7 Keys to Optimizing Asynchronous Learning — Observatory | Institute for the Future of Education – Observatory of Educational Innovation

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As promised in a previous article, I would like to share some critical aspects of asynchronous learning design. After several practice cycles (create-measure-learn), I found a very effective way to learn asynchronously by using learning guides.
Teachers can implement the seven keys proposed individually since they all positively impact learning. It’s not necessary to implement them all at once; it can be little by little, depending on the required priorities.
Image N°1: Three learning guide covers. The aesthetics of the covers are similar to the cork walls that detectives use in films to pin photos of suspects, locations, crime scene evidence and other elements of an investigation to show their relationships. Credits: These guides were created based on a Slidesgo template and include icons created by Flaticon, and infographics and images created by Freepik.
“We can offer to students a wide variety of content in different formats for an asynchronous modality such as books, book chapters, academic articles, blogs, videos, podcasts, webinars, references on social networks, movies, documentaries, experts to interview, talk shows, simulation, interactive articles, among others. Don’t stop looking!”
Here are seven practical tips you can implement in your classroom to optimize asynchronous learning.
1.- Create a favorable learning context. Learning is not done “in a vacuum.” Instead, it is a social activity that requires interactions among people, asking questions, understanding slogans, solving problems, making mistakes, reflecting, and exchanging feedback. These activities and others like them can be carried out more or less effectively depending on the shared and agreed values (usually implicit) among the people participating in the course, including the teacher.
How to create these types of contexts asynchronously? The key is to make explicit the values we want to share with our students. Let me give an example of this. In my student days, a classmate asked the teacher a question. The teacher was writing on the board, and after hearing the question, he turned around, and without stopping writing, he said, in a sarcastic tone, “What you ask, you should have learned last year,” and he continued to write, without answering the question.
What implicit values does this type of behavior communicate? I don’t know. The only thing I khow is that I did not ask any questions in that course. This sad anecdote is a clear counterexample to explicitly designing and communicating the values we want to share with our students to optimize learning. I designed four asynchronous activities in the first learning guide about creating favorable contexts to avoid these situations.
Image N°2: The first learning guide includes activities to create favorable contexts. The four panels discuss focusing attention on understanding the slogans, being vulnerable, creating a psychologically safe environment, and using an ad hoc tool that I designed to develop skills for “learning to learn.”
2.- Design challenging activities. There is nothing more boring than solving endless strings of exercises. Believe me. I am an engineer. I solved many and recall one set in particular that had 200 exercises. These repetitive, monotonous activities, with challenges to solve, usually provoke the student’s desire to abandon the task. The problem with this approach is that the challenges have not been designed for an optimal learning experience. As Flow Theory notes, the challenges should not be far above students’ skills, which would cause anxiety, nor below their skills level to create boredom.
So how do we design challenging activities that students want to do? One of the keys is to specifically ensure that the proposed challenge aligns with the perception students have about their abilities. A second key is to shift the instruction “Find the correct result” to focus the student on “Enjoy while solving the challenge.” It does not mean forgetting the result but shifting the emphasis that we usually put on it to the importance of the resolution process. Another key is to prioritize quality over quantity. Instead of 200 exercises (for their massive and repetitive resolution, values of the first industrial revolution), propose the reflective and deeper exploration of a manageable number of challenges. In my guides, I propose four challenges each. The final key is introducing students to new and open problems that generate uncertainty (instead of diminishing it), promoting creativity.
Image N°3: Challenging activities. Left: Learning guide N°3, “How We Think,” which includes a heuristic challenge (one must find the following number in a sequence) and the Ratt test (where one must find the hidden concept that links the three words in each row). Right: Learning Guide N°4 “Divergence and Convergence,” which includes a challenge that permits understanding concepts such as fluidity and flexibility.
3.- Promote meaningful learning. If you are a teacher, you undoubtedly hear this classic question from your students: “Professor, how will this help me?” The teachers give various answers to this question ranging from “It allows you to train your brain to be able to think better” (in some mysterious way and unverifiable most of the time) to “Knowledge does not occupy a place.” Lie! What I propose is to reverse the focus. Instead of figuring out what is important or meaningful to my students, I ask them directly. Or rather, I have them figure it out for themselves, and we work on that. Now there is no room for that classic question!
How is this magical activity implemented? The key is to use self-knowledge and self-observation so that the students in my course discover topics of their taste and interests that are meaningful and align with their ways of being and thinking. After their discoveries, they base their projects on the topics that emerge. Everything new they learn they associate with their pre-existing interests.
Image N°4: Activities involving self-knowledge, self-observation, and identifying tastes and interests. Left: Learning Guide N°2, “Motivation,” includes activities that allow you to identify what motivates you. Right: Learning Guide N°1, “Preparation and self-knowledge” includes activities that allow you to identify your own tastes and interests.
4.- Use analogies based on the known. An analogy is one of the most powerful tools teachers use to explain concepts. “What explains Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle?” An example explains the difficulties of some perfectionists having sex: When they find the moment, they cannot find the position, and when they find the position, they cannot find the moment. It is a humorous example of how to explain, in a quantum physics course, the impossibility of finding the moment and position of a particle using something as well known and attractive to university students as sex. 
