Time, tasks, and asynchronous learning

When is class? And what am I supposed to do? These are questions that students who are new to asynchronous learning tend to wonder. Without guidance from their instructor, students tend to treat asynchronous experiences as “anytime, anywhere” learning, in which anytime maybe be earlier, later, or less frequently than you had anticipated. Thus, it’s important to set and share your expectations about asynchronous learning with your students.

Setting weekly boundaries

In an asynchronous course, most instructors use a week as the unit of time that defines instructional activities. Ideally you pick a day when the instructional week starts, and a day when it ends. It’s common to use Sun-Sat or Mon-Sun, although I have seen some people try abbreviated weeks with designated days off.

It helps to be precise with time. I might tell my students that the instructional week runs from Monday at 12 am EDT through Sunday at 11:59 pm EDT. Yes, I even specify the time zone because online students may not share the time zone where the institution is located. Also, if you don’t specify it from the start, someone is sure to ask.

Note that there is no perfect choice here. No matter what you choose as the end of the week or deadline/due date for an activity or assignment, someone is bound to complain about it, or at least express a desire for a different time. It goes something like this:

Person 1: Assignments are due by Sunday at 11:59? But my Internet at home isn’t great. I need to have until Monday morning to turn it in, so I can use the Internet at work.

Person 2: It’s due on Monday at noon? That’s no fair! I work on Mondays. How can you expect me to be finishing my assignment while I’m at work? It should be due Monday evening.

Pick a day and time. Be clear about it. Stick to it.

Time and activities

When I teach on campus, I have three contact hours per week. During those three hours, I might do five or six brief, hands-on learning activities with my students.

When I teach asynchronously online, my goal is to have students engaged for a similar amount of time, but not a similar number of activities. It gets complicated to run multiple concurrent activities with students who are participating at distributed times, and it also doesn’t work to try to spread the activities out (e.g., have a Monday activity, a Tuesday activity, and so on).

I recommend streamlining activities as much as possible, so students perceive only one or two interactive tasks for the week. For example, I might ask students to participate on a discussion forum. Within the forum, I may post multiple discussion prompts and give the students a choice of where to respond or ask them to respond to each one. In the end, they may effectively be working through the same learning objectives and content that we would have done across four in-class activities, but because it is all tied together in a single forum and listed as one type of activity, students are less likely to feel overwhelmed.

Set weekly interaction expectations

Knowing when and how to interact on campus is pretty simple for students. They show up to class at the appointed time and follow the directions provided by their instructor. Knowing when and how to interact online is not as easy for students, but the success of your asynchronous activities will be dependent on what students do.

You need to tell students things like how many times per week you expect them to log in to the class, and how many posts you want them to make in a discussion. Getting even more granular, it helps to tell students how many discussion forum posts you expect them to write, what or who they should be responding to in their posts, and what the deadlines are for posting. As nice as it is to think that students will naturally want to discuss, and that they will read and respond to each other’s posts in the forum, this probably won’t happen without clear instructor direction. Remember, this is a new way of learning for these students and they will look to their instructor to set the expectations.

If you want all students to respond to your prompt, tell them. Similarly, if you want students to respond to each other’s messages, tell them. Help them pace those responses and try to stimulate something approximating discussion by giving some deadlines. For example, you might say:

By Thursday at 11:59 pm, post your initial response to the discussion question.*

By Sunday at 11:59 pm, read what has been posted and reply to at least two classmates.

If you want to push a little more interaction, you could break it up with more incremental deadlines:

By Wednesday at 11:59 pm, post your initial response to the discussion question.

By Friday at 11:59 pm, read what has been posted and reply to at least two classmates.

By Sunday at 11;59 pm, return to the discussion and reply to at least two more classmates. If anyone has responded to your earlier posts, reply to them.

These are really basic guidelines, and there are certainly more sophisticated ones that you can set up, but if this is your first time doing it, start simple. The end result may not be fully fluid or resemble what you typically think of as discussion, but that’s okay. The mere act of composing one’s initial thoughts in a written message and then reacting to what others have posted is valuable practice and will help your students learn.

Students will display a range of participation behaviors related to time. Some will strive to post early in the week, and may want to get everything done well before the weekend. Others will be deadline huggers, posting right as the clock strikes midnight, or even a few minutes later.

*In many discussion tools, there’s an option to require students to post before they can see everyone else’s posts. You may wish to turn that on if you are concerned about students trying to copy others rather than formulate their own initial posts.

Help students manage their time and weekly tasks

I recommend using checklists for each week you are online. On the checklist you can put the tasks in an appropriate order, and specify and link to each item students are expected to do. This helps students see the week at a glance and feel confident that they are not missing anything. It also helps them manage their time when they can see how many things they need to do.

Here is an example of how I set up weekly module checklists in Canvas. I preface each category of items with the expected activity type (e.g., READ or DISCUSS) and use the same order and format each week to make things as easy as possible for my students.


Sample of a Module Checklist


Preparing to go online

The following guidelines are offered as assistance to instructors moving class online temporarily for emergency circumstances. Many of the same principles would apply under regular conditions, but I’ve modified them somewhat in recognition that this is a swift move to online instruction, and with so little time to plan it is best to focus on survival and not strive for perfection.

