Why I'm All About Asynchronous Learning
When the world first transitioned to emergency remote learning during the COVID pandemic in spring of 2020, many schools, districts, and teachers defaulted to asynchronous learning as a way to ensure all students had access to the lessons, activities, and materials, regardless of their commitments at home or their access to technology. Some of these asynchronous lessons were paper packets picked up at school, some were PDFs emailed to parents, and others included videos and online interactive materials.
Regardless of the systems, many teachers and schools reached the same conclusion; remote asynchronous learning doesn’t work because students won’t do the work. Therefore many schools pivoted to an entirely remote synchronous model, where students were required (in some cases) to spend up to 6 hours a day in a Zoom call. Have you ever spent six hours on Zoom in a day? It’s exhausting!
While it’s true that it is much more difficult to ensure you are getting asynchronous work from students in a remote environment, with the right framework, asynchronous learning can be a really beneficial and rewarding model of instruction for both teachers and students, not just for pandemics, but in full-time brick and mortar classrooms too.
Why Use Asynchronous Learning?
Think about how you learn a new skill these days, baking bagels perhaps. It isn’t usually in a formal class or from a personal instructor, most of the time we are Googling, YouTubing and following instructions online as we work at our own pace, following Joshua Weissman as we mix the dough and boil the water (highly recommend).
If this is becoming a more and more popular model for learning, you could reason that we, as teachers, should be preparing our students to succeed in this asynchronous, self-paced learning environment.
Not to mention, asynchronous learning requires students to develop important executive functioning skills, such as time management, task-initiation, and prioritization, which will not only help them succeed in school but in their future careers as well.
Finally, when students are working asynchronously, the teacher has more flexibility to devote her time and attention to wherever it is needed most. When the majority of the students are able to follow the lesson independently, the teacher can be working one-on-one or in small groups with the students who need the most help.
If you agree that there are many benefits to asynchronous instruction, we need to look at how you will employ these lessons, which depends entirely on your teaching model.
For teachers in a hybrid model, you might be using asynchronous learning on an alternating schedule. When kids are in the school building they are engaging in synchronous instruction, when they are at home they are engaging in asynchronous instruction. These lessons are often longer and entirely asynchronous, with little to no live-input from the teacher.
For teachers in a hybrid model, you might also consider using what Catlin Tucker refers to as the “Flip Flop” model, wherein you use an asynchronous activity for half the class while you deliver a direct instruction to the other, and then switch groups. In this model you might say, “Zoomers, you have an asynchronous activity posted to work on for 20 mins while I work with the Roomers, then we will switch.”
For teachers who are back with their student in a full-time brick-and-mortar model, you might consider having a few student-led-learning days (or hours) every week. I used to do this with my 6th grade language arts class. Every week on Monday I would post a few asynchronous assignments that were always due on Friday. Students could work on them at any time in the week, but I would always provide a couple class periods a week to get the work done.
On those days, students would know that they could sit wherever they wanted, work with whoever they wanted, and work on what they wanted. Some students would get their work done early in the week, at home, and were free to use that time as a break from school or to complete extension activities. The students who weren’t getting their work done during these times would have to work in small groups with me until they proved they could be responsible for completing their work.
Back to the big elephant, no matter the model you choose, how do we ensure students complete the work?
First, explicitly teach and scaffold executive functioning skills.
Think about yourself again for a moment. How often do you start a task as early as you’d like? Or use your time in the best possible way? Or limit yourself entirely from distractions as you work… hold on, I need to check this text message… okay, I’m back. If you are like me, you are still working on these skills yourself, so why are we expecting our students (8 year olds, 12 year olds, and even 16 year olds) to be able to do this perfectly?
These skills need to be explicitly taught. Teach your students how to make a schedule, how to set timers, create goals and reward systems for themselves, how to limit distractions, how to focus and take breaks.
If you have an advisory or homeroom period, that is a great time to teach these skills, otherwise carve out 20 mins a week, I promise it is worth it.
Then, as you build your asynchronous lessons, include timers for students to start as they begin individual tasks to help keep them on track, provide a link to a place where they can submit questions, and celebrate and reward students for finishing tasks. Then, with the inevitable students who still don’t do the work, meet with them one-on-one or in small groups to work through it together.
Second, we need to work with parents. If any part of an asynchronous lesson is expected to be done at home, parents are our best resource for helping to make sure it gets it done.
One of my top tips for helping parents hold their students accountable is including a “Learning Coach Check” within the instructions of each asynchronous assignment posted on Google Classroom. All it is is a simple way for the parents to check if the student has completed the work, without the parent having to go through all the instructions of the assignment (which very few parents have time to do).
These “Learning Coach Checks” are super simple, i.e. “Open the Google Doc and check that there is a full paragraph written.” Or “Check to make sure there is a link to a poster attached to this assignment.”
In this method, the teacher is still the one assessing the work and providing feedback, all we are asking of parents is to help ensure it gets done.
Best Practices in Building Lessons
Still with me? Totally bought in and ready to create asynchronous lessons? Here a few of my top tips when it comes to building asynchronous lessons.
1. Use a screen recording tool to deliver instruction
The difference between an asynchronous lesson and a homework assignment is the inclusion of direct instruction. There are many great screen recording tools such as Screencastify and Loom that will allow you to record yourself and your screen as you deliver mini lessons and demonstrate instructions.
Keep these videos as short a succinct as possible.
2. Build your lessons in a Google Slide or PowerPoint Deck
After you record your video, it is quick and easy to pop it into a Google Slide or PowerPoint, then additional slides could include links to materials for students to access, additional instructions, or even be used as a place for students to write responses, reflections, create, or upload materials.
The beauty of using a slide deck is the format naturally chunks pieces of information, so that you don’t cognitively overwhelm your students by stuffing it all onto a single word document.
3. Utilize EdPuzzle to ensure video watching accountability
If you have a longer video lesson for your students to complete, consider uploading it to a tool like EdPuzzle, where you can see which students logged in to watch, and you can even embed comprehension questions into the video to ensure your students are following along and understanding.
This is also a great tool for students who missed a live class discussion. Record the discussion on Zoom or Google Meet, upload it to EdPuzzle, and ask the absent student to complete reflections questions on the discussion as they watch.
If you are interested in learning how to build an asynchronous lesson within Google Slides, I have a 1 hour, step-by-step training where I walk you through the process of creating your first Google Slides asynchronous lesson. You can order that training on-demand here.
If you feel comfortable with building lessons within Google Slides, but would like to see my asynchronous lesson structure in a number of neat (Gen Z approved) designs, you can download three different asynchronous slide design templates here.
If you like what you are hearing and want more, I’ve written extensively about asynchronous learning, lesson design, and teaching executive functioning skills in my book, The Hybrid Teacher, which you can order here!