Accomplishing our Course Goals at a Distance

When moving into an online environment for the first time, an immediate instinct is to try to reproduce our in-class experience as closely as we can—which typically means simply offering synchronous sessions in Zoom. Zoom “classrooms,” or other video conferencing platforms, differ significantly from a face-to-face environment. Zoom fatigue is real, as are significant issues of equity and accessibility. Informal feedback from students also reveals that they can feel less engaged and more easily distracted attending a synchronous class over Zoom than when attending in-person courses. An unstructured Zoom session makes it easier for students to “hide,” and leaves them with the immediate distraction of other activities on the web.

Consequently, it’s useful to think about the movement to the online space as adaptation to a new kind of classroom rather than a translation from the physical classroom. Skilled faculty take advantage of the affordances of the online space (Supiano, 2020). In what follows, we provide strategies and techniques for engaging students specifically in the asynchronous modality.

Understanding Asynchronous v. Synchronous Engagement

When planning and adapting your courses for an online environment, it is helpful to remember that not all activities need to be synchronous (with all students engaging at the same time, such as in live Zoom sessions). Some asynchronous activities (where students each engage on their own schedules, as in discussion boards or watching recorded lectures) can be very effective ways to encourage connection and learning, and will work better for students across time zones or who have less robust internet connections—or who are just tired of being on Zoom.  


  • Synchronous: existing or occurring at the same time (your class gathering all at once or in small groups via Zoom)
  • Asynchronous: not existing or happening at the same time (your students engaging with course content and individual or group activities at various times online)

Supporting our students’ engagement in our courses is crucial, as it leads to behaviors and dispositions known to increase student learning. In particular, levels of engagement impact students’ sense of belonging, levels of motivation and achievement, and levels of enjoyment (Frisby et al., 2014; MacLeod, Yang, and Shi, 2019). And yet phenomena like Zoom fatigue mean that long stretches of uninterrupted lecture or even class discussion do not always work well in a virtual format. Using Zoom features like Breakout Rooms, Chat and other online collaborative tools can help synchronous sessions succeed. But how can you also use asynchronous activities to engage students in new ways—and how do you know what you should do synchronously and what to do asynchronously?

Allocating Time to Course Activities—How to Decide? What? When?

When does it make sense to work synchronously?

Bringing students together at the same time makes the most sense when we want to take advantage of the benefits of being together in real-time, which include the opportunity to interact and work together in ways that are spontaneous and responsive to the class environment. Speaking and listening are key components of most Georgetown courses; active seminar discussions allow for spontaneous development of ideas that take on a unique choreography that changes moment to moment. Consider how you can foreground these components while you are together on screen. 

  • All-class Discussion—learning from each other; seminar style (use the whip-around approach, hand raising feature, chat, etc.)
  • Breakout Rooms (use Google Docs for prompts, etc.)
  • Engaging with collaborative assignments
  • Presenting to classmates and receiving live feedback and questions
  • Q & A
  • Guest speaker and plenary-style presentations

Synchronous Advantages

  • Students can learn from others’ questions in real time
  • Students can practice speaking and listening skills while engaging with the group
  • Students can work through ideas and access the professor in the moment
  • Instructors and course assistants can ‘check for understanding’ in the moment

When does it make sense to work asynchronously?

Asynchronous work allows students to work at their own pace, reflect and review, and generate material at times when they are ready and at ‘their best.’

  • Preparing and collaborating in small teams, such as in a Google Doc where everyone contributes at a different time
  • Watching and reviewing lecture content
  • Responding to discussions
  • Creating and/or synthesizing material to enhance synchronous discussion

Asynchronous Advantages

  • Students can participate regardless of time zone differences and other constraints
  • Students can move through materials at their own pace
  • Some students may be more comfortable contributing online than in even virtual face-to-face settings
  • Student contributions may be deeper because they have additional time to think and reflect before responding
  • Students can review, reread, or rewatch videos and other materials to enhance understanding

Contact Time

Of course, if you add asynchronous activities that wouldn’t normally be part of the course when teaching it face to face, you’ll need to consider the time this demands from students (and, of course, from you); if you have a 75-minute class session and you decide to deliver a 30-minute lecture as a recording rather than your usual in-person method of presenting it live in class, you should subtract those thirty minutes from your class session so as not to multiply student work unreasonably.  A key question to ask yourself regarding asynchronous activities is: Are the students engaging with the materials with the instructor as mediator?