STEP ONE: Choose your mode(s)

Decide how you want to approach teaching your class. Specifically, decide whether you plan to teach synchronously or asynchronously, or to use a blend of the two approaches. The former is appropriate for activities that require real-time interaction, while the latter can support deeper reflection. Either is suitable for information dissemination (e.g., lectures) or discussion, but the overall flow and sense of time will differ.

Under the current circumstances, I recommend having some synchronous interactions available to your students. Students who are used to attending classes on campus will probably appreciate a nod to their regular routine, with synchronous classes held at the same day and time. It will be comforting for them to know you’re still there on Tuesdays at 10:30. Many of them intentionally signed up for face-to-face classes because they wanted to hear their instructor speak, and to be able to ask questions in real time. Some probably wanted accountability in their learning process, such as a specific time and place where they needed to show up and be counted.

That said it can be difficult to teach synchronously for the same length of time that we teach synchronously in a classroom. Attention spans drift and students wander away. It’s okay to plan synchronous session that are shorter than your regular campus sessions, or to have fewer synchronous meetings per week than campus meetings. You can fill in with asynchronous activities, or reserve part of the time for Q&A or office hours.

Also be aware that synchronous instruction may leave some students excluded. This is not a reason to avoid synchronous instruction, but it does mean that you need to be aware of who your students are, what their living and technology access conditions will be for the next few weeks, and provide alternates or make accommodations for them as needed. Synchronous sessions should not be mandatory, and should not be the only way to access critical information. They should be recorded and shared with students for viewing at a later time. Ideally you will also use a tool that generates a transcript (or upload to youtube and generate one that way), so you can offer the transcript and a copy of slides or other shared files to students who may have bandwidth issues.

STEP TWO: Choose your tools

As a general rule, I discourage instructors from trying too many tools in an online class. It just causes confusion. Even if you know how to use the tools already, your students may not, and each additional tool can add layers of confusion as students try to orient themselves in virtual space and struggle to remember multiple URLs, usernames, and passwords.

This is not the time to be playing with new tools if you can help it. A lot of people are recommending tools right now, and there are so many good ones to choose from. Some companies are offering free use of their tools for the next few months, which is very generous. However, success in the current context means keeping it simple. Learning new tools is not keeping it simple, and the more complex the tool, the steeper the learning curve.

Still, most folks who are new to online learning will have to learn a new tool or tool feature in order to teach online. If you’re already using a learning management system (LMS), like Canvas, then you’re well on your way. Stick with it and learn new features of it, as needed. If the LMS doesn’t fully meet your needs, look for the simplest tool you can find that will meet your needs.

If your campus has supported conferencing tools, those can be a good choice because it’s likely that you will be able to access technical and instructional support at your institution. Additionally, using institution-supported tools increases the likelihood that your students are already familiar with the tools you choose.

STEP THREE: Prepare your students

Your campus students are probably used to a predictable routine. They know what time class starts and what time class ends. They know how you start and end each session. They have already developed a clear rhythm for the semester, and that rhythm is being disrupted. They are now looking to you to set the new rhythm.

As chaotic as things may feel right now, it is your job to determine a plan, share it with students, and then stick to it. If you can tell your students right now what they should expect when their class goes online, they will appreciate it and have less anxiety over the situation. Specifically, students will want to know

  • what they need to do
  • when they need to do it
  • what tools they will use to do it
  • how they need to prepare to use those tools and interact in class

Providing this information in multiple modes and locations can be helpful. For example, you might write it all up into a long email and send that to your class via email, post a copy of it in the LMS, and also take advantage of a face-to-face meeting (if you have any left) or record a video. Your students might benefit from having this information delivered via video because they will see your familiar face and hear your voice reassuring them that this switch to online instruction is going to be okay.

Also remind your students that these are unusual circumstances, and that you’re doing the best you can on short notice. Ask them for their patience and kindness, and offer them yours in return. Tell them you will solicit and be open to their feedback, and then follow up on that.

You also might ask if you have anyone in the class who is familiar with the tools you are using and would like to help out, whether that means supporting classmates as they try to figure out new tools, or helping you moderate a synchronous class session.

STEP FOUR: Test the tools

Try out whatever tools you plan to use for online instruction before you have to teach with them. If you have time, do it quickly before telling students what you’re using so you can make an easy switch if it doesn’t work as planned.

Get a friend or two to test tools with you if possible, with one person playing instructor and a few people playing student. Colleagues who also want to use these tools can be helpful collaborators for testing tools.

Once you have a sense of how the tools work and how you want to use them, you might even set up an optional test session with your students, so they can try the tools without feeling the simultaneous pressure of needing to learn how to use the tool and focus on course content at the same time.

STEP FIVE: Teach … and be kind to yourself

This is probably not going to be your best teaching experience ever, but it also doesn’t have to be your worst one. Allow it to be imperfect. Put the people first, the content second, and the tools third. Recognize that it’s pretty amazing that you’re doing this shift in the middle of a term, and focus on how well you’re meeting your students’ needs.