Can Asynchronous Teaching Scale?
The inherent trade-offs and limitations of scaling education
A couple weeks ago in my weekly digest I noted that I had been thinking a lot about asynchronous teaching. “Asynchronous teaching” has enjoyed a pandemic-era appropriate surge as universities across the nation have been more or less shut down for almost a year. With campus closed, students and teachers dealing with personal and professional crises, and with few alternative options, classes went online with many students having to navigate learning without the social support structures that characterize modern higher education institutions.
Asynchronous teaching (or learning) is defined by the fact that there are no regular class meeting times as is traditional in higher education. No packed lecture halls and no engaging discussion sections. Instructors put up their course materials, students engage with them on their own schedule, turn in assignments, and take assessments. Almost all the regular features of the traditional class are there, except for the classroom itself.
The question I’ve been wrestling with is whether can you teach asynchronously at scale. I posed this question to my twitter followers on Jan 11. The consensus is that there is no consensus – those who teach (from my biased twitter sample) were basically split.
If you would have asked me a few weeks prior to this, I would have said absolutely not – you cannot teach asynchronously at scale. And largely, I still feel this way, though my thinking on the issue has become a bit more nuanced. What are the limits of one’s ability to teach at scale in an asynchronous course, and what decisions are there to be made?
An obvious and primary consideration is the number of students one professor can effectively manage in this type of course. In an asynchronous course, students are all working at their own pace through material. The more asynchronous your course becomes the more your teaching devolves into personalized tutoring. Think not of a semester schedule where all students are on the same topic in the same week where you can at least send out messages and ensure students are understanding the week’s content; but rather think about monitoring a course where new students join daily, all year round – an approach many fully online universities like Western Governors University take. As the course schedule comes unhinged, the number of students you can monitor and effectively tutor quickly decreases.
Another key consideration is how to manage all the grading. The number of students you can work with is limited by how much time and cognitive energy you can spend grading assignments. The easy solution is to simply assign things that can be auto graded by a computer, such as multiple-choice quizzes and exams. The problem here, however, is that assignments that can be auto graded are less likely to challenge students to use and develop key skills needed today: creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.
In his new book, Failure to Disrupt, Justin Reich describes these skills are the “four C’s” and, importantly, as four skills that computers still struggle to do as proficiently as humans. As the labor market becomes increasingly automated, the job market increasingly demands these (still) uniquely human skills. If we only assess students on what computers can already do exceptionally well, then we are failing to prepare students for their careers. The human-scale limits on the assessment of complex skills will remain one of the most important strict limits on how big online learning can effectively scale.
Optimizing management, teaching, and grading of complex work at scale in such an environment is a huge challenge (and remains a challenge even in many traditional university settings.) These are what I believe to be inherent limits that prevent teaching asynchronous courses from being able to scale as big as administrators want and students need.
So, if we can’t really teach asynchronously at scale, what if we just removed the role of the teacher all together?
Enter: peer-learning communities.
Peer-learning communities are an interesting alternative to the scaled tutoring and monitoring model of what most asynchronous online courses end up adopting. In peer-learning, there is no teacher. Students instead learn from one another. Although teaching is a quite rare in the animal kingdom (and explicit communication as we do via language is unique), peer learning, or social learning, is such a natural, long evolved way that humans learn we almost take for granted the fact that we do it exceptionally well.
In theory, if peers are all learning from one another and there is no teacher, then the scale can be massive. In peer-learning communities students typically follow their own interest in a project-based learning approach. As they get stuck or when they need help, they ask their peers. If you have enough people in the network, someone is bound to have an answer for you.
This model of learning happens naturally online, especially within programing communities on websites like Stack Overflow. Scratch is another online peer-learning community that has enjoyed prominence, and there are successful in-person schools such as 42 that boast “zero teachers” and produce successful programmers.
There are of course limitations of this model, which are why I suspect that traditional higher education institutions don’t adopt this it. First, it’s very easy for students to feel overwhelmed with so little structure, especially if it’s not a topic they are really interested in. Second, integrating a set curriculum in many ways goes against the essence of a pure peer-learning community. And finally, these communities are often programming based for a reason: your code either works or it doesn’t. You don’t need a multiple-choice exam or an essay for evaluations, and you don’t need a teacher to grade you – you just need working code. This teacher-free model is unlikely to work well with many science and humanities courses, or more broadly within the structures of the traditional university.
The bottom line is that both the asynchronous tutoring-type model and the peer-learning model can only be effective with substantial social support: from teachers or peers, or some combination. Humans have evolved to be exceptional social learners, which made possible by the way we communicate and the cumulative nature by which our social learning and very education structures are based.
The reality in asynchronous courses though, is that too often both the teacher and the peer community are limited, leaving students learning mostly on their own. Learning, however, is optimized socially — a balance of peers and teachers. If you want to get fully rid of one, you need to be all in on the other. Without either, however, you’re left essentially with Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs: credentialed(ish) online courses with low completion rates and inequitable outcomes. A topic for another day.
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