This formula may help you think through student time demands:

  • A credit hour = amount of work represented in intended learning outcomes and verified by evidence of student achievement that approximates:

Please see the webpage for more on rethinking contact hours. 

Planning your Time

Once you decide what kinds of activities you will engage in as a synchronous group, you can move all your other course engagement to asynchronous types of engagement.  A helpful tool to help you view how these different modes interact is a Before/During/After table.

Sample Integration of Asynchronous and Synchronous Activities

Sample integration of Asynchronous and Synchronous Activities

(Note: these activities took place over the course of a week)

Creating Asynchronous Activities

Once you create asynchronous course activities, build in time and space to demonstrate the new tool that students will be using, model how you would like them to engage with it, and allow students to practice before they are asked to perform. This practice will reduce student anxiety (as well as your own!) and increase their levels of engagement. Some helpful advice to keep in mind:

  • Be specific in your prompts and directions. Don’t just say “annotate”—make clear to your students exactly what they’re being asked to do. Share an example, if possible. This is especially important since students don’t have the typical before- and after-class opportunities to ask for clarification.
  • Model the kinds of comments and engagement you want to see from the students. VoiceThread is a great example, because you can demonstrate examples of good participation first, showing the students what a response should look and sound like while also explaining the activity.
  • Explicitly connect activities to each other and make these connections visible to your students. Make sure you tell students, either before or after, why they did the activity, and explicitly address how it prepares them for the next step in their learning, which may be synchronous or asynchronous.

Some tools to consider:

  • Google Docs is a low-threshold technology with which most students are already familiar and a solid means for collaborative annotation. You can not only limit the docs availability exclusively to enrolled students, but can also limit students’ annotation to “comment only,” thus avoiding accidental changes to the text itself.
  • If what you want the students to interact with course materials more visual in nature, you can create a VoiceThread assignment where you create a short video of you annotating a document, image, chart, or graph, and students can leave their own asynchronous audio or video comments and annotations. This creates a kind of visual “conversation” between the students and yourself about the content.
  • allows for students to collaboratively annotate web pages and PDFs, meaning that you can see not only if they are reading course materials, but also how they are reading the materials. Instructors and students can leave multimedia annotations on web texts and PDFs as well as interact with each other’s annotations. integrated in Canvas and may be activated through assignments.
  • Create pre-recorded lectures with embedded questions in Panopto. It is important to remember a few things when pre-recording lecture videos:
    • Shorter is better. Videos should focus on one topic and ideally be less than ten minutes. Always keep your students’ learning experience in mind—they won’t sit, focused, for an hour lecture video. 
    • Strongly consider writing a script for your lectures. CNDLS has provided a helpful guide and mini-webinar on why and how to script, but it will save you time in the long run and make a more engaging and focused video for the students.
    • Stick to information that doesn’t change. Pre-recorded lecture videos are not the time to be timely—record the material that is a constant so that the videos can be reused. This also helps keep them short and focused, and thus more engaging. 
    • Videos are great when you want to combine your voice with visuals, but if you are looking to just deliver audio content, consider a podcast. Zoom allows you to download the audio tracks of any recorded Zoom meeting,  including options to identify separate speakers, which can be used to create an audio podcast. These can be useful for expert interviews, narratives, panel discussions, or modeling a close reading. Podcasts require less internet bandwidth than a video and students can listen to them while multitasking. 
  • Use Canvas Discussion Boards robustly.  A host of research demonstrates the effectiveness of discussion boards in improving student engagement and outcomes (Darabi, Lieberman, Page). Consensus exists that requiring students to respond to each other while lowering instructor presence leads to more active and student-driven inquiries in virtual discussion spaces. Also consider how to use discussion boards creatively. By embedding images or media, students can respond to a substantive curricular component. The discussion board could even be the center of a content unit and form the basis for later synchronous sessions. 
    • Canvas Groups feature: Discussions may be limited to a small group who can interact with each other and the instructor only (i.e. not available to the full course roster). This option may be preferable for large classes or for students collaborating on  group projects. 
  • Canvas Quizzes—Not just for Quizzing! In addition to exams of all formats, Canvas Quizzes can be used for class activities as well as both formative and summative assessments. Familiarize yourself with the many questions types and features of Canvas Quizzes and get creative.  For example, using the “Ungraded” option (called “Surveys”) creates low-stakes ways for students to convey what they already know, identify areas for clarification, or alternatively, expose students to a high volume of information quickly.  Another use of the Quiz feature can be to pose questions and offer answer choices that are all correct, in order to collect information about which areas students most need to discuss, or demonstrate the many ways in which a question can be answered. This approach can lay the groundwork for a short lecture, open up areas for further discussion, provide information about areas of confusion for students, and/or plant the seeds about the many ways to answer the question. See below for an example:

