Uncomplicated Online Tools for Student-Centered Asynchronous Learning

In 1999, the MU School of Information Science and Learning Technologies (SISLT), in the College of Education, developed its first online course for educators. The entire Masters in Learning Technologies and Design went online in 2003. Over the years, we have refined and further developed online teaching and learning concepts (Dabbagh, Howland & Marra, 2019; Jahnke, 2015). If there has been one constant in our approach, it has been our commitment to student-centeredness—an orientation that we should all take up and deepen.

With the onset of COVID-19, there is a sudden need for “remote teaching’. Remote teaching is often applied as synchronous online teaching (i.e., moving the lecture hall into Zoom). Such ZOOM meetings may include active or gamified elements, but are still teacher-centered.  However, as we know from research, active student-centered approaches lead to increased student performance and improved learning outcomes (Freeman et al., 2014). How to do this online?

One approach is asynchronous learning with student-centered activities. Student-centered learning activities are those in which the learner will be asked not only to listen to podcasts, watch videos, or read literature but in which students apply the readings, critically analyze the video, or create novel artifacts (e.g., products, tools, studies, experiments). Such a student-centered learning design includes the constructive alignment of a) goals (syllabus), b) student activities, c) assessment, d) social relationships, and e) meaningful use of tools (e.g., Voicethread). There are many tools in Canvas that support asynchronous learning with student-centered activities.

First, make key adaptions to your existing syllabus for online environments. In the syllabus, clarify the overall learning goals (e.g., After the course, students are able to understand/ analyze/ create/ etc.), describe expectations, and detail how you will communicate with your students (e.g., via Canvas message, email, or announcements). Let students know how soon to expect a reply (within 24-48 hours is reasonable). Tell students how quickly they can expect feedback on their work (within 7-10 days is reasonable).  In the syllabus, include a paragraph describing the active learning approach. For example, “Students do not learn because of the instructor’s activities but because of their own activities and reflection.” Then, make sure that you support (scaffold) student activities through the design of the assignments. See Scaffolds-for-Learning for more information about guided instruction.

Second, create modules and assignments. Structure your course into units or modules. Typically, a module is 1 or 2 weeks. Design each module with an overall goal. Include one or two learning objectives that relate to the overall goal and a list of readings and activities. Start each module with an overview, (i.e., what students can expect to do in this unit). Add readings as PDF files or link to them in MU Libraries. Assignments can include discussion boards where students are asked to apply something from the readings or lab work. It is important to clearly define the discussion expectations regarding length, content, responses to others, and quality of posts. Let students know that you want them to ask questions, or discuss viewpoints where they do not agree with each other by adding evidence or rationale. Other assignments might include group work in which student teams create or apply knowledge from previous modules. They might submit as an uploaded group file or by adding a link to a Google Doc.

Pay close attention to alignment of learning objectives, student activities (through assignment design), and assessment. Begin with learning objectives and then determine what evidence students will provide to demonstrate they have achieved those outcomes. Then create activities that will support students in that learning. Design a rubric for each assignment to help your students know what’s expected and what you will be considering as you grade their work. A rubric is a scoring guide that communicates what is expected in the students’ work and how each element of the work with be assessed. See this site for more on rubrics; they are an important component of conducting meaningful online learning. You may choose to allow students to improve their work and be re-graded in a specific time. Depending on the assignment’s scope, students might be given 3-4 days to re-submit.

Third, in asynchronous online learning it is imperative that the instructor engage students, and students have the feeling that the instructor is ‘there’ through an online social presence. This can be done in different ways. Add short video messages in some modules. For an interactive video experience, use VoiceThread (available in Mizzou Canvas). Upload your slides and record audio or video on each one. VoiceThread allows students to comment on each slide after listening to the instructor.  You may include questions in your Voicethread or ask students to discuss the content in the context of relevant literature, personal experiences, etc. Voicethread is also a great tool for student groups to present their work. Each student team can add comments to other teams’ VoiceThreads – a kind of peer review. Then teams might use the comments to revise and improve their original work.

In the end, your students need to know that you are ‘there’ and available for them, supporting and helping them in their learning trajectories. The building of relationships or learning communities are crucial for both in-person and online learning. In online learning, however, it can be easier to forget this part. Thus, don’t forget to humanize the online space!

When you’re ready to learn more about designing meaningful online learning with different technology tools, check out SISLT’s Online Educator Graduate Certificate Program: https://sislt.missouri.edu/certificates/online-educator/.  SISLT’s expertise can help you design and deliver effective online learning. Core certificate courses are Instructional Systems Design, Teaching Online Courses, and Designing Online Learning.

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Dabbagh, N., Marra, R., Howland, J. (2019). Meaningful Online Learning: Integrating Strategies, Activities, and Learning Technologies for Effective Designs. New York: Routledge.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 8410-8415

Jahnke, I. (2015). Digital Didactical Designs: Teaching and learning in crossactionspaces. New York: Routledge.