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Why choose asynchronous?

Reflections on asynchronous online learning (part 1)

By Aimee Kelly, Reed Garber-Pearson, and Sara Vannini, UW Integrated Social Sciences

Since February 2020, most classes around the globe have moved online. Higher education is preparing for continued online and hybrid models of instruction and learning going forward. With this move, a number of resources to help instructors convert their classes to the digital environment have emerged.

Understandably, many of the initial resources were reactionary, offering guidance on how to quickly move courses online. Fewer addressed deeper course design. So many instructors translated face-to-face course design directly into this online environment, using Zoom to conduct synchronous class sessions. Emerging from this reactionary moment, we want to advocate for examining course design more critically. What is the difference between synchronous and asynchronous? Why should instructors choose one or the other?

With a three-part series of posts, we wish to share our multi-year experience working as an academic adviser, a librarian, and an instructor with the Integrated Social Sciences Program (ISS), a fully online undergraduate degree completion program at the University of Washington. Below, we talk about some of the advantages that asynchronous learning can offer to students and faculty. In our next posts, we will cover practices and strategies that we have successfully implemented, and finally we will write some major takeaways from our online program.

Why asynchronous?

An asynchronous course does not require all students to be active in the online environment at the same time. Students are given modules to complete within a certain timeframe, usually a week. As long as assignments are submitted by the deadline, students can complete the work on their own schedules.

Asynchronously run courses require a slight redefinition of the student and instructor roles in a course. A well-designed asynchronous online course requires a significant time investment on both the part of the student and the instructor. The instructor creates and facilitates the learning experience and environment, which the student then navigates. As a result, students need a higher level of self-direction than in traditional courses, necessitating a higher level of collaboration with faculty as well as programmatic staff like academic advisers and librarians.

Our online classes are designed with a student-centered approach. Rather than use a “sage on the stage” model, we have found that students are more engaged when they are able to explore small chunks of material in different formats (video presentations, podcasts, slides, readings, exploration of websites and other sources). While students may be assigned short video lectures, much of their learning happens when they engage in their readings and assignments. Assignments are designed to be interactive: students tie in their own experiential knowledge with course content, and receive personal feedback on them, either by the instructor or by their peers. Many of our core assignments build on each other, creating a dialogue between the students and the instructor.

Equity and access

Flexible course participation is a key component of asynchronous online classes. The ISS program reaches a student population facing many institutional and interpersonal barriers to higher education. Approximately 70% of our students work full-time, with the rest mostly working part-time. Another 30-40% have dependent care responsibilities. Although many of our students are Washington state residents, we serve students across the country and living abroad. Some of our students have learning or other disabilities, or health issues that make it challenging to attend traditional classes.

Our goal to expand access to a quality education is what motivated us to structure our program around asynchronously-delivered courses. Asynchronous classes can accommodate working students with varied shift schedules, students with family responsibilities, and those in different time zones. Students benefit from being able to fit their learning around their already busy schedules. In these times of pandemic, more students might be out of the state or out of the country, or maybe confronted with family or work responsibilities. This flexibility also extends to the instructor—who can be active in the course at times that work best with other commitments they might have (research, field work, family, etc.).

There are additional kinds of accessibility that are expanded by asynchronous design. Recorded video lectures or narrated presentations can improve the learning experience for many students. Videos and narrated presentations should always be captioned and transcribed, serving students who are hearing impaired or who are multilingual. Students appreciate the ability to pause the lecture to take notes or review challenging concepts. Lectures broken into smaller segments can support the many learners who find it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time. Besides video lectures, asynchronous discussion offers students nervous about participating in classroom discussions or have different cognitive strengths more time to organize their thoughts and participate.

A student’s ability to access a reliable computer and internet service is an important concern with online education. Students may not have a reliable internet connection available to them at all times, or they may be at home where there are multiple family members and only one computer. Though an asynchronously taught course does not completely mitigate this issue on its own, being able to download materials—including transcripts of lectures—and work offline at a time of their choice—including assignments—can reduce some of the pressures put on students.

Learning preferences

Asynchronous courses provide students with opportunities to make the learning environment more accessible based on their individual experiences with attention and learning preferences.

  • Some people learn better in the morning; others are night owls. The ability to choose the best moment of the day to engage with the material can be really helpful to them. Other students may need to pause and re-listen to explanations more than once.To be sure, it is easier to tune out a lecture online than in person, even more so when there is not a specific time that the class meets. Other commitments feel more real, there is not enough time to participate, and the shadow of procrastination is often peeking from behind the corner. Yet these risks don’t outweigh the benefits of asynchronous learning.
  • Students in our asynchronous courses are asked to demonstrate their understanding of the material through regular interaction in discussion forums and assignments. When reflective activities are designed intentionally, asynchronous learning provides more space and time for students to think about their learning.
  • This pandemic has caused many people to feel fatigued from Zoom. Asynchronous classes, requiring students to engage in a variety of activities and only a few pre-recorded short videos, can offer a valid alternative to Zoom meetings.

Looking for more information about asynchronous course design?
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).