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Flexibility in Asynchronicity

[Like my new word?]

I’ve decided to stop posting Twitter threads and instead use the tool God intended: blog posts.

I’m starting to knuckle down on course prep for the fall. You all know I’m 100% into asynchronous teaching, and I really don’t think there’s anything anyone could say to dissuade me. (This is, by the by, what I tell my students “bias” is: a belief that you hold, no matter what, even in the presence of countervailing evidence, though I don’t believe there is much countervailing evidence in this case.) But there’s one part of asynchronous teaching that I’m struggling to find a solution for: flexibility.

Flexibility within the semester

One of the great joys of teaching F2F is in pivoting your class time to discuss a topic that’s come up, or going off on a tangent based on a student question, or reframing your next lecture on the fly in response to current events. But in async teaching, you need a bit of lead time to get your materials prepared; you post them as completed pieces.

I’ve just been reading Joshua Eyler’s book How Humans Learn, and the first part of the book talks about using curiosity as a driving force for good teaching. The book has been tremendously thought-provoking and I’ve already thought of ways I’m going to increase the presence of curiosity in my courses. But in some ways, async teaching feels like it limits curiosity because of its nature.

Async teaching feels a little bit like the First Barbary War. In the war, the commodore was given instructions by the Secretary of the Navy to go do some stuff, and he was expected to do it. But by the time the commodore got to the Mediterranean, things looked very different. The commodore then had two choices: (1) try to follow his outdated orders, or (2) make his own plan, which may or may not be what the federal government wanted. Both of these options could be disastrous. If he followed his outdated orders, he might stumble into serious diplomatic crises. If he made his own way, then when the next set of orders arrived, he might be so far off the original track that it was impossible to obey the new ones.

This is kind of like async teaching. I spend a day or two recording my podcast lecture, developing the ways I want students to respond, and then I post it on the course website. But I try not to be recording and editing my talks at midnight the night before class, so sometimes–really, often–I have to record my next materials before I’ve seen my students’ responses to the previous chunk of material. Thus, I am writing my students’ new “orders” before I’ve received much feedback from them telling me what things I need to respond to. So I have to plow ahead with my original plan, and they have to either plow ahead with me, despite having turned in a different direction intellectually, or they have to go off on their own.

In this analogy, I’d prefer that the students took option 2, where they made their own choices and went down the paths that seemed right to them. But without knowing what they’re doing in real time, it’s hard to then craft the next set of “orders.” In 1802-1803, when multiple captains did what was right in their own eyes, they ended up going completely opposite and contradictory directions and made a lot of big errors. I, as the professor/SecNav, can’t possibly reel in ALL the threads.

Then there’s the time lag. If I’m not having these discussions in class, but as a discussion later on a board or in a chat room, that doesn’t leave much time for me to change tack for the next time I give them materials, sometimes no time at all. If a student responds in a thought-provoking way, but to materials we’ve already moved on from, how do I address it?

This problem is exacerbated because the students who do respond quickly are usually the ones who need the least direction from me. They’ve figured things out on their own. It’s the ones who don’t respond till the last minute–till it’s too late–that show me they need more help; they need me to revisit things or come at them from a different angle. But by the time I know that, we’ve already moved on.

So…how do you give students the opportunity to do their own inquiry while still maintaining at least nominal control on the class’s mission? (The class I’m especially concerned about has 45 students at present; the smaller the class, the easier to reel in all the threads, I’d imagine.)

Flexibility semester to semester

This problem is related to the idea of recyclability. Even though I’m pretty proud of most of the podcast episodes I made last semester, I don’t think I’m going to reuse any of them wholesale, because it’s a different time now. Things are really different for the students; they’re different for the world; they’re different for me.

So I bridle at the idea that online teaching is thus infinitely recyclable, which is how some higher ed pundits have been characterizing it. It’s infinitely recyclable only if you fully intend for your course to not speak to anything your students are dealing with, or any way in which your course materials speak to the present. If you don’t want your students to find your course memorable, or relevant, then sure, you can keep using exactly the same thing semester after semester. (I took a correspondence course in college that fits this description exactly; it probably hadn’t been changed in 10 years when I took it.) But I DO want my students to feel like I’m teaching to them, not to a nameless and faceless mass.

That said, developing an online course is a huge amount of work. I definitely don’t want to reinvent the wheel every single semester. So how do I maximize the use value of what I create this semester for subsequent semesters, without letting go of the flexibility I feel is needed to create a compelling course that speaks to students’ needs?


I don’t know if I’ve done a good job of explaining myself here, but I hope my point is clear: I want to be responsive to my students’ curiosity and needs. I’m struggling with how to do that effectively in an asynchronous environment. I would welcome any suggestions you have.

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