Using asynchronous learning to improve students’ learning experiences

October 5, 2020

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Elisa NewElisa New, Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature, has ample experience blending asynchronous and synchronous learning to teach students at Harvard and beyond. Asynchronous learning happens independently from in-person class time and can take many forms. In her courses, New has incorporated on-location “field-trips,” discussions with relevant authors, and even recordings of former student discussions, which has helped current students “up their game.” “People really love those. They like to see how a good discussion works.”

The benefits: Asynchronous learning expands the tools a professor can use to more intentionally craft a class and meet students’ needs. Traditional classroom delivery can sometimes be challenging for shy students and are not necessarily the best settings for the exposition of rich or difficult material. Classes can be made more engaging with images and sound used asynchronously, allowing students to revisit materials that they might want to review again or at a different pace. As technology makes more things asynchronously accessible—like watching recorded conversations or engaging in dialogue through online discussion boards—asynchronous learning can expand both what we offer and who we offer it to, which New suggests has deepened discussions in her seminars in unique ways.

“I couldn’t offer the kind of lecture I wanted until I began to use video, which allowed me to use image, to use sound, to isolate pieces of text, to make all sorts of decisions in advance I could not possibly make in the moment.”

The challenges: Developing asynchronous materials can be daunting for instructors who are unfamiliar and deem themselves less “tech savvy.” There are also some concerns that learning outside of the residential classroom will replace traditional formats. However, as New summarizes, “We don’t think quite enough about what you do need to be present for and what being present actually means. Sometimes it means being in the same room with your peers, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Create a more immersive student learning experience. New has used on-site videos featuring, for example, a discussion about Whitman under the Brooklyn Bridge or an exploration a poem’s setting with its author. “What I love about it,” she reflects, “is that you can layer in archival and visual materials in a way that is engaging and vibrant.”
  • Offer more ways for students to join the conversation. Make opportunities for students to engage with each other in new ways, for instance through Canvas Discussion boards. This allows students more time to think about the material and speak out. New describes the effects: “The third of the class we didn’t hear from in-person jumped all in. Sometimes they were leading.”
  • Access expertise within the university to help with implementation. If you and your teaching fellows do not know how to create great multimedia materials for your class, there are academic and educational technology staff across all Harvard Schools who do and who are ready to help you.

Bottom line: Asynchronous learning can help instructors to transcend the limitations of time and space within the four walls of a classroom, providing students more opportunities for continuous collective learning throughout a typical week. Now is a great time to experiment with asynchronous resources—and when we return to residential classrooms, these resources can continue to enhance our teaching.