Asynchronous online learning apps can foster a sense of community among your students or congregants.
With theological faculty all over the world shifting face-to-face classroom instruction to online models of education during the present global pandemic, there is a strong desire to try to replicate “normal” classroom experiences.
Theological instructors, relative to those in many other disciplines, have perhaps had more experience with online education, making the adaptation a little more manageable. However, there are still many for whom online education represents uncharted territory or a medium for which their skills and use of resources are “good enough.”
Likewise, the best practices that have been discovered in this type of teaching scenario can help other online learning experiences and digital discipleship events, too, like Bible studies, prayer meetings, or small groups. If you’re involved in any of those experiences, these tips are for you, too.
Digital Discipleship Models: How to foster community with asynchronous online learning
In the present piece, I want to address how we all can improve our online teaching, whether we are quite savvy with online education or not. In particular, I want to address perhaps the most ubiquitous feature of an online course—written forums.
In a class or group, written forums become the busy, “downtown” community area. It’s here that students or members exchange information and gather virtually.
At their best, written forums are meant to be an analogue for face-to-face classroom discussion. In an asynchronous model of online education, face-to-face classroom discussion cannot be replicated in person. But via platforms like Zoom, Google Hangouts, and WebEx students can discuss with their professors and with each other in real-time (so long as everyone has a good internet connection and uses the “mute” button properly to minimize audio feedback).
However, in an asynchronous model, which is more common in online education, a real-time discussion is not possible. Hence the need for students to discuss with each other in written format.
There are certain advantages to written forums. For example, this format allows students to collect their thoughts and provide a much less ‘off-the-cuff’ style of engagement with the course material.
Students who are more introverted and reserved might tend to be less active in a face-to-face classroom discussion, but in a written forum everyone can be just as engaged as the three or four outgoing students who tend to dominate face-to-face classroom discussions.
DISADVANTAGES OF WRITTEN FORUMS
The downside, to put it bluntly, is that students tend to hate written forums. They are often quite tedious and repetitive assignments. An additional problem is that a student is less likely to get to know their fellow classmates in this format. The anonymity of the written text can also lead to sharper disagreements than might occur otherwise (as we can see from the phenomenon of social media ‘trolling’). At the very least, it is difficult to discern someone’s tone in written form and leaves us wondering:
Did I upset them with my pushback?
Was that comment meant to be sarcastic?
The vast majority of students would prefer to have a discussion in class than to read and write multiple forum posts. Face-to-face discussion is obviously much more personal and personable.
What is needed, then, is a way to have our cake and eat it too—to combine the advantages of written forums along with the advantages of classroom discussion. There are apps and tech tools that can make that happen.
Any asynchronous audio-visual recording platform with the aforementioned capabilities would be worth pursuing in lieu of written forums. For example, one fee-based option is VoiceThread, which also allows for voice-only recording and written responses. However, my personal recommendation is Flipgrid.
How apps like Flipgrid foster community with asynchronous online learning
Flipgrid is a free, asynchronous, audio-visual recording platform that is both user-friendly and a lot of fun. Just as with a typical forum, you can record your “initial post” and then respond directly to the videos of fellow students and leave comments for them. Visually, this is all organized in a clear and intuitive manner.
Anecdotally, I first utