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Teaching Asynchronous Writing and Communication Classes 

Prepared by Kevin Lucas and Andy Frazee 

In its efforts to serve students with different needs and preferences, the Writing and Communication Program (“WCP”) at Georgia Tech offers a small number of online courses. During your fellowship, you might have an opportunity to teach an online course. This document aims to help instructors without extensive online teaching experience make successful transitions to online learning environments.  

Though online education comes in different forms, WCP currently only offers asynchronous sections. Asynchronous instruction encompasses any course that does not have real-time meetings in-person or online. Within parameters set by the instructor, students interact with course content and complete assignments when they choose. 

Regardless of the instructional mode, the course goals and learning outcomes for your classes (ENGL 1101/1102 or LMC 3403) remain the same. For WCP courses, the primary goal of your sections should be the development of multimodal (“WOVEN”) communication skills. WCP’s programmatic tenets—rhetoric, process, and multimodality—will continue to orient your teaching in all classes.  

Nevertheless, instructors quickly learn that different modes of instruction have different affordances. The following sections will help you embrace the possibilities of online learning while avoiding common unproductive practices. 

Creating a Learning Community 

For writing and communication instructors, the importance of developing a learning community is critical to achieving course outcomes. Just as in the in-person classroom, community formation online requires the cultivation of both teacher-student and peer-to-peer relationships.  

Teacherly Presence 

A lack of teacherly “presence” contributes to online learning’s high attrition rates. While you will not be physically present to students, you must quickly create a digital persona that feels real and approachable. 

Research into overcoming anonymity is abundant. The following practices may be intuitive to you as an instructor of digital rhetoric: 

  • Use profile images in Outlook and Canvas. 
  • Be aware of what your personal images and writing style communicate; first impressions matter even more when you have fewer opportunities to reverse them. 
  • Begin the semester with an informal introductory video that models how to create personal connections through oral and non-verbal communication. 
  • Signal availability through clear course policies, regular and by-appointment office hours, and regular communication. 
  • Check in with students individually via emails or Canvas messages. Use templates to streamline your work.  
  • Periodically give video and audio feedback using Canvas, demonstrating personalized knowledge of each student.  
  • Write all communications to students in a supportive voice; feedback can seem harsh in the absence of a face-to-face relationship. 
  • Manage your time while still showing attention to students. Construct templates to respond to student work. 

Relationships among Students 

Students need to recognize each other as real individuals. Explain how you are trying to develop an approachable online persona through WOVEN rhetoric. After modeling effective digital communication, you should help students to develop their own online presence.  

In well-designed asynchronous courses, students interact with both small groups and the whole class— though that interaction will look different from what it looks like in in-person classes. Asking students to do the following can help foster a learning community:  

  • Produce introductory videos and/or introductory posts and use profile images.  
  • Reflect on what messages about themselves they hope to send through their online personas. 
  • Complete collaborative assignments.  
  • Use audio and video messages to communicate with groupmates periodically. 
  • Create independent channels of communication: students appreciate communicating without the instructor observing. 
  • Reach out to their groups with questions. 

In addition, these strategies can further support a learning community: 

  • Survey students to identify learners with similar schedules. Form learning groups that span the whole semester. 
  • Engage in periodic activities that engage the entire class. 
  • Encourage students to help each other answer questions through a class Q&A discussion board. 

Inclusive Atmosphere  

Creating an inclusive environment can be difficult without face-to-face relationship building. The Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning has produced an excellent online guide for inclusive online instruction. Some recommendations for instructors include: 

  • Survey students about what they need to be successful in an online course. 
  • Incorporate anonymous student feedback about the course regularly throughout the semester. 
  • Make sure all assignments and communications meet accessibility standards. This is especially important for video and other forms of visual and audio communication. 
  • Select material that advances values of diversity and inclusion. 
  • Create shared standards of respect and etiquette for collaborative assignments. 
  • Understand and accommodate students facing technological obstacles. 

Instructional Consistency 

To create engagement in the classroom, instructors often make use of surprise and other strategies to “change things up.” However, online learners have different needs. They will likely see your class as a series of tasks to complete within their busy schedules, responding poorly to unexpected divergences from protocols established early in the semester.  

