A Defense of Asynchronous Teaching
x-posted to Teaching Thursday.
Recently, I’ve been talking a good deal with one of my favorite interlocutors on teaching matters, Bret Weber. He and I approach online teaching in different ways. While I hesitate to speak for him, it seems to me that his online teaching emphasizes more cohort building, realtime interaction, and incremental assignments with set due dates. This approach has suited his students, his teaching goals, and his program (Social Work) well.
My approach to online teaching is almost the complete opposite. When I first developed my idea for online teaching I wanted it be as experientially different from the classroom as possible. I was probably overly strident in my efforts to establish this difference and romanced by change for the sake of change. Whatever the cause, I developed a radically asynchronous model for teaching my History 101: Western Civilization class.
The class has 2 deadlines, and one of those deadlines is optional. All work must be done by a date toward the end of the class so that I have some some time left to grade the inevitable onslaught of papers and assignments. All the course material is available from the start of the class. The only optional deadline is an optional midterm paper that, if the student decides to write it, is due at the mid point of the semester. If a student opts out of this midterm paper, he or she must write a final exam paper that brings together all the content of the class.
The lessons in the class are organized into 15 folders numbered for each week. So students are guided to engage a body of material and assignments each week. Each weekly folder includes readings, a quiz, a discussion board post, and, in many cases, one or two potential paper topics. Along with the cumulative paper, students must write two other 3-5 page papers analyzing historical documents from the class. All the work from the all the weeks is due at the end of the semester. In general, I grade two or three weeks at a time as assignments come in. Assignments that come much later than two or three weeks behind the weekly folder inevitably get less attention, but the students know that I grade on schedule and give greater attention to work submitted in a regular and consistent way. I use a Twitter feed and announcements to remind the students to keep up with the course and to let them know where I am in terms of grading material.
This system has certain risks. For example, I regularly write off the last two weeks of the semester to grade the papers from all the students who leave the work in the class to the last minute. These assignments tend to be, generally, of a lower quality, but the average grades for all assignments are not significantly lower than in my classroom classes where I tend to have more regimented deadlines. It appears to be the case that this system probably leads some students to do more poorly on their papers which they leave to the last minute. On the other hand, it also appears that some some students do better than they would in a traditional synchronous course, and the students with better outcomes tend of offset the students who perform less consistently.
Aside from the assessed results of the class, his system does offers some additional benefits as well:
1. Flexibility for Students. Teachers have always bemoaned the absence of face-to-face contact with students in an online environment. My online classes have attracted students from around the world and across the country. Face-to-face time would be impossible with these students even leveraging all the technology available to maximize realtime communication in an online environment. Moreover, many of my online students have lives that make regular schedules difficult. Online teaching gives a student who works on oil pipelines and needs to be far from civilization for weeks on end, a way to begin a university education. To me this is a good thing, and an asynchronous course, particularly at the introductory level cultivates diversity in our classes and expands the democratizing aspects so close to the heart of higher-education.
2. Flexible Engagement. One of the most challenging parts of creating a class schedule is attempting to address how different students will engage course material over the course of the semester. For every assignment that some students master easily, other students, particularly in an introductory level course, will find challenging. An asynchronous course allows students to engage material at their own pace and, moreover, allows different paces to exist in the class at the same time. It is interesting to see the natural divisions among students as small cohorts of students form and engage course materials at similar paces over the course of the semester. In a course of 70, about 10 students stay precisely on the weekly schedule, another 10 or so may fall the occasional week behind, and a third cohort of 10-15 students are never more than 2 weeks behind over the course of the semester.
2. Flexible Assessment. One of the best things from a faculty standpoint of asynchronous teaching is that it restricts the bulk grading experience to one occasion at the end of the semester. During the semester there is a constant trickle of two or three assignments a day. I tend to assess assignments on a weekly basis and contribute to the online discussion board slightly more often. I find that grading the slow trickle of assignments over the course of the semester gives me far more time to make substantial comments on student work. Moreover, it gives an advantage to students who can make reasonably consistent progress through the course. I’ve found that even students with the most complex schedules rarely fall more than a couple weeks behind if they attend to the course in a serious way. The half of the class that maintains a good schedule of engagement over the course of the semester tends to get the kind of substantial comments that allow their work to improve over the course of the semester. Students who turn in all their work at the end of the semester do not get the same benefits as students who approach the course in a regular way. They not only tend to get less sustained comments on their work, but also have less time to develop skills and improve on the skills introduced over the course of class.
Asynchronous teaching is not a perfect system for all classes. I might suggest that that it works best in larger, introductory level courses. It does little to accommodate unmotivated or undisciplined student who can easily leave their work to the end of the semester or to set deadlines. My experiences has been, however, that these students tend to struggle in any learning environment and the asynchronous system only exacerbates these issues.