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Asynchronous Discussion

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This post outlines three possibilities for holding asynchronous discussions in higher ed courses that are being held remotely, or partially remotely. These suggestions include multiple alternatives for using discussion boards, collective document annotations, and collaborative online documents.

While the suggestions below rely on chiefly written communication, it would of course be possible (using other technical tools), to have students record audio or video responses and post them to a collective LMS or website, if you wanted to pursue a more technically complex, but in some ways more personal, simulation of in-person conversations.


Elsewhere, I discuss other platform options such as Slack for facilitating student conversations as well as discussion strategies such as Think-Pair-Share. Here, I offer options using systems that students may be more familiar with—learning management systems and Google Drive—and tools that work without any synchronous overlap between students.

Introduction:

In general, I’m such a big fan of synchronous work that it nearly grates against my pedagogical soul to contemplate an asynchronous approach to student dialogue.

Whether conversations happen in a physical classroom with students face-to-face, both with me and with each other, or whether they happen (if necessary) over Zoom, I thrive on the energy of verbal exchanges. Students make comments, comment on each other’s comments, I comment on their comments, and off we go. This is why I teach.

However.

This semester is not typical. Regardless of what any given institution’s idealistic objectives to march boldly into the future may be, we are in the midst of a pandemic, a truth I am unwilling to obscure. Many students’ situations—financial, geographic, physical, familial, personal—will likely be constantly evolving as the months unfold. So may my own.

While I have yet to solidify my plan for the fall, I’ve been considering leaning more heavily on asynchronous discussions for a number of reasons, not the least of which is a desire to strive for a baseline of equity and to avoid some of the logistical and technical encumbrances that may spring from a blended format. Even a flex or synchronous model could use these strategies as supplements for out-of-time interactions that balance in-person or synchronous remote learning.

To that end, I offer below a few scenarios for hosting asynchronous conversations with students. Some are developed from strategies I executed in the spring, others are derived from resources linked below combined with my own imaginative (yes, perhaps wishful) thinking. Please report back from the trenches as you explore!

1. Distributed Discussion Forums

Traditionally, instructions to students for posting on a Discussion Forum on a learning management system—Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas—goes something like this:

· Write a post of ## number of words.

· Comment on 3 posts from your peers.

· Do all of this by X time on Y day.

Simple, sure. But effective? I’m unconvinced.

In my own experience, I’ve found students tend to engage less with their peers’ ideas than we might want. Those secondary comment posts tend to be unsubstantial because students are preoccupied with composing their own ideas for the deadline. This is understandable. Secondary comments become a quick knock off. Plus, it’s a lot of reading. For all of us.

Why not break up the assignment?

A distributed framework can offer students 3 options for posting during a given week:

Group A: “I think…”

  • In fewer than 200 words, post an original comment on the Discussion Forum based upon the reading assignment for this week.

  • Deadline: Tuesday night

Group B: “I agree, and…”

  • In fewer than 150 words, compose a comment that states agreement with a peer’s post. Explain why you agree, and expand upon the original post with an additional piece of evidence, further details, another close reading, etc.

  • Deadline: Thursday night

Group B: “I disagree, because…”

  • In fewer than 150 words, compose a comment that states your position of disagreement with a peer’s Group A or Group B post. Explain why you disagree. Suggest how and why your own interpretation or viewpoint differs from the original post. Provide a reason to substantiate your disagreement convincingly.

  • Deadline: Saturday night

While the range of options here may seem complicated, the benefits are twofold:

  1. Students have an option of when to post during the week based upon their own availability, juggling coursework in other classes, and personal work load and non-curricular obligations. If they post early, they have the benefit of writing fresh about the material, though these posts must be longer and more original. If they wait to post later in the week, students have the benefit of other models and ideas from which to draw, but are limited in the kinds of ideas they can introduce.

  2. Students are naturally drawn into conversation with their peers. There’s less reading for everyone overall, but more substance. Moreover, it models for students how to naturally agree and disagree with other writers.

Changing roles:

You might let students select their role each week or assign 1/3rd of the class to each task. Students might be required to vary their role from week to week, either by their own choosing or by your designation; the students might keep the same assigned role for several weeks in a row before being changed; or the roles themselves might change in nature.

You could also break up the class into groups, giving students within each smaller group (with an assigned overall question or passage to discuss) the roles of A, B, C.

2. Document Annotating

I’ll admit, this one so far remains hypothetical. I have yet to use LMS systems that integrate Perusall, Hypothes.is, or similar software that permits digital annotations for PDFs, websites, and other online documents.


Since I imagine these platforms would provide the functionality for what I’m suggesting here, if you have access, go for it! Otherwise, see below for some alternatives.

First, highlight 4 passages in the assigned reading. For each one, offer 1-2 questions meant to guide both reading comprehension and critical thinking. Add these as sidebar annotations to the document itself.

Then, students encounter the text with your questions already embedded into the document. Subsequently, they add their own comments, questions, and observations as appended annotations while reading. Together, students collaborate by remarking on others’ notations as well.

This connective set of marginalia would, I imagine, help students understand passages that they find dense and complicated, lead them to gain new insights into material that they may have otherwise passed over, and support each other’s reading experiences.

If you do not have access to such platforms, however—or do not want to overburden students with asking them to learn how to navigate yet one more online tool—other strategies could substitute.

For example, using shared online documents such as Google Slides or Google Documents, provide 3-4 quoted isolated passages, perhaps with 2 questions each that students can use to guide their reading. Insert a blank slide or page after each of your own slides or pages, where students can add thoughts, questions, and observations. Which leads me to...

3. Collaborative Google Documents

Recently, an article circulated on social media which provided suggestions and instructions for using shared collaborative Google Docs during Zoom breakout rooms. This got me thinking about how a similar strategy could be applied asynchronously.

Inviting an entire class to one collaborative document, or inviting smaller groups to separate collaborative documents, you can ask students to engage in collective note-taking.

In response to an assigned reading, ask students to take their notes within a single document so that they can each benefit from the others’ comprehension, insights, and ideas.

Students can use Google’s chat function to talk to one another synchronously about how they want to organize the document (A structured outline? Separate pages for separate writers? Comment threads?) or they can use asynchronous commenting (or a separate communication tool altogether, if they wish) to organize their approach. This is great preparation for collaborative efforts that they may undertake in the workforce.

Based upon the students’ unguided note-taking, the instructor can then develop a subsequent lecture, further written questions, or assignments to facilitate development of students’ preliminary ideas. You'll be able to cover those intellectual points about which students may have been confused and can expand upon elements in which they express the most interest.

Want more?


Would you like a more concrete play-by-play of how to execute some of these strategies? Are there topics you'd like to see covered in this blog? Please drop a note below and let me know!


Further Resources


“Interacting Asynchronously,” Vanderbilt University’s Online Course Development Resources [online guide]

https://www.vanderbilt.edu/cdr/module-2/interacting-asynchronously/

“The Art and Science of Successful Online Discussions,” Faculty Focus [blog post]

https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/art-science-successful-online-discussions/

“The Use of Asynchronous Discussion: Creating a Text of Talk,” CITE: Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education [journal article]

https://citejournal.org/volume-5/issue-1-05/english-language-arts/the-use-of-asynchronous-discussion-creating-a-text-of-talk/

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© 2020 by Talia M. Vestri, PhD. Last updated September 2020.