Asynchronous distance learning is the most humane way to teach this school year
I always hear the same complaint from parents: “I don’t want my children to participate in these long videoconferences. It makes them miserable. Those long, synchronous classroom calls that have become the norm in our desperate attempt to remotely teach American children during this Covid-19 pandemic are not fair causing anxiety in adults; they are bad for the development of the child. And we, as parents and educators, need to trust research and replace it with a better and more developmentally appropriate, research-based approach to distance learning: asynchronous project-based teaching.
Lectures have never been good for kids, even in in-person classroom settings. Just ask John Dewey, the founding father of the modern American public education system, who said, “Give students something to do, not something to learn; and to do so is of a nature to require thought; learning results naturally. Although America has deviated from Dewey’s learning-by-doing philosophy over the past two decades due to No Child Left Behind and other test-based accountability policies like Race To The Top, the research remained clear: children learn more, retain more and be more engaged when they are the engines of their own learning as opposed to mere passive observers of content.
A Gallup Poll 2015 showed just how disengaged American children were before the unprecedented limitations of distance learning, with only about a third of American students in grades 10, 11, and 12 reporting they feel engaged in school.
Given that, does anyone really think we are doing the right thing for the kids by using the same failed instructional approaches on video conference calls? Students aren’t just going to disengage; they will stop showing up and this is one of the worst possible outcomes for students who increasingly need diplomas for paid employment.
The good news, however, is that there is a more humane and engaging method called “asynchronous learning”. Rooted in the age-old framework of project-based learning, asynchronous learning changes the role of a teacher from being the sole transmitter of academic knowledge (think: lecturer) to a facilitator of learning, as the student plays a more active role in the driver’s seat (think: coach). Instead of the teacher showing a student how to solve a school problem step by step and expecting the student to copy them (which, by the way, is exhausting for a teacher), the teacher suggests challenges students in the real world and asks students to creatively solve problems together. An example project could be as simple as creating a color wheel using toys or as complex as developing a health plan that ends the transmission of Covid-19 in your community.
In practice, in an asynchronous distance learning classroom, students would not make long Zoom or Google Hangout calls for most of the day. Instead, they could hop on a short class-wide synchronous call to kick off the day and receive project instructions. Then students would spend the majority of their school day working on their project or task asynchronously, demonstrating their progress through videos of their work. Throughout the day, the teacher met one-to-one or in small groups and supported the students in developing their solutions. At the end of a session or day, students debriefed as a full group and shared their thoughts.
Although most educational technology (edtech) products, like Zoom and Google Classrooms, have been designed for the synchronous classroom experience, a multitude of new asynchronous edtech products are coming to the market to meet the need for asynchronous learning based. on projects that arises in the Covid -19 distance learning era. I am the founder of such an edtech tool called Zigazoo, which gives teachers the ability to assign projects and collect student responses in the form of short videos on a social media-like feed. Padlet helps teachers and students create digital collages together and Nearpod allows teachers to do interactive lessons. Google Tools continues to be useful for asynchronous writing, polling, and messaging.
While nothing will ever replace the benefits of in-person learning, my advice to teachers and education officials is to remember that you don’t need to punish yourself or your students for trying to manage problems. full classrooms on multi-hour conference calls this year. Be kind to yourself, assign your students interesting projects, learn new technologies, and help lead a much needed revolution away from conference-based pedagogy in the American education system. It will be healthy for everyone, especially for the mental health and long term development of our children.