Improving Asynchronous Instruction in the Age of Remote Learning

Last week, the COVID Collaborative—a coalition of experts in healthcare, education, and economics—released a report titled “Ten Ways to Make Online Learning Work — A Guide to Improving Education In the Time of COVID-19.” The list features common-sense remote education priorities, such as ensuring that all students have reliable internet connections and devices at home, securing support for students with special learning needs, and ensuring that we are caring for the social, emotional, and physical well-being of all children. 

As a parent of twin 11-year olds—one of whom has severe learning disabilities—I know firsthand how critical these three points, and, in fact, all ten items in the report, are. To achieve success in education, we must act on all ten. But here, I would like to narrow my focus to the fourth item in the report: “Rethink Use of Instructional Time.”

First, some definitions. The report notes that there are two primary types of online learning: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous simply means “occurring at the same time” and more closely resembles the instruction that takes place in live, in-person classrooms. To execute synchronous remote learning, teachers use video conferencing technologies (e.g., Zoom) that allow for real-time lectures and interactions between the teachers and students. In asynchronous learning, students are not connected to their teachers in real-time; instead, they complete a prescribed task meant to convey and reinforce information. Of course, a significant amount of learning has always been asynchronous—think homework and reading books at home.

While the majority of us agree that the faster we can get all students back to full-time in-person school, the better, the reality is that many students will be learning online for a long time to come. During this period, we must do all we can to improve the quality of remote learning. Rethinking how we use instructional time—particularly the asynchronous elements—is a critical piece of the puzzle. 

A tremendous amount of the work that goes into creating and improving a great class involves planning the asynchronous component of that class. Fortunately, there already exist incredible tools that educators can use to vastly improve the asynchronous components of their classes. Dreambox, Khan Academy, and our own platform, Methodize, are just a few examples. All of these softwares feature video and audio lessons and single class-, school-, and district-level reporting tools. With platforms such as these, teachers can easily gauge how much work each student has done and how well each student has performed. Our current educational model—one whose operational basis has children progressing through curricula at a uniform pace based on their shared age—is absurdly outmoded; we have the resources to dramatically increase remote teaching and learning efficiency by replacing a one-size-fits-all approach with tools that emphasize the needs of individual students.

Of course, these tools also apply on the level of schools and entire districts, whose administrators can use the data to see which concepts students have mastered and which concepts teachers will need to reinforce. Department heads, principals, and curriculum coordinators can also determine which teachers and students are having the most success, establishing and sharing best practices with their colleagues throughout the district.

Because it's just that important, I will say it again: many effective tools like the ones mentioned above are already being used with great success in schools across the country. Districts need to leverage these tools so teachers can focus their time and expertise on the other items cited in the COVID Collaborative report that asynchronous tools don’t address as well or at all: caring for the social and emotional well-being of the child, fostering connections and relationships, and supporting students with special needs. 

No one who has spent time in education would ever suggest that asynchronous learning tools can work alone: the human touch and empathy of a great teacher can’t and shouldn’t be replaced. Rather, these tools should play a vital role in freeing up educators' time to perform the more valuable functions that only teachers can.

The COVID Collaborative’s guide to improving education in the time of COVID-19 is thought-provoking and represents a great starting point for educators who recognize the need to do better. One of the questions we must ask ourselves is this: how can we use instructional time most effectively? An important part of the answer lies in taking advantage of tools that have already been built.

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