By Dr. Ashley Thompson, Contract Instructor, Department of Neuroscience

This is the first of a four-part series by Neuroscience instructors on their experiences with the sudden and rapid transition to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When we were thrust into online teaching in March, I did not think I was ready. While many were worried about technology and content delivery, I was stuck trying to wrap my head around teaching in an asynchronous format – a format we were strongly encouraged to adopt for our summer courses.

I enjoyed the challenge of reimagining assessments, though I may have failed to reimagine the added hours of grading on my cognitively challenging cheat-proof assignments. I thought of solutions to increase the touch points between myself and students throughout the term, and I increased my communication with students to compensate for the lack of ‘in class’ reminders. I felt confident in my solutions for student engagement with the content in the online format, but the piece I struggled with most was how to promote engagement between students.

How could I ever create a classroom vibe in this online, asynchronous setup? Importantly, was this even a necessary aspect of an effective learning environment, or was it just something I desired for my own comfort? Students certainly need to engage with the content, but from a learning objective standpoint, is it vital for students to engage with each other? Also, does it matter if the interactions occur in real time, rather than using online forums for discussions?

My own experience taking an online course in the past would suggest this aspect is not important; however, pedagogical research would suggest student interactions are critical for student learning and engagement (Shelton, Hung, & Lowenthal, 2017). Even if some level of interaction is possible through forums and the like, it pales in comparison to lively class discussions – but this is the most challenging aspect to deliver in an online course. Still, I felt this live environment would suit me best to maintain some sense of normalcy in my role as a facilitator of such discussions.

Interacting with students in the classroom environment is a significant part of what we do, and arguably one of the primary reasons (if not THE reason) we enjoy teaching. If we remove that aspect from the equation, we have not only taken something away from the students – we have eliminated a key feature of teaching that drew many of us to this profession in the first place. To think this wouldn’t impact student motivation and performance in our online classes would be imprudent.

To perform optimally in my role, I need students to interact regularly with the content, with me, and with each other. Pedagogical research suggests this type of learning environment is ideal, and an ideal learning environment is what I hope to create for my students. So how could this be done if asynchronous was the direction we were headed? Was it even possible? As it turns out, with much thought and reflection, it was.

Admittedly, the idea of doing ‘what works for me’ felt like a strange way to structure a course. However, I soon realized if I am not satisfied with the learning environment as the instructor, then I am not at my best to deliver this course. If I appear discouraged, disheartened and disconnected, how can I expect my students to stay motivated and engaged? In the end, I realized my needs were more important to factor into course design than I had originally considered. By actively considering both my needs and those of my learners, I developed both early and late summer courses (for 14 and 150 students, respectively) that were flexible for them, enjoyable for me, and very well-received overall.

Asynchronous course design and student engagement are not Incompatible

The shift to online teaching has forced instructors to critically reflect on their pedagogical decisions and course design in what is a new format for many, myself included. To design my online summer courses, my basic formula was as follows: think of the ideal scenario, then develop or incorporate an asynchronous alternative, and then do both. With careful and thoughtful design, and delegation of tasks to TAs where possible, this need not significantly increase time commitment, as you might think.

For example, I hold live lectures during regular class time, but I also record the live lectures and upload them to cuLearn after class, making them available for 1-2 weeks (the upload process takes me 10-15 minutes). This allows me to engage with my students live, clarify confusing material, facilitate discussions and group activities, and both ask and answer questions. Additionally, it gives those watching the recorded lectures a sense of being in the classroom, even if they are watching it at a later date.

In my class of 150 students, certain TAs held live review sessions using multiple-choice questions delivered via Poll Everywhere to encourage engagement with the material (and dare I say, fun?), while another TA was tasked with creating the asynchronous equivalent to these review sessions, a cuLearn ‘review quiz’ available for four days after the live session took place.

While I always offer an asynchronous option, this does not mean the alternative is available for the duration of the course. The idea is to add some flexibility not typically observed in a traditional classroom, without placing all responsibility to pace the course content on the student. I believe ‘content pacing’ through thoughtful design is essential to keep students engaged with the material. For example, I have assignments due every two weeks based on specific lectures, and recordings for those lectures are only available until the assignment deadline. There are ‘life skills’ workshops hosted by TAs at set times which are recorded and posted to cuLearn for 72 hours following the live workshop. So, you don’t have to show up to the workshop on Monday evening, for example, but you must find an hour in the next three days to watch the recording and complete the associated handout to earn marks for that workshop.

So, although the course may appear to be synchronous or hybrid in nature, it is in fact completely asynchronous. The way I explain it to students is that in my course, their grades will never be impacted by the inability to ‘be’ somewhere at a set time – there is always an asynchronous alternative that offers flexibility in how students engage with and manage their work. Still, there is always incentive offered to show up live (e.g. ask questions, get help on an assignment, mini skill development tutorials not recorded or posted). Importantly, I also offer opportunities for those who cannot engage in the live format to benefit from class discussions. For example, we do breakout activities in live lectures where students work in groups on problems which will later appear on course assignments. Breakout rooms are not recorded, which provides an incentive to show up, but I also facilitate a brief discussion after each activity to ‘take it up.’ This allows me to gauge their understanding of the content, while also allowing students watching the recorded lecture to benefit from hearing peer comments.

Ultimately, my goal is to provide an optimal learning environment for as many students as possible. To me, this means offering a synchronous (a.k.a. live) experience for students who want it, while accommodating those who cannot – and hopefully enhancing their out of class experience by having recorded lectures with a live audience that interacts, asks questions, shares comments and stimulates engaging discussions.

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