2 Some Key Concepts

Preparing Students to Engage in Asynchronous Learning

It can be helpful to prepare students for what to expect from your course and from the asynchronous activities, to address any misconceptions up front, and help students understand what it means to be successful in their learning. Below, we’ve shared a few examples from instructors’ syllabi for how they’ve framed things for their students.

From INTD 1227 Inclusive Design and Design Justice, a fully asynchronous online course taught by Sarah Lohnes Watulak and Amy Collier:

“This is a facilitated asynchronous class, meaning that we’ll be interacting a lot with each other online, with deadlines for assignments and activities spread throughout the week. There are no required, scheduled live meetings. We will have weekly optional live sessions, with days/times that vary week-to-week. Check the Week Overview page for each week for the time and date. We will not introduce new material in these sessions; they’ll be for Q&A, chatting through what you’re learning, etc.

You might be wondering, where will the professors be, in this asynchronous class? Will I ever see or interact with them, or will I be doing this on my own? You’ll see us in short videos introducing elements of the course, and course concepts; you’ll hear from us in the feedback we give on assignments; you’ll interact with us during optional Zoom sessions, required 1:1 conversations about your project work, in the margins of texts that we’re annotating in Hypothes.is, and in conversations on Teams. Same goes for your peers; you’ll see your classmates in optional Zoom sessions, in small group conversations about your project work, in the margins of texts that we’re annotating with Hypothes.is, and in Teams. The asynchronicity of this course is part of our inclusive design for this course, as we try to ensure that everyone in the class can participate fully.”

Framing Learner Engagement with the Community of Inquiry Model

The Community of Inquiry framework describes the elements – teaching presence, cognitive presence, and social presence – that are ideally present in the learning environment, activities, and assessments, in order to create an effective and engaging online learning experience.

Teaching presence is defined as “the design, facilitation, and direction of the social and cognitive processes for the purpose of realizing the relevant learning outcomes” (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001).

Cognitive presence is defined as “the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001, 2004).

Social presence is defined as “a level of connectedness among instructors and students that determines how motivated participants are to take an active role in their own and their peers’ meaning-making processes” (Whitside, Dikkers, & Lewis, 2014).

Diagram of the Community of Inquiry model showing three intersecting circles with Social Presence, Content Presence, and Teaching Presence

We use the CoI framework for online courses because it helps us to plan for, and intentionally design for, the kinds of interactions we think will help foster meaningful learning and connection in an online course. Each of the elements — social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence — can be implemented in course design in many different ways, and the recipes in this cookbook provide options for each element.

Creating Accessible Materials

Accessibility is a key component of designing inclusive and equitable learning environments. We recommend creating accessible content from the start, rather than in reaction to a specific need at a specific time. Including accessibility in your design process means not only that you save time and effort by not having to retrofit your materials, but your materials are usable by a wide variety of learners with a variety of needs and preferences.

For example, in the built environment, we might think about how a curb cut in the sidewalk was originally designed for wheelchairs, but is also very useful for people pushing strollers, skateboarders, and people on crutches. In the digital environment, video captions were designed to facilitate access to video content for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, they are also useful for students who are learning English, and to understand fast speech.

The good news is that many of our common tools now have easy-to-use accessibility options built right into them. Check out the blog post Creating Accessible Digital Materials for resources and instructions on how to create accessible PDF files, accessibility in Canvas, live subtitling in Google Slides, using  SensusAccess to automatically convert documents into a range of alternate and accessible formats, and more.

But There Are So Many Tools! How Do I Choose?

While there are approximately 10 bazillion* ed tech tools out there, in most cases, these recipes highlight tools that are available and supported at Middlebury. We offer these specific tools to help combat decision fatigue, and because these tools have, by and large, been vetted by Middlebury for privacy, security, and accessibility.

*a completely made up number


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The Asynchronous Cookbook by Office of Digital Learning & Inquiry, Middlebury College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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