Asynchronous learning is NOT homework and here’s why

By Keith Michael Howard | Last Updated: September 18, 2021

I’ve noticed a lot of teachers having a difficult time getting their heads wrapped around the difference between asynchronous learning and homework.

I wanted to highlight this today because I do think it’s crucial.

If you don’t understand this then you’re headed for problems with online courses, or blended courses, or hybrid courses, or whatever you want to call them.

You can watch the video above, read the post below, or check out this summary set of Google Slides about asynchronous learning vs. homework.

I’m skipping the long definitions upfront because I’ve never found them helpful, and it’s more fun to jump right in and get your hands dirty first.

Reasons Why Asynchronous Learning is NOT Homework

  1. Dogs can’t eat asynchronous learning.
  2. Homework doesn’t need to be planned carefully. It’s easy. 
  3. Asynchronous activities are designed to enhance the following synchronous session.
  4. Data can be collected from asynchronous activities to streamline feedback in the next synchronous session.
  5. With homework, teachers give answers one by one.
  6. Asynchronous activities are designed to enhance the following synchronous session.
  7. Asynchronous materials are necessary for the student to participate effectively in the next synchronous session.

 

1. Dogs can’t eat asynchronous learning.

This is meant to be funny, but there’s also some truth to it.

The majority of asynchronous activities are digital, not physical. Most of them I’ve seen are, you know, technology-based.

Electronic devices, in general, are less edible than notebook paper although I’m sure there are some very ambitious dogs out there who would beg to disagree.

Aside from the physical and nutritional differences, there is the elephant in the room question:

Why do dogs eat so much homework anyways?

Because homework is meaningless.

It has so little value, in fact, that students would rather lie to their teacher than tell the truth.

It’s busywork.

Asynchronous activities, on the other hand, are designed to be more meaningful to students. Therefore, they are much less edible. Sorry, pups.

I will explain this more in differences #6 and #7 below.

2. Homework doesn’t need to be planned carefully. It’s easy.

Homework is probably the easiest thing about teaching depending on what you’re assigning.

It doesn’t take any time to tell the students which page in the book or which questions you want them to do. And then the following class, you write down the answers on the board.

The students check. If they have questions then they can ask questions.

In an ugly contrast, asynchronous activities are ten times harder to plan.

It takes serious skill and occasionally painful experience to get an idea of what works and doesn’t work.

And really, the asynchronous parts of a course should be planned before it even starts.

You’re not going to be able to do them well in the 10 minutes you can scrape together after lunch.

Note: Speaking from personal experience, I do not recommend teachers who are currently on full loads getting excited and trying to switch from homework to asynchronous learning all the sudden. It didn’t go well for me at all. You’re probably going to have a bad time.

So you should be cautious about biting off more than you can chew.

Don’t be a bonehead (like me) and drastically increase your “non-teaching” hours without first considering the ramifications of your already non-existent weekends.

3. Data can be collected from asynchronous activities to streamline feedback in the next synchronous session.

Let’s say you have a discussion board, and you have students post questions or a summary.

The teacher would read through the discussion board well before class starts. Maybe not commenting on everyone, but at least leaving a thumbs up.

There should be some indication that the teacher was there and monitoring the students’ work.

While scanning the replies, the teacher is looking for gaps in knowledge.

There could be one concept or theme that the majority of the class is struggling with or it could be a question that keeps popping up over and over.

Once the main gap is identified, the teacher can start planning their feedback and a follow-up activity that give students an opportunity to use higher-order thinking skills with their new knowledge.

These steps together allow students to use their previous understanding and your feedback to participate in a productive task where they are able to apply, analyze, evaluate and create.

4. The teacher knows what issues students had with their asynchronous learning before they enter the classroom.

If you think about homework:

Now, a student’s main opportunity for feedback from the teacher about their gaps in knowledge has to be expressed in front of the entire class.

I’m 39 years old and still think twice before asking a question publicly. It often feels like you may be exposing your ignorance or stupidity to public ridicule.

And nobody enjoys that.

On the flip side, with asynchronous learning, the teacher would get an idea of what the big question or misunderstanding in the class is before they even start planning the class.

Then they can prepare to address that big question in a structured manner.

For me, this is the big benefit of asynchronous learning. It creates a better environment for gaps in knowledge to be monitored and properly addressed.

For this to work, you have to give enough time between when an activity is due, and when you start class.

Again, you need a solid chunk of time to collect the data, plan your feedback and organize the follow-up activity.

5. With homework, teachers give answers one by one.

There are two problems with going through each answer one at a time.

The smaller issue is what happens if students have questions that are outside of the homework’s scope?

Their question may seem off-topic compared to what was required in the homework; they may not feel comfortable asking because of this.

The real problem with answering homework questions one by one is that the teacher has to give feedback for questions on the spot.

Most questions are fairly easy to explain.

However, I think every teacher has also experienced getting a question that’s extremely difficult, struggling to explain it, and seeing your students’ eyes glaze over as they realize that their teacher is fluent in Gibberish.

