Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Looking Back on My Second Year of Asynchronous Learning

Due to specific issues in asynchronous learning last year, I started the year by scaffolding mastery. The scaffolding seemed to help students learn the organization of the course before attempting the challenge of asynchronous learning. This year, students were closer together at the end of the year, than in the previous year. While most students were successful, the students who lacked motivation and follow-through continued to struggle.

The most frequent piece of advice my students left for next year's students have to do with keeping up in an asynchronous class. To help students stay afloat, I will mandate cumulative exams. I hope the exams will act as deadlines without completely taking away independence, which many of my students valued. The added benefits of cumulative exams is preparation for final exams and it provides more data for me to evaluate student progress on learning targets.

I tried differentiating the final exam with three versions based on percent of the content covered: 90%, 97% and 100%. After some protests from students, I let students choose which final to take rather than mandating the version. The overwhelming majority opted for the most difficult exam and averaged a "B+." Unfortunately, the students who opted for the lower exams performed poorly, with only one student earning a respectable "B." Aside from a few marginal passes and the lone "B", the handful of students who opted for the less rigorous finals failed. I wonder if announcing there will be different finals altered the study ritual for struggling students. In addition, all but one of the struggling students worked from behind and used a lot of effort in the final weeks to play catch up, rather than prepare for the final. Another confounder is these students also failed other final exams.

Earlier in the year, I missed the synchronous discussions of past years like Socratic Seminars. Perhaps along the way, I got use to doing without them but I no longer see them as a great loss. If I'm being completely honest with myself, these discussions weren't as transformative and powerful as I know they are in some other courses. At this point, offloading these discussions to online forums in the engagement segment at the beginning of learning cycles, seem to be an appropriate decision.

I do, however, need to refocus on offering some synchronous activities like formative assessments to build a sense of community and maximize opportunities for students to collaborate and help peers. In an asynchronous class, group member choice is limited to the students working on the same step. Including more of these synchronous assessments and learning opportunities, students can collaborate with new group members.

The asynchronous debate is still the biggest source of concern and pride. In the exit surveys, many students cited the independence as their favorite part of the course, while roughly the same number cited it as the most challenging aspect of the course. Right now, I plan to continue running an asynchronous course, not only for reasons cited in previous blog posts but because so many students never have to opportunity to learn how to work independently, set priorities and manage their time. These skills are needed by adults but are infrequently developed in primary and secondary schools. I'll continue to fight the good fight...