors
Aimee Kelly is the Assistant Director of Academic Services for Integrated Social Sciences. In addition to direct student support she is engaged in improving the online educational environment through curricular design and program development. Prior to working with ISS she designed and taught face to face, hybrid, and fully online versions of Geography courses for the Virginia Community College System.
Reed Garber-Pearson is the Integrated Social Sciences & Online Learning Librarian at the University of Washington. They work in instructional design, online program development, and student support. Before becoming a librarian Reed was also an online student.
Sara Vannini is a former Lecturer at the University of Washington Department of Communications and former instructor at the Integrated Social Sciences program. She has been teaching core as well as thematic classes for the program from Autumn 2016 to Spring 2020. Sara is now a Lecturer at the University of Sheffield (UK).