Creating a course with a consistent routine and rhythm helps online learners manage their schedules and make steady progress. It is important to create a “straight-forward learning path for students” through consistency, structure, and a degree of flexibility. Experts emphasize cultivating a sense of “competence” in students; they should always be able to say, “I understand what I need to do, and I have the skills and resources to succeed.” 

Experienced online instructors organize the semester into equal length (often weekly) modules. From there, they structure modules consistently to avoid confusion. In ENGL 1101 and 1102, each module might begin with a multimodal discussion about the module’s theme or topic. Next, instructors might include an activity that models the week’s target skill and an assignment that builds toward a completed artifact. Experienced Brittain Fellows suggest being selective when designing modules: including too much content or too many steps to completion may lead students to disengage.  

Asynchronous courses should demonstrate following marks of consistent instructional design: 

  • Onboarding: Spend time explaining course policies and structure early in the semester. Create a course policies module for students to consult throughout the semester.  
  • Consistent Deadlines: Make work due on the same days and times each week throughout the semester. 
  • Standardized Modules: Construct modules that contain similar steps each week. Including a weekly checklist of tasks to complete has proven successful. 
  • Repetition: Do not hesitate to repeat yourself or replicate content in multiple places. 
  • Organized Canvas Design: Display course content in a way that remains consistent from the outset of the course. 
  • Uniform Document Design and Formatting: Make announcements, assignments, and other pages easy for students to decipher quickly.  
  • Structured Flexibility: Give students the freedom to skip a defined number of activities and discussions without penalty. 
  • FAQ Pages: Develop a simple and accessible frequently asked question page.  
  • Limited Platforms: Communicate with students using as few platforms as possible. 

Backwards Design and Adapting Existing Courses 

Backwards design is a method of curriculum development conducive to instructional consistency. The technique of backwards design encourages instructors to identify course objectives and learning outcomes first. In our case, WCP, Georgia Tech, and the University System of Georgia lay out the major goals for our classes, but instructors are also free to develop a small number of additional outcomes.  

Next the instructor creates a sequence of activities and assignments designed to achieve the identified learning outcomes. To make sure students develop a process-based approach to writing, instructors often develop scaffolding for each major project, emphasizing development of the skills targeted by learning outcomes.  

Backwards design is considered a best practice for creating courses in any modality; however, the atmosphere of in-person learning affords greater flexibility and improvisation than asynchronous online courses do. For example, in the classroom, instructors may decide to not cut short a lively but unexpected discussion, and they are often quick to change classroom activities in real-time based on what is working.  

But asynchronous learning benefits from an especially strong commitment to backwards design and its disciplined approach. Instructors should review available online resources; for example, the University of Illinois Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning has produced a useful online course about deploying backwards design in online environments. 

Adapting Existing Courses 

Some instructors will develop an entirely new class suited to asynchronous learning. But many Brittain Fellows have had success adapting existing courses, recommending it as the best way to acclimate to online teaching.  

Georgetown University has produced a thorough guide to adapting writing courses for online delivery. When revising an existing course, you should consider the following insights: 

  • Include learning outcomes and target skills on all assignments and activities. 
  • Use short videos and announcements to connect assignments and create a narrative of progress toward goals. 
  • Develop metacognitive and reflective activities. 
  • Critically reevaluate your class, removing activities that do not respond to the needs of online students. 
  • Develop rubrics that give students a clear path to success. 

Brittain Fellows have noted that students are more likely to fall behind in asynchronous classes. While scaffolding is an important aspect of assignment design in all WCP classes, online instructors have had success adding more checkpoints along the way to a completed artifact. Since students are more likely to misinterpret assignments in online environments, these checkpoints can keep students on the right path.  

Brittain Fellows with experience teaching asynchronously also report that students are least likely to engage with video content, particularly if the videos are more than a few minutes long. There is a temptation to adapt in-class lectures into videos, but this strategy has not yielded the best results with our student population. When redesigning an existing course, develop activities and concise written explainers that reinforce central concepts and skills. Though instructors in WCP rarely use quizzes during in-person classes, some online instructors have had success implementing quizzes after important video content to ensure students watch attentively. For example, after introducing an assignment through video, adding a brief quiz can help students retain crucial information about the assignment and its purposes.  