Screenshot of Canvas Quiz

Creating Asynchronous Course Materials

You will likely want to use a mixture of these approaches. Be mindful of how you organize and present the materials with your students. Organizing Canvas course content into Modules is a great way to organize materials and to guide students through content in a specific order just as you would during in-person lectures. Keep the directions clear and always connect the activities to each other. 

As with a traditional in-person class, interacting with texts and “gathering” for class remain the primary ways for students to engage with the course synchronously, though how this is accomplished in the online course setting needs attention. You can ensure deep reading and even community-building around texts by implementing:

  • Canvas reading quizzes 
  • Discussion Board reading prompts
  • Short response papers

Opportunities for students to read, analyze, and annotate texts together, such as through Google Draw, SoundCloud, and Panopto also allow students to annotate with multimedia, including images, sound and video files, and hyperlinks to other content.


As we’ve seen, there are numerous possibilities for fostering significant asynchronous engagement with course content. The literature makes clear that this engagement enhances student learning. Rather than get lost in the weeds or distracted with the novelty of the tools that exist in the online space, work to increase your competence in a small set, and then use the variety of affordances in this set to create multiple and dynamic means for asynchronous engagement. When doing so, remember to create engagement feedback loops—where activities, assignments, course content, and synchronous sessions connect and reinforce one another—take advantage of student engagement in order to assess how they are doing, and design for inclusivity. Then, you can focus remaining synchronous time for activities and experiences whose meaning and value depend on being together at the same time.

Faculty Insight

Lee Pinkowitz, MSB

MBA professor Lee Pinkowitz, on redesigning his Valuation course in CNDLS into a hybrid format, made the following adjustments:

  • To maintain active engagement with lecture videos, he and the CNDLS team incorporated practice questions into his video content to gauge student comprehension and retention. To increase participation and check for understanding of course materials, all students were required to post quiz questions to reflect their understanding of the course concepts. In the Canvas Discussion Board, each student was assigned to review two quiz questions created by their peers. You can read more about Lee Pinkowitz’ class in Issue 8 of The Prospect magazine (PDF).

James Olsen, Philosophy

In order to regularly check in on and assess the degree to which students are “getting it,” James Olsen has students participate in a “Muddiest Point” exercise at the end of each module in his online courses. The activity exists as an ungraded Canvas Assignment where students respond to the following prompt: “What aspect of the readings and content from this unit do you feel least solid about? What nagging confusions or uncertainties in understanding the material are plaguing you? Or, if you’re comfortable with all of the material, which aspects were nonetheless the most difficult to understand as you were learning it, or perhaps were the most poorly presented?” Originally, he used the Canvas Speedgrader feature to respond to each student’s responses. This took a great deal of time, however, and students explicitly asked to be able to see what other students said. In order to maintain privacy and save time, he keeps the exercise as an assignment, but now records and posts a single video responding to various “muddy” issues.

Martha Weiss and Randall Amster, Georgetown College

“Metacognition” is the term used to denote engaging students in reflection or otherwise promoting self-awareness of their learning process. Metacognitive essays or practices can be linked to most assignments in order to enhance student learning. Martha Weiss and Randall Amster designed assignments for an environmental studies course that required students to not only create a specific artifact, but also to reflect on that creation in a metacognitive essay. For example, students were required to create an audio-visual artifact in Voicethread (via Canvas) reporting on a researched innovation. Students provided details on an innovation, including an analysis with regard to several key metrics studied in the class. In addition to creating this artifact, students also submitted an essay (metacognitively) reflecting on why they chose that innovation, why it was important or worth analyzing, how it connects to their personal lives, and what and how they learned in the process. Classmates can respond within the Voicethread and share their analysis, responses, questions, and comments. 


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