Assessing Learner Needs, Maintaining Instructor Presence, & Building Community in Asynchronous Courses

By Samadrita Kuiti

As an extraordinary fall semester winds down, I feel the necessity of reflecting on what I have learned from my own experiences as a primary instructor of both English literature and intro-level composition courses throughout 2020. Like many college-level instructors across the disciplinary spectrum, I had to come up with contingency plans for online teaching with little to no notice earlier this year. Although a staggering number of articles and blog posts reflecting on pandemic pedagogy have cropped up in publications like Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and an assortment of Facebook groups already, for the purpose of this article I will list 3 practical, implementable ideas that I think have worked well for the mostly asynchronous courses I have taught both in Spring and Fall 2020.

photo of blog author
Samadrita Kuiti is an English PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut. Her research focuses on Global Anglophone literature, utopian studies, & gender and sexuality studies. She is an instructor of record and teaching assistant for the First-Year Writing program and the English Department at UConn.

1. Poll students at the beginning and/or at various points during the semester to assess their needs: The rapid shift to online teaching in March presented certain unforeseen circumstances. In discussion-heavy classes like mine, the challenge was to make sure that the student-centered format of teaching stayed the same even in our unanticipated, new virtual reality. But in order to respond better to my students’ needs, I needed more information. For this I decided to poll my students during Spring Break. When my Google poll results filtered in, I realized that only about 67% of the respondents had access to high speed internet and only about 65% had a functional webcam/mic for synchronous meetings. 

This data was instrumental in my decision to opt for an asynchronous format for the remainder of the semester. Even though the majority of my students could have attended regularly scheduled synchronous classes, the concerns of the minority far exceeded those of the majority in this case. And issues of equity and access should be vital considerations now more than ever. 

Polling students at the start of the semester and/or in the middle about important decisions that we might need to make to our courses as instructors can yield crucial, hitherto unknown information. For instance, we can include questions that may give us a sense of students’ outside-of-school responsibilities, overall workload, familiarity with the genre of assignments, readings etc. Giving respondents the option of remaining anonymous is also something to consider. A vital component of our pedagogy in spring and fall 2020 has been informed by the tenets of crisis management and it is the right thing to do to prioritize our students’ needs over our own, especially in a global crisis situation we are still continuing to navigate.

2. Maintain a sense of instructor presence to keep students engaged: To enliven asynchronous discussion board (DB) forums/threads in the absence of a live chat function, it is vital to maintain a sense of instructor presence. An article on the necessity of instructor presence in online courses published by the Community College Research Center, Columbia University, sheds more light on this:

“[…] online students said that they placed a high value on interaction with their instructors, and a quantitative analysis indicates that higher levels of interpersonal interaction were correlated with better student performance in online courses.”

In each one of my two individual sections of the same course that I taught, I specified a certain time of the day by which they had to submit their posts. I’d post in the DBs to either stimulate conversation with further questions or to redirect conversation if I saw that students’ posts were straying from the topic at hand. I made it a point to submit my DB comments within the same time frame I provided to my students to make the discussions seem as if they were happening in real time even though we were contending with the drawback of using an LMS without a live chat function. 

Whatever we failed to cover in the discussions for that day, I’d cover in my short 7-10 minute length powerpoint presentations layered with audio narration along with a brief recap of the important talking points for that day.

3. Preserve a sense of community: In times of great uncertainty like the one we are living through now, it is even more important for students to feel cared for and connected to their peers and instructor. Thus, it might be useful to have some additional community-building exercises other than the graded, collaborative activities built into the format of an asynchronous course. In writing courses, as in all disciplines, student success is often premised on collaborative practices. The Conference on College Composition and Communication’s (CCCC) joint statement with the CWPA in response to the Covid-19 pandemic reaffirms this:  “Students’ motivation as learners often is improved by a sense of interpersonal connectedness to others within a course.”

Even though I thought it best not to unnecessarily add to the increased workload of our students, I did create a specific discussion forum in HuskyCT to encourage students to post pet pictures, pictures they take on their walks, and stories of what they are feeling/experiencing during the pandemic. Posting in this forum was completely voluntary. When I created this forum, I had expected almost no one to participate. But after the first two weeks of online classes, I noticed a flurry of activity in this DB forum.

For instance, one student wrote about losing a friend’s father to Covid-19 while another drafted a hopeful narrative of her aunt’s recovery. I made it a point to respond to each one of these posts with a short anecdote of my own or words of encouragement, wherever relevant. Of course, I know well that not all students will feel comfortable divulging details from their personal lives but carving a space for students to communicate with each other or even share how they are feeling with their peers and instructor constitutes a vital pedagogy of care. Instructors can recreate similar forums using a shared Google Drive folder with separate Google Docs for every week of class and building a separate theme or concept for each week’s posts. 

By no means are these suggestions meant to work for every single instructor of asynchronous courses. However, I discovered how much my spring students appreciated some of these course elements by going through my teaching evaluations from last semester. One student wrote, “I very much appreciate that Sami let us choose our mode of learning”. I can’t ask for a better acknowledgement than this.