Collaboration is a programmatic tenet of WCP, and cultivating collaborative skills is essential to fulfilling our learning outcomes. Yet Brittain Fellows state that adapting groupwork to an asynchronous environment poses significant challenges. Instructors should keep in mind the following guidance: 

  • Of the WOVEN modes, written, visual, and electronic communication are often best suited to asynchronous collaboration.  
  • Platforms like Google Docs and Canva make writing and designing alongside others easy, and these forms of collaboration often best mimic the projects common in remote work environments.  
  • Certain common collaborative assignments in WCP classes may need to be eliminated. For example, collaborative presentations have proven not to adapt well into video formats. 
  • Most WCP instructors have students complete collaborative work plans and contracts at the outset of projects. This practice is essential in the eyes of many online instructors. 
  • Students cannot effectively select their own groups in asynchronous environments. Solicit information about individual abilities and form groups in which students have complimentary skillsets and preferences.  
  • Instructors can encourage groupmates to have meetings in real-time through videochat, but it is unwise to expect or demand it. Students often choose asynchronous formats because they have schedules that are unpredictable. 
  • Since the bulk of coordination between groupmates will occur through writing, instructors should set expectations for courteous and professional communication. In the absence of face-to-face relationships, students may not treat each other with patience and respect unless specifically prompted.  
  • Students bring a task-oriented mentality to asynchronous courses, and they respond best to projects that are designed to divide into complimentary responsibilities.  
  • Nevertheless, assess collaborative submissions based on their continuity: make it the responsibility of all group members to edit each other’s work and to produce a unified final work product. 
  • WOVENText’s chapter “Collaborating Cooperatively: Tips for Terrific Team Projects” can help students understand the affordances of groupwork and avoid common problems.  

Content Creation 

All Brittain Fellows are content creators. In WCP, instructors model how to develop digital and multimodal artifacts for students.  

However, asynchronous instructors have two distinct challenges. First, they often need to develop more content in time-consuming media. For example, editing a video makes certain demands that delivering an in-class PowerPoint does not.  

Secondly, course content is not accompanied by real-time communication in the classroom which creates more potential miscommunication. Even assignment sheets, rubrics, and other written documents require greater detail and carefulness in an asynchronous environment.  

To avoid potential frustrations, Brittain Fellows should consider the following prior to teaching online: 

  • Avoid Perfectionism: You will consistently need to produce content in different media, and you will not have a production team to help you. Resist the temptation to overextend yourself. Do not use time-intensive media like video more than necessary.  
  • Use Video Content Strategically: While several types of videos are useful in online instruction, that does not mean that all your content can or should be in video form. Consider using a mix of video and textual content. 
  • Set Clear Standards for Students: Your students will also be content creators facing the same limitations. Set parameters for each assignment. Some video or audio might be edited and polished, but also create lower-stakes assignments that do not require the same time commitment.  
  • Know Your Tools: If you are making video content for example, develop comfort with the tools you choose and stick with them. Limit the number of methods of delivery you employ, as it will not be possible to learn new tools during crunch periods of the semester. 
  • Know Your Audience: Students will only consistently interact with course content that is user-friendly and pitched to their preferences and abilities. To gauge student engagement, use the analytics feature on Canvas and solicit feedback from students. 
  • Prioritize Accessibility: Since students also have unique needs, you will also need to learn how to use tools for captioning and producing alt text for audio and visual content. 

Making the Most of Canvas and Other Tools 

Canvas is Georgia Tech’s learning management system (“LMS”). While you have already used Canvas to supplement in-person instruction, it will be the foundation of your online asynchronous sections. How you use Canvas will determine students’ success and satisfaction.  

Canvas itself provides resources for instructors. You can visit Canvas’s active discussion forums, to ask a question or to search previous conversations. Or you can consult Canvas’s Guides and New Instructor Guide. 

