There are a number of reasons why asynchronous activity is part of postgraduate teaching at the Edinburgh Futures Institute. Asynchronous (as opposed to synchronous or ‘real time’) teaching and learning supports EFI’s ambitions for a wide range of people to be able to participate in EFI postgraduate programmes, and it gives cohorts a chance to share perspectives and develop ideas in a considered, collegial and creative way. There have been a number of positive outcomes from this work during the first year, but also challenges with ‘buy-in’ from both students and staff. Asynchronous contact and pedagogies are set to become even more important to EFI going forward, and there is work to be done to make sure these forms of teaching and learning are well understood by and meaningful for everyone involved in EFI.
On 12 May 2023, I led an academic development workshop for EFI colleagues, informed in part by results from a survey asking those who had taught on EFI courses with asynchronous components in the previous year to share their experiences and impressions. The event took place in fusion mode, with a range of EFI colleagues with teaching, student and administrative support and leadership roles taking part.
The workshop began with a proposition: EFI programme core and electives are 5-week courses, mostly studied asynchronously. Engaging learners in these courses involves pedagogical work AND shaping EFI culture.
To explore this proposition, participants were asked to work in groups to discuss:
- what creative, meaningful pre- and post-intensives looked like or could look like for courses they were involved with.
- what needs to happen next at course, programme and EFI-level to support asynchronous teaching and learning at EFI.
Creative, meaningful pre- and post-intensives
A range of different kinds of asynchronous activities and tasks form part of EFI courses, including group formation tasks, discussion and collaborative whiteboard activities, blogging, guided reading, quizzes, self-led field trips, sharing assessment materials for formative feedback, and more. EFI colleagues have learned a lot in this first year about the up-front investment of teacher time required to design and present activities that are meaningful in the context of the course and its aims, when different activities are best suited to take place, and how to plan their own engagement during asynchronous periods.
Sharing and collaborating asynchronously brings benefits that have been extensively researched (Wegerif, 1998; Goldman, 2004; Fadde and Vu, 2014), for instance:
- deeper thought processes/critical thinking
- facilitation of collaborative learning
- sharing ideas and experiences (in a less-pressured, possibly more inclusive way)
- access to materials for review, knowledge integration.
However, they also bring some risks and issues that have been experienced within the EFI context, for example lack of confidence (particularly in the early weeks of courses) to post publicly, in new topic areas, to strangers; time constraints and managing multiple demands. These issues are not unique to asynchronous working, but their impacts can be highly noticeable, can have knock on effects for others’ participation, and are by nature difficult to immediately address when they emerge.
Some on-campus students have also told us that they value synchronous, face-to-face engagement more than asynchrounous, online engagement. The tendency to view activities on campus as the more ‘real’ or important experience, and to see online activity as ‘second best’, is well known even among those who readily engage with and value online learning (Bayne et al., 2020). For on-campus students at EFI, understanding what online and asynchronous engagement can bring them – in addition to the ability to work with the full range of students in their classes – may take time to grasp and appreciate. It is worthwhile, though, because education increasingly needs learners to “think ‘otherwise’ about time, space, materials, structures, contexts and roles to break down traditional dichotomies and make new forms emerge” (Nørgård, 2021, p. 1714). EFI takes fusion learning seriously as a form of pedagogy that works with different spaces and synchronicities (Pates, Sikora and Rutherford, 2023), and values the varied places, times, experiences and insights that students bring with them in asynchronous engagements. Through the workshop discussions, it emerged strongly that some students need more encouragement to understand the value of committing time and effort to asynchronous forms of interaction, and teachers need to understand and encourage the risks that students are taking in these spaces.
EFI’s teaching culture: What next?
Small groups were asked to discuss what needs to happen next to support asynchronous teaching and learning at EFI – at the level of the course, the programme, and the Institute. The EFI-level comments were the most detailed of the three areas, indicating a lot of scope for things to be done at strategic level and collaboratively across programmes. Some key observations from this discussion including the importance of signposting and design, learning from our own and others’ experiences of successful asynchronous work, looking for synergies between and across courses and cohorts, reinforcing and supporting good and imaginative practices, and building our sense of where ‘home’ is for EFI.
This final point, about ‘home’, built on a quote I shared from bell hooks:
“Home is that place which enables and promotes varied and everchanging perspectives, a place where one discovers new ways of seeing reality, frontiers of difference.” (hooks, 1990)
What hooks is specifically talking about here is how the meaning of home changes with experiences of decolonisation and radicalisation, and she notes that “at times, home is nowhere” (p.205). Interdisciplinary responses to wicked problems and global challenges require time and space for developing shared purpose and doing complex and ongoing work. That needs us to work to make EFI a home that goes beyond the campus and the new EFI building, beyond separate cohorts and programmes, beyond the two-day intensive sessions that have created so many vibrant moments during our first year. Asynchronous methods can help us with a rethinking of home by encouraging crossovers and interactions between students, including interactions that may carry them beyond their time as students. It can involve designing moments for people to collectively take stock, and to create spaces for constructive and purposeful engagement that is slower than the fast pace that so much of university life seems to involve these days. And it can help us create a foundation of creative and imaginative activities and approaches that support students before, during and after the synchronous parts of our courses – to be thoughtful, to integrate their knowledge, and to develop their voice.
- Bayne, S. et al. (2020) The Manifesto for Teaching Online. MIT Press.
- Fadde, P.J. and Vu, P. (2014) ‘Blended Online Learning: Benefits, Challenges, and Misconceptions’, in Online learning: Common misconceptions, benefits and challenges.
- Goldman, S.R.H., Ricki (ed.) (2004) Learning Together Online: Research on Asynchronous Learning Networks. New York: Routledge. Available at: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781410611482.
- hooks, bell (1990) ‘Choosing the margin as a space of radical openness’, Yearning: Race, gender, and cultural politics, pp. 145–53.
- Nørgård, R.T. (2021) ‘Theorising hybrid lifelong learning’, British Journal of Educational Technology, 52(4), pp. 1709–1723. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.13121.
- Pates, D., Sikora, I. and Rutherford, J. (2023) ‘Episode 18, with the team from the Edinburgh Futures Institute, part of the University of Edinburgh’. (Teaching Here and There). Available at: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/teachinghereandthere/episodes/Episode-18–with-the-team-from-the-Edinburgh-Futures-Institute–part-of-the-University-of-Edinburgh-e25lmak (Accessed: 20 June 2023).
- Wegerif, R. (1998) ‘The social dimension of asynchronous learning networks’, Journal of asynchronous learning networks, 2(1), pp. 34–49.
Image credit: Lisha Riabinina, Unsplash CC0
Jen Ross is programme co-director of the MSc in Education Futures at the Edinburgh Futures Institute, and co-director of the Centre for Research in Digital Education. Her research interests include education and cultural heritage futures, online distance education, digital cultural heritage learning, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), digital cultures, and online reflective practices. Her recent book, Digital Futures for Learning (2023), explores speculative approaches to researching and teaching about the future: https://www.de.ed.ac.uk/people/dr-jen-ross .