Making the most of asynchronous classes

I was in college back in the stone age, when landlines were ubiquitous, ethernet was a luxury, and professors wrote on chalkboards. (Not even whiteboards!) So the asynchronous, discussion-board-based class I’ve been introduced to in library school has been a culture shift for me. Only some of my classes have involved discussion boards, for which I’m thankful, because I never get as much out of those class sessions as I do from in person classes. (Synchronous online classes fall somewhere in between.) I need to say at the outset that any criticisms I write in this post are examples of it being much easier to criticize than to do something well yourself. If I were to teach a course that included asynchronous sessions… well, they’d probably not be any better than the courses I’ve taken.

Let’s start with what’s good about asynchronous classes: you can comment whenever and wherever (and wearing whatever) you want. Loud talkers and know-it-alls don’t dominate the conversation. There’s time to refine your thoughts before expressing them. There’s a record of who said what. You can link to or include outside materials. You can ask for outside advice on how to tactfully tell a classmate that she’s totally off base.

So what’s the problem with asynchronous classes? After all, I’m a huge fan of online conversations! One of my classmates put it well the other day: “the discussion isn’t organic.” That’s exactly it. When the discussion is framed as “ask a question based on the reading and respond to two other students’ questions,” the discussion becomes an exercise in meeting the requirements rather than exploring the topic. For example, does “I was really struck by such-and-such claim the author made; did anyone else have this reaction?” count as a question? I don’t know, so instead I’m going to grumble and write a scholarly sounding paragraph concluding with “have you had any experience with this phenomenon across library types?” (It turns out it’s easier to come up with questions about non-existent articles than it is to come up with questions about actual articles.)

We want to make the most of our library school education, so how can we counter the tendency to see asynchronous class discussion as drudgery?

On the students’ side:

I did some brainstorming and came up with ideas. None of these are tested, and there’s certainly no data to support them. They are things you can try and see what you think.

  1. Schedule a time to be online with a classmate, and engage in a dialogue in more or less real time–such as one you would have on Twitter or a Google chat, but in the discussion forum.
  2. Risk the question not meeting the requirement. Make a statement and ask “what do you think?” Which is more important, the grade or the conversation? (Bear in mind that if a scholarship is at stake, the grade might be more important!)
  3. Another friend suggests giving in. Do what’s required, and then engage with the material on a blog or in another forum.
  4. Say something controversial.
  5. Spice up the conversation with subversive contests. Who can work the phrase “soccer mom” into their response? Who uses the most apt meme? Make your response rhyme! Include an outlandish analogy. It might not be serious, but it will keep everyone engaged.
  6. On the practical side, make sure to adjust the settings for the forum to email you when there are new posts. The worst thing is to have to continually log in just to see if there have been any responses or new posts.

On the professors’ side:

Of course, it would be better if the structure of the online course sessions itself could lean more towards organic conversation. As it happens, there’s research to back up our complaints as students that the online discussion is less than ideal. Gao, et al, identify the following problems with the threaded discussion format: difficulty in maintaining focus, difficulty in promoting interactivity (my reaction: YES! EXACTLY!), difficulty synthesizing ideas, and lack of emotional cues.[1] They explore research that evaluates four alternative methods for structuring online discussion (the first, “constrained environments,” sounds a lot to me like the standard threaded discussion forum that they are suggesting is not ideal, but also makes me glad that at least we get “ask a question” and not “write a statement beginning with the phrase ‘___'”), some of which look intriguing to me. For example, anchored environments, where comments are linked to specific places in the text. There are drawbacks to this, to be sure, including the need for technology that supports anchored discussions and, more significantly for the point of this post, that it doesn’t encourage synthesis. Nevertheless, acknowledging these different environments helps to broaden our view of what is possible in online discussion.

One possibility would be to encourage a single conversation thread, as there would be in class, instead of each student beginning her own conversation thread. To prevent a single student taking over the beginning of each week’s discussion, maybe each week could be assigned to a different student to kick things off. I would love to know if anyone has been in a class where this was the format, and if it was successful.

Another possibility is hinted at by a 2001 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (a publication with which I have had some issues recently) [2]. An unpublished study suggested that online courses have better learning outcomes than classroom based courses. The study looked at communication in completing a group project, rather than online vs in class discussion. Perhaps rather than discussion prompts that lead student conversation to diverge, the task should be to work together to some common end.

Other papers that I skimmed while writing this post mentioned the effect of instructor involvement in the discussion [3]; most of my asynchronous course sessions have had minimal instructor involvement, but I did mind less the discussion forum in which the professor was more actively engaged. (I still was grumbly about it.)

This semester I have asynchronous sessions in both of the classes I’m taking–2 sessions in one class and 4 in the other. I’m looking forward to trying some of the strategies I suggested above to make them thoughtful and inspiring.

What do you think? Have you had any classes with successful online discussion forums? What were the characteristics that made them effective?

[1] Gao, F., Zhang, T., & Franklin, T. (2013). Designing asynchronous online discussion environments: Recent progress and possible future directions. British Journal Of Educational Technology, 44(3), 469-483.

[2] PASKEY, J. (2001). Report cites advantages of online study. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 47(38), 029-A29.

[3] In particular, see Della Noce, D. J., Scheffel, D. L., & Lowry, M. (2014). Questions That Get Answered: The Construction of Instructional Conversations on Online Asynchronous Discussion Boards. Journal Of Online Learning & Teaching, 10(1), 80-96.

Categories: Distance Learning

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6 replies

  1. My favorite asynchronous discussions required us all to figure out complex problems and engage with our peers’ takes. This was an info org course, so the prof had us all go into Summon, Web of Science, and other databases and figure out how they classified their content, identify gaps in coverage, and so on. These were surprisingly organic discussions. Shoutout to Michelle Kazmer of Florida State University!

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  2. One of my online classes last Spring was set up phenomenally in regards to forums and organic conversation. Instead of requiring us to post a certain number of times each week the professor told us at the beginning of the class that by the end we would need ten great posts, and she would make us identify and defend why those posts where great at the end of the course. This let you really engage conversations that interested you and kept forums filled with actual engagement instead of people just trying to meet the weeks minimum requirements. – Just goes to show how important classroom design is in the online environment.

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    • That’s really clever. That thinking-outside-the-box in terms of structuring an incentive to engage is great. Plus, it’s good to get practice advocating for yourself and touting your own accomplishments, and this encourages that as well. Props to your professor!

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  3. Luckily, I’m part of a cohort group where we met in person for two loooong weekends and then all our remaining classes are online. Each class has a few of my fellow cohort students and we are able to keep our discussions active and engaging. We, of course, participate in discussions with other students but if one of us is struggling (or suffering a dead discussion post!), a cohort student has always jumped in to assist. It has made for a much more communal experience rather than the “out for yourself” mentality that seems to plague many online library programs.

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