Since Georgia Tech supports Canvas, you can also seek help within the Institute, particularly from the Digital Learning Team (“DLT”). DLT offers help with Canvas and other supported platforms in a variety of ways: 

  • Virtual Office Hours: DLT offers virtual office hours every month to answer questions from instructors. You can find upcoming sessions on your Canvas landing page.  
  • Digital Learning Request Form: DLT answers technical questions about Canvas and other supported platforms promptly. 
  • 24/7 Live Chat: In partnership with Canvas, the Institute offers 24/7 assistance via online chat or telephone.  
  • Academic Technology Resources: DLT’s website for all things related to digital teaching. 
  • Training Sessions: DLT offers periodic training sessions for Canvas and other tools. Check their schedule or follow the link for archived sessions.  

Learning Canvas’s full functionality is an extended process beyond the scope of this guide. However, certain notable features for asynchronous writing instruction include:  

  • Analytics: You can see what types of content students interact with most and identify students who might be falling behind. 
  • Sequential Order: Within modules, you can employ the “sequential order” function. This tool ensures students will view content and complete assignments in the optimal order. For example, you can require students to watch a video before completing an assignment or quiz about the material. 
  • Collaborations: This function allows you to quickly organize collaborations that require less coordination than using outside platforms. You can assign groups to use Word and PowerPoint together. 
  • Kaltura: If you are making regular video presentations, this embedded third-party tool can streamline and simplify the process. Use the automated captioning function but do not forget to check captions for errors.  

Numerous online platforms can support learning. However, to be user-friendly, you will build a “digital learning ecosystem” with Canvas as the hub. Some instructors have success when they: 

  • Limit the number of channels they use to communicate with students. For example, use Canvas messages and announcements to keep everything centralized.  
  • Use third-party tools supported by Canvas and Georgia Tech. You may need help at times, and there are also legal and privacy concerns regarding certain platforms.  
  • Recommend that students do their collaborative work on platforms familiar to them if Canvas does not offer a suitable alternative. 
  • Encourage students to use discover new tools for producing multimodal work without promising that you can answer their questions.  

Students in WCP use various online tools to craft multimodal assignments. You should continue to introduce students to available options just as you do in-person. However, inform students it is their responsibility to learn the specifics of each platform through self-study and experimentation. Due to the variety of online tools employed in WCP classes, the instructor cannot provide detailed instruction for every platform or problem. Rather than focusing on specific tools, the instructor can introduce strategies for troubleshooting. Consider screencasting a demonstration of how you found solutions to a vexing technical problem.  

Changing Your Mindset 

Many instructors develop their identities as educators through face-to-face instruction; however, in-person practices do not always translate to asynchronous settings. To successfully transition, you will need to change your approach to teaching.  

Crucially, instructors must overcome the common belief that asynchronous instruction is a second-rate imitation of in-person learning. Experienced online teachers do not dwell on what they cannot do asynchronously; instead, they focus on the favorable aspects and affordances of online learning. Some positive dimensions include:  

  • You will have a task-oriented learning environment, conducive to our project-based communication curriculum and learning outcomes. 
  • Your students will practice important skills like remote collaboration and project management. 
  • You can reach students who might otherwise not be adequately served by in-person learning. 
  • You and your students will need to write and communicate more clearly to overcome the separation in time and location. 

Yet a positive mindset should not be unrealistic about potential challenges. For Brittain Fellows, asynchronous instruction has presented obstacles:  

  • You will need to be creative to achieve learning outcomes associated with oral and non-verbal communication. 
  • You and your students will not have opportunities for face-to-face relationship building, making the collaborative work central to WCP’s mission more challenging. 
  • You might have to leave behind some cherished assignments and activities. For example, collaborative podcasting might not be suited to an asynchronous class. 
  • Students in asynchronous sections are more negative in course evaluations, so you may need to adjust your expectations.  
  • Your students are more likely to experience burnout and stress. 
  • The emotional labor of teaching can become more taxing in online environments. 

Instructors require years of practice to refine their teaching in any modality. This guide offers many suggestions, but you will not be able to incorporate every best practice in your first semester. Furthermore, those “best practices” will continue to evolve as research into asynchronous learning matures.  

Do your best without demanding perfection from yourself or your students. Set attainable goals each semester, being realistic about how much you can learn and implement in a short period of time.  

Online Teaching Guides 

The following resources offer additional guidance for preparing your asynchronous course.