This can be embarrassing, but it also cranks up the teachers’ cognitive load.

And they put themselves in this position by assigning the homework!

How much better would their feedback be if they had some time to think it out first?

6. Asynchronous activities are designed to enhance the following synchronous session.

I’ve mentioned this already, but just to reiterate: there should be a follow-up in the next class that promotes higher-order thinking skills.

The students should move up in Bloom’s Taxonomy, and instead of just regurgitating what they learned – they’re actually incorporating it into doing something with their new knowledge.

Homework, again, is lower-order thinking skills. It’s memorization or understanding.

With the higher-order ones, you really need an activity to promote.

This is also where the planning part gets tricky as there are almost too many options.

Instead of picking one activity that you think the students will like, it may be easier to give them choices and let them customize them as they see fit.

The focus here should be on process, not performance.

It’s not about if they perfectly used your feedback in the follow-up activity. It is about them stretching their understanding and creating something that’s likely to be imperfect, but an improvement on what they knew before.

7. Asynchronous materials are necessary for the student to participate effectively in the next synchronous session.

I feel like I have nearly beaten this point to death, but some of you may be stubborn, so here it is one more time.

If there’s no feedback or follow-up in the next synchronous session, you aren’t doing asynchronous learning – you are doing homework.

I find the biggest difference is that I can start class in a more meaningful way with asynchronous learning.

The students know I monitored their task, they know they’re going to get feedback, and they know that they are going to need to do the task to participate well in the follow-up activity.

Now, they don’t know this from the first day of class, but after a few days, they get into the routine.

In my experience, asynchronous learning sparks conversation whereas homework causes drowsiness.

An example quiz to wrap up:

I’m to tell you a little story about a teacher.

And you’re going to tell me if you think it’s asynchronous learning or homework.

A high school science teacher assigns his students a one page reading from the textbook and tells them to write three to five sentence summary of the passage on a digital discussion board. Students are encouraged to reply to each other summaries and give feedback when possible.

The teacher creates the board post, writes the instructions and tags his students.

The following day, they are running late, and check the discussion board quickly: marking off the names of students who completed the assignment.

In class, their feedback mainly focuses on the importance of completing the assignments.

So is this asynchronous learning or homework?

Might be a tough one if you’re new to the idea.

I’ll give you a minute to think and then scroll down past the conclusion for your answer.

Conclusion

Phew, that was a long post. I’m not the expert on this and there’s a good chance that some of my claims here are flat out wrong.

It’s risky sticking your neck out there, just like it’s intimidating to ask questions in front of all your peers.

Do I wish that I could do 100% asynchronous learning in my courses? Yes.

Is that possible given my other job duties and time constraints? No.

But I looked around and couldn’t find anything out there explaining this topic point by point instead of with bulky definitions and bizarre Venn diagrams.

So hopefully this cleared some things up for you, and you’re on a decent footing for creating better outside-of-class learning opportunities for your students.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And our answer is homework.

There are a couple of things of mistakes here by the teacher that doesn’t make this task meaningful:

  1. The teacher does not actively monitor the homework or collect data from it.
  2. He encouraged the students to respond and ask each other questions, but then he didn’t do it.
  3. The feedback doesn’t address a knowledge gap.
  4. There’s no follow-up activity.

This is asynchronous learning done poorly.

Just from my personal experience, the student’s motivation and participation in outside-of-class activities will drop quickly if they don’t feel their work is monitored.

Even the difference between a thumbs up and no thumbs up can be huge.

If there’s zero “teacher presence” in their asynchronous activities, their interest may quickly wane.

And why shouldn’t it? If the teacher can’t even be bothered to look at it, what’s the point?

Looking at this example, I have a couple of ideas of how to improve for the teacher.

These are the changes that I would make if I was taking this approach.

First, I would comment on several students’ posts a while before the class. It could be commenting on the first three students that put up posts.

It could be just sort of random after that are things that I find interesting.

For collecting data, I would skim the replies and try to identify the main gap or gaps with understanding the material.

In my opinion, it should be the biggest issue or difficulty because it’s going to have the greatest effect.

The feedback would start immediately at the beginning of the next class.

You want to get them into the routine of doing their asynchronous activities: coming to class, sitting down, hearing the feedback, and then they start the follow-up activity.

That is the routine.

The first time I do it with a new class, students are a little bit confused and trying to figure out what’s going on here, but after a while, it becomes normal.

Then the higher-order skill practice also becomes routine, which is fantastic.

As far as the follow-up activity goes, it could be a roleplay, a quick write, or a debate.

There are oodles of follow-up activities you can use, and you’ll have to carefully consider your classroom context to decide what’s suitable for your learners.

 

 

 

Hi, I'm Keith, an education technology innovator and host of The New Curriculum Specialist. But I wasn’t either of those things 2 years ago. Then 2020 happened. To adapt, I learned a little bit of code and things have really taken off from there. Not that bad for a guy who failed Math 6 times.

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