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Adopting the asynchronous mindset for better online learning

The spread of the coronavirus these past few days and weeks is affecting the lives of people worldwide and we are all confronted with great challenges. Schools may have their gates closed, but education must continue. Students of all ages still need to learn, even during these hard times.

The current lockdowns have opened people's eyes to the fact that ed-tech does serve a very valuable purpose, as it's more obvious now that students have to do a lot of remote learning, now more than ever.

There are many ways educators can use technology to create online lessons and deliver instruction remotely. When used well, these technologies can actually contribute to higher engagement levels, support collaboration and generally make the lives of every user easier.

But edtech is only one part of the solution to overcoming all challenges related to school lockdowns. After all, technology is merely a tool. Those who use the tool actually achieve something. So the other big part of the solution consists of all the educators who have to adopt — sometimes hastily — to the online world.

Read more: How to turn your face-to-face class into an online course [Part 1]

If the shift to using edtech as an integral part of teaching can be eased with various tutorials, ‘train the trainers’ sessions and continuous support from vendors on how to use a certain digital tool or another, educators have to manage an even more challenging one: the shift from synchronous to asynchronous teaching and learning.

Adopting the asynchronous mindset

The most important thing to always keep in mind when adapting any teaching activity for online education is that online learning doesn’t have to happen at the same time as online teaching. That is a fundamental shift from the face-to-face classroom and it is what makes online education awesome.

Let me expand on this idea.

When you're in a course, in a typical classroom environment, you're standing up there in front of the class at your whiteboard, and there's a one-on-one real-time discussion between the instructor and the learners.

When you go online, you can also do that. You can say the only way to run online classes is synchronously, through web conferencing.

But that's not very practical, in a lot of cases. The probability that all the learners (who are now anywhere but the classroom) and the instructor being all together, all with live internet connections at the same time is quite low.

So it's much easier if you as an instructor can shift to the asynchronous mindset.

What this means is that you can no longer guarantee that you and the learners are going to be online at the same time. This definitely takes a bit of getting used to, but once you experiment with that shift and you master it, you'll find that it's an incredibly enlightening experience.

Asynchronous learning is not new...

Asynchronous learning may be associated with the rather recent online revolution, but people have been learning that way long before the Internet took over our lives. I’m talking about the humble book.

Many years ago I used to teach at UT Dallas. I got really good at teaching my CS-related subject, and every time I taught the same thing, again and again, I remember thinking: if I could just put this all online and students could take it at their own pace, it would be amazing!

But in those days there weren't that many online learning platforms and those that did exist were really not that good. So the only way to go about this was to write a book. And so I did. And so did many other teachers those days.

Writing a book is a form of asynchronous learning: you as an educator write it all down, people buy your book and read it, all while you — the author — are not in the same place with them, at the same time.

Obviously, we can do a lot better now.

…It’s everywhere now...

For example, you might create a course in your Learning Management System as a series of modules and decide that those modules have to be taken in sequence, because they build upon each other, or allow learners to take the modules in whatever order they want. Each module could be a video that you recorded on a subject, you might follow it up with an embedded PDF, some Microsoft documents that are relevant, links to third-party resources, links to YouTube, etc. Students can log into the system at any time they want, even at 3 AM when you're sleeping, and access each module in the order you set.

You can also set other important rules in the course, such as the types and frequency of assessments, or a compulsory proof of mastery before moving on to the next module. For instance, after watching the video and studying the additional notes, the students could take some kind of quiz after each module and they have to get at least 80% to show their mastery of the learned materials before they go to the next one.

Some educators have been doing this already; they're calling it "flipping the classroom". In a flipped classroom, students watch videos or go through lessons before they go to class, so the precious time during class is used to clarify concepts, explore the subject more in-depth and generally make sure everyone can move to the next lesson without obvious knowledge gaps.

For those educators who have done flipped classrooms, asynchronous learning is a very familiar territory.

For those who haven't, you need to know that the nice thing about embracing asynchronous mindset is that not only can your learners take the course whenever they want to, but it also means that the next time you teach the same course you can actually benefit from all the materials that you have already recorded and reuse them semester after semester and make their lives a lot easier.

...And it’s not going anywhere

The one silver lining to the current worldwide situation is that educators who have to manage remote learning are going to get much better at asynchronous teaching, and once they've done that I think that’s actually going to make them more effective educators in general — being able to convey their knowledge and engage students without necessarily having to be in the same room at the same time.

Adopting an asynchronous mindset is going to really help you to actually become a better educator when things go back to normal.

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