Am I saying we have to use sex jokes to explain concepts? No, of course not. Jokes use analogies, but not all analogies are funny. The key is to understand that analogies establish a conceptual parallel of relational structures between what students know (base analog) and what we intend to explain (objective analog). Humor is one of the resources, but we can also use analogies illustrated through visually impactful images, infographics, comics, series and well-known movie characters, and others.
Image N°5a: Analogies through visually impactful images, infographics, comics, well-known series, movie characters, etc. From left to right: the golden rule of matter (analogy with places where you cannot enter), the relationship between brain and movement (analogy with the life cycle of ascidians), and pre-mortem project technique (analogy with the Mexican celebrations of the Day of the dead).
Image N°5b: Analogies through visually impactful images, infographics, comics, well-known series and movie characters, etc. (continued). Then, from left to right, examples of bisociation (analogy with the Dr. House series) with 14 Key Components of Creativity (infographic based on an academic article); an example of the creative process (a comic format of a TEDx talk by Pedro Saborido, producer, screenwriter and director of cinema, radio, theater, and Argentine television). 
5.- Invest time in curating content. I love TED talks, I enjoy and learn a lot from them, and I was lucky enough to be a TEDx talk speaker discussing “A bear, a burro, and an engineer.” Over the years, I watched many talks and accumulated a set of favorites (which I have seen more than once). As the topics that interest me most in the talks are the same topics I lecture in my classes, I identified ideal ones for explaining concepts. These talks work very well because they complement what has been learned by delving into concepts and sometimes examining more than one approach to a specific topic. This type of content is ideal, especially if we teach using the inverted class or Flipped Classroom method, because it functions as a suitable theoretical complement of the asynchronous modality. 
How to curate the contents we offer in the asynchronous mode? In addition to validating the sources, the key is to think like a student: “If I were a student studying the same subject I teach, what content would I like to see?” Without a doubt, one type of content would be TED talks (although, of course, they are not the only content that can be used).
Image N°6a: What a complete learning guide looks like. From left to right: the guide cover, bisociation infographic, bisociation examples.
 Image N°6b: What a complete learning guide looks like (continued). From left to right, more examples of bisociation, activities proposed for the asynchronous modality, and 6 proposed contents already curated for the asynchronous modality.
6.- Use different content formats. The asynchronous mode allows us various and very different content types and formats. If, as the content, we only offer notes (in text format) and in the best of cases, we complement these with more notes (in presentation format), I remind you that in the asynchronous mode, students usually have a bed or a comfortable armchair at hand. Please, let’s not invite them to sleep! Remember that in addition to books, book chapters, and academic articles, there are web articles, YouTube / Vimeo / Twitch videos, podcasts, webinars, references in social networks, films, documentaries, experts to interview, simulation programs, and interactive articles – let’s not stop looking for them! 
7.- Facilitate the self-regulation of learning. Another intriguing aspect of the asynchronous modality is that it allows us to develop in students the autonomy necessary for the self-regulation of their learning. While the flipped class lessens the hourly load of theory, it does not eliminate it. These hours are subtracted from the course but are added in the asynchronous modality, demanding valuable time from the students – valuable because its opportunity cost is very high. Capturing attention in the synchronous mode is tricky enough, even more so in the asynchronous world, mainly because we are not there to threaten them with disapproval or at least extort them with a low grade. (Please! Does anyone have a machine to detect sarcasm? I would like to know if I meant the last comment!)
How do we get students to consume all the content we provide in the asynchronous mode? In addition to contemplating all of the above, the key is to allow students to choose the time and frequency they consume such content, which is serious. They must perceive that the proposed contents are not a burden that eats massive time during the week. To help this perception, I point out something simple. There is a week between sessions. The week has seven days, but I don’t count the weekend, so we have five days. Subtracting an average of 8 hours of sleep per day, we realize that each day has approximately 16 useful hours; multiplied by 5 gives 80 valuable hours in a week, or 4,800 minutes between sessions. In the guides, I include the number of minutes of each content in the link to the contents. A TED talk has an average of 15 minutes; reading a web article can take between 5 and 10 minutes, etc. Each guide also indicates the total number of minutes it would take to consume all the contents, which on average is 45 minutes. It represents less than 1% of their time in the week – not counting Saturday and Sunday. Before doing the math, I asked the students if they would give me less than 1% of their week’s valuable time. Most answer yes.
Image N°7: Pages with links to different asynchronous contents. The lists show the previously curated content and how long it takes. At the top right of each page is indicated the total time required to consume all the guide content listed.
If you found this article interesting, leave me a comment, and share your keys to optimizing asynchronous learning. If you want a copy of the tutorials, ask me in the comments and leave a contact email so I can send them to you. Thank you for your time and attention!

Hernán Mavrommatis ([email protected]) heads the “Entrepreneurship and Innovation” chair. He is also a researcher at the National University of La Matanza. He is an adjunct professor of “Innovation in Value” at UADE. He is a pioneer in teaching courses on creativity in public bodies and researches organizational practices of creativity at the University of Buenos Aires. He has to his credit more than a dozen articles published on this subject and was a TEDxUNLaM speaker.

Edited by Rubí Román ([email protected]) – Observatory of Educational Innovation.
Translation by Daniel Wetta.
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