Asynchronous Tools for Deeper Engagement in the Digital Classroom

Asynchronous Tools for Deeper Engagement in the Digital Classroom

By the OER Project Team

This blog series, crafted by online learning specialist Ian Usher, began in March 2020, when COVID-19 prompted the shut-down of in-person learning across the United States. This is the sixth blog in an eight-part series. You can find the rest of the series in our Teaching at a Distance Center.

The real-time nature of synchronous discussions has a natural partner in episodic, asynchronous discussion and responses. But is an asynchronous discussion more than simply a real-time chat with the brakes on?

“Hot takes” are one lens to look at any subject through—whether it’s current affairs, sport, debates around education, or any contemporary subject. They are instant reactions, often an attempt to raise a smile, eyebrow, or laugh around the issue in question. This is particularly relevant on social media, where tweets filled with emojis, response videos on TikTok or YouTube, or like-laden Facebook comments can seem to dominate what passes for ‘discourse’ on any topic in today’s society.

If this is the lens through which many of our students are seeing the world—and the velocity at which their thoughts travel, particularly online—then it’s not unreasonable to assume that the considered, thoughtful responses to the more substantial pieces of thought, content, and theory with which we’re attempting to engage them might be at risk from the mode of delivery. If someone’s online interactions are predominantly instant, superficially trivial and seldom considered, is it possible to encourage deeper engagement with a topic?

We’ve spent a couple of weeks thinking about synchronous tools, typically video meeting tools, which, in isolation and used badly, could reinforce any ideas which others might have about the perceived nature of online learning—not being “real” enough, as transient as the pixels hidden in our students’ screens, with an unwanted emphasis on the first two words of the phrase “virtual learning environment”.

So let’s look at these tools—reminiscent of some of the older online interaction tools—and think how we can use them well, whether for the first time at all or the first time this month.

Remind me again—asynchronous?

Asynchronous learning tools are those used by students and teachers who aren’t generally online at the same time, or who at least aren’t responding in real-time. In contrast to the synchronous nature of the online meeting tools we’ve looked at previously, asynchronous tools can offer space, time, and room for each thought, discussion, and response to breathe, to prove, and to rise.

If synchronous tools sometimes equate to phone calls started and ended quickly, then asynchronous tools are the letters, notes, and sketches made in response to something received, read, and understood minutes, hours, days, or weeks ago. As a teacher, such tools offer a space for students to give a slower and cooler response to a topic and, critically, to others’ contributions within a classroom.

However, being asynchronous doesn’t mean we can’t still have discussions. The pace and quality of the discussion may just change a bit. But they are important and we should still have them, asynchronously or otherwise. Here’s John Hattie, of Visible Learning fame, as invoked by the Texas Computer Educators Association:

“Classroom discussions allow students to improve communication skills by voicing their opinions and thoughts. Teachers also benefit from classroom discussion as it allows them to see if students have learned the concepts that are being taught. Moreover, a classroom discussion creates an environment where everyone learns from each other, which is the best kind of learning.”

Preparing for asynchronous discussion

It’s likely that any discussion in your physical classroom was synchronous—you may have followed it up or reflected on it subsequently, but being in the classroom at that particular time was necessary in order to take part. Asynchronous tools broaden the window of participation while at the same time helping to remove some potentially disruptive directions classroom discussions can go. Critically, they can also allow those who might not express themselves in a close-quarters classroom environment to bring their perspective to their peers.

Starting with rules and structure

Discussion in a classroom is a fairly straightforward thing. As a teacher you will almost always start it with a prompt or question. In the classroom, you can use your voice, face, body language, and presence to help shape the discussion. But in an environment where you might pose a starter question on a Monday, and replies and conversations might continue over days, how can you influence and manage the discussion? Are you really expected to be responding in as-near-real-time-as-possible to each and every message?

This is where rules and structure are invaluable. Ensuring that students have a good understanding of what the aim of this discussion is—returning to the all-important ”Why?” we’ve explored in past posts—can lead naturally to defining some parameters within which each discussion can grow:

  • How formal is this discussion? Is it being done with assessment in mind? Are you expecting grammar, punctuation, and spelling to be as good as possible? Or is it OK for students to to pepper in the occasional lmk (let me know) and imho (in my humble opinion)?
  • Where’s the balance between personal opinion and referenced fact in this conversation?
  • Is brevity and diversity encouraged or enforced? Does limiting each individual post to 200 words help move things along, and would limiting each student to one contribution per day be empowering or stifling for students’ thinking?

Some practical tips

  • If you want the discussion to be as widely read as possible, insist that it’s carried out in plain text—no attachments allowed. (Unless you’re doing a non-textual conversation.)
  • Model the sort of responses you want at all times. If you are expecting students to respond with their opinion, a researched fact, and a question derived from the two, then do exactly this (and in the first few instances, make it clear that’s what you’re doing).
  • Have some sort of “wait” rule. Once a student has posted something, they have to wait for… two? three? further responses before replying to the same thread.
  • Set a time limit for each discussion—and, in light of that, have regular, focused discussions. You’re not going to be discussing the impact of climate change for the whole school year, so set a start and end date to provide focus and motivation, then move on.

Online classroom norms

If you’ve already met with your students in one or more synchronous sessions then you will have almost certainly been through the process of establishing expectations about conduct, contributions and commitment with your students. Asynchronous tools leave more time for proof-reading and checking, so are your standards higher, or simply applied more rigorously? Is there a limit of one emoji per post?

Assessed or non-assessed?

Are you planning on assessing the posts? This might not be wise when you are gently teasing out engagement in your first classroom discussion, where students are still finding their feet, and for discussions focused on study skills, lockdown snacking, or vaguely study-related TV choices, a rubric wouldn’t be appropriate. But if you want to help students focus, and give them credit for supporting their peers, then a rubric might be of value.

Maybe for a few weeks your discussions aren’t assessed, and your responses are of the formative, assessment for learning type: how they could improve their responses, how they wouldn’t have been graded well for that two-line response. Then, either when you sense that things are improving or when you give up trying to encourage them, let them know that you’ll be grading from next week onward.

In certain systems—for example if your school uses Moodle as its learning management system—you can also allow students to peer-assess one another’s contributions. Such activity can add a lot of value and give students an insight into what you’re looking for when assessing their work.

[As a side note: Why not create a shared document in Google Drive or Office 365 and allow students to influence the rubric, so your measure for online discussion is agreed upon by everyone, including you? This would help them think about what’s fair, reasonable and appropriate in any given discussion… and thoughtful and insightful contributions to your class-sourced rubric could be worthy of extra credit. If you’re grading at all, of course.]

Start slow, dream big

This might seem intimidating but—and here’s the lifeline for you—these are almost certainly your students, and you know them. Start from where they’re at, with mind to where you’d like them to be. Take your own medicine—model good, clear, diligent online learning behavior—and see if they surprise you. Maybe the quieter students will prove to be the sculptors of beautifully composed prose. Maybe the brash ones will prove that their written words can have as much impact as they imagine their physical presence does. Maybe you will see some of your students in a new light.

How-to Resources


Some references:

Ready for more? Then read on!

About the author: Ian Usher is Head of Learning Innovation at Herts for Learning, the UK’s largest school-owned company, and a school governor in his home county of West Sussex. He advises schools on implementing learning technology appropriate to their circumstances and has been named an Adobe Education Leader for his work in school-focused e-learning. He plays the guitar badly and remains convinced that stand-up paddleboarding on the ocean is one of the most rewarding ways to socially isolate.