When my co-teacher and I set out to redesign our normally face-to-face course to accommodate the pivot to online learning this past semester, we were not sure what to do. The Covid-19 lockdown seemed to call for an altogether new approach to online teaching. In three blogs posts, we’ll describe how we revised our course design, the practicalities of lockdown teaching, and why our students called our course “the gold standard of online teaching” by the end of the semester.
Part 1: Synchronous versus asynchronous learning – Why choose?
The graduate-level course Markets in the Welfare State is generally the highlight of my teaching year. It’s an elective on the topic of my research, meaning it’s that rare treat of a course in which I get to teach the topics I enjoy the most to students with a strong interest in the subject matter. This year, I was joined by Janna Goijaerts, PhD student and teacher-in-training at Leiden University.
The course started only a few weeks after our university had made the pivot to online teaching due to the corona virus pandemic. This meant that Janna and I had to radically reverse our standard course design. Like so many university teachers, we struggled with the choice between synchronous and asynchronous teaching. While educators on social media seemed to strongly prefer either one or the other, we were not so sure.
Our compromise was a course design that allowed students to do both: attend weekly online seminars or follow the course in their own time via the learning management system. We made sure to incorporate various interactive features. It worked. Both student performance and evaluation scores were up from the regular edition of the course. One student even deemed our course “the gold standard of online teaching.”
Hyperbole aside, we believe that we found a way to make online teaching enjoyable for both students and teachers who are largely used to face-to-face teaching, while not sacrificing performance. In the following three posts, we will therefore outline the main elements of our course design, describe how we ran our course, and report back on how students experienced our course.
We hope that our experience may be useful to other teachers, who like us are at the start of another semester of online teaching.
Reconsidering our course design
The pivot to online teaching proved to be more consequential to our course than ‘simply’ transforming a face-to-face course to an online setting. While the course normally attracts only around 15 students or so, this year more than 40 had signed up. This meant that Janna and I had to reverse our envisioned course design, once it became clear that social distancing would prevent any regular teaching. We had to rethink several elements of the course, such as our normal reliance on small group discussions and the substantial number of written assignments.
Like so many university teachers, we struggled with the choice between synchronous and asynchronous teaching. Synchronous learning refers to a situation, whereby students learn at the same time. Asynchronous learning occurs, when students learn at different times. Both terms refer to online education, whereby students are not in the same location when they learn. While many educators on social media seemed to strongly prefer either one or the other, we were not so sure. We asked ourselves:
How do we create an inclusive learning environment that is attentive to the needs of students who may be prevented from participating synchronously in our course, while at the same time serving the needs of students who prefer the structure and sociality of synchronous learning?
Our students come from incredibly diverse backgrounds. While most students are of Dutch origins, around one-third are internationals from all over the world. The Dutch students typically stayed in their dorms or temporarily moved in with their parents during the lockdown. Many (but certainly not all) international students traveled home to be with their families. Some students found themselves isolated and by themselves during the lockdown, others combined their studies with jobs or family care and felt overwhelmed. This diversity means that any choice for either synchronous or asynchronous would necessarily exclude certain students from our course.
Two learning tracks
Having already taught courses online, I felt confident enough to answer our question with a “why not do both?” So we designed our course specifically with two forms of participation in mind. The first option was to participate synchronously in the course. This meant attending weekly live seminars on Wednesday mornings between 9:15am and 12pm. The live seminars were the online equivalents of our regular face-to-face meetings. The live seminars consisted of short lectures on the course readings, presentations of cases, short exercises, and group discussions. Attendance in the live seminars was not mandatory, but we did expect active participation during these sessions.
We did not use the full three hours for our live seminars. Instead, we divided the time available into three timeslots. In the first hour, we would present a lecture, supported by slides. During the second hour, students would meet in break-out groups to do a collaborative exercise. During this time, students were also free to schedule breaks as desired. In the third hour, we would meet back in the online classroom for a plenary discussion of the exercise.
The second option was to participate asynchronously in the course, by which students used the interactive features on the course management system in their own time. Instead of attending the live seminars, students could view the video recordings of the lecture component of the seminars. Students did individual versions of the seminar exercises in their own time. They could comment on blogs or contribute to the course Wiki. Students were also strongly encouraged to make an appointment for online office hours at least once during the course.
Students were also welcome to do a combination of both options (e.g. participate in the live seminar one week, participate asynchronously in another week).
(post continues under table)
Table 1: Types of course participation
Contribute to group
Combining two forms of teaching and learning meant that we had to adjust our assessment strategy. The first thing we did was to reduce the number of paper assignments from two to one. Instead of writing a short paper at mid-term, we now asked students to write a blog around a recent socio-economic crisis measure taken in response to the Covid-19 crisis in a country of their choice. Students were encouraged to write about the same crisis measure in their final paper at the end of the course. Blogs were posted on Blackboard for other students to read and comment on. Synchronous learners also had the option to present their blogs during a live seminar.
A second major change was to add a participation grade to the course. This might seem counterintuitive, considering our intention to accommodate students who were unable to participate extensively in the course. Yet, we felt it important to both incentivize and reward any form of participation that students were able to put into the course. This meant, for instance, that we considered attending the live seminars of equal weight to commenting on a blog post. We made sure that students could earn a passing grade, even with minimal participation (see our rubric here). This way, we hoped to incentivize engaged participation in the course, while simultaneously recognizing that not all students could participate to the same extent as in a face-to-face course.
A final consideration was how to keep tabs on students, who would participate asynchronously in our course. We knew that students sometimes feel uncomfortable reaching out, if they need help. With our asynchronous participants, we would not actually have the types of interactions that would help us assess whether or not they struggled with the course. We therefore asked students to send us any exercises they did in their own time, which we would briefly check. We also strongly encouraged them to make appointments for online office hours. To further incentivize this, we included office hours appointments in our participation rubric. This ensured that, by the end of the course, we had spoken to each asynchronous learner at least once.
Up next: read how our lockdown-proof course design worked out in practice.