Sometimes students can't all meet in the classroom, for all sorts of reasons—but they can still have an opportunity to engage with course material. It’s useful to think about using 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.
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?
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.
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.’
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:
Please see the webpage for more on rethinking contact hours.
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
(Note: these activities took place over the course of a week)
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:
Some tools to consider:
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:
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.
To create asynchronous course materials, you will want to pre-record at least some (if not all) lectures. But, it is important to remember a few things when it comes to making lecture videos:
To get started with recording your own lecture videos, please consult our tip sheet on Recording Lectures Ahead of Time.
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 Zoom meeting, as separate tracks for multiple speakers, which can be used to create a podcast. These can be useful for expert interviews, narratives, panel discussions, or modeling a close reading. Podcasts require less bandwidth than a video, and students can listen to them while doing other mundane tasks or working out, while watching a video usually requires that a student be seated.
In order to make the most of your content delivery, you will probably want to use a mixture of these approaches. Be mindful of how you organize and present the materials with your students. Using Canvas modules is a great way to organize the materials for your students and for you to guide them through it—taking them through the materials in an optimal way, just as you would during in-person lectures. Keep the directions clear and always connect the activities to each other.
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.
Lee Pinkowitz, MSB, 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.
Baker, R., Dee, T, Evans, B & John, J. (2018). Bias in online classes: Evidence from a field experiment. (CEPA Working Paper No. 18-03). Retrieved from Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis.
Britt, M. (2015). “How to better engage online students with online strategies.” College Student Journal, 49(3), 399-404. Retrieved from external source.
Darabi, A., Xinya, L., Rinki, S. & Hulya, Y. (2013). Effectiveness of online discussion strategies: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Distance Education, 27, 228-241.
Delmas, P. M. (2017). Using VoiceThread to create community in online learning. TechTrends, 61(6), 595-602. Retrieved from an external source.
Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Frisby, B.N., Berger, E. Burchett, M., Herovi, E., &.Strawser, M.G. (2014). Participation apprehensive students: The influence of face support and instructor-student rapport on classroom participation. Communication Education, 63(2), 105-123.
Kezar, A., & Maxey, D. (2014). Faculty matter: So why doesn’t everyone think so? Thought & Action, 2014, 29-44.
Lieberman, M. (2019, March 27). Discussion boards: Valuable? Overused? Discuss. Inside Higher Ed.
MacLeod, J., Yang, H.H., & Shi, Y. (2019). Student-to-student connectedness in higher education: A systematic literature review. Journal of Computers Higher Education, 31, 426-448.
Chen, P-S.D., Labert, A.D, & K. R. Guidry. (2010). Engaging online learners: The impact of web-based technology on college student engagement. Computers & Education, 54(4), 1222-1232.
Croft, A, Dalton, A. & Grant, M. (2015). Overcoming isolation in distance learning: Building a learning community through time and space. Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 5 (1), 27-64.
Oh, E., & Kim, H. (2016). Understanding cognitive engagement in online discussion: Use of a scaffolded, audio-based argumentation activity. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17(5), 28–48. Retrieved from external source
Page, A. and M. Abbott (2020). A discussion about online discussion. Faculty Focus.
Roepnack, B.R. (2020). Organic online discussions: Saving time and increasing engagement. Inside Higher Ed.
Walker, E. (2016, February 10). Conquering the isolation of the online classroom. eLearning Industry. https://elearningindustry.com/conquering-isolation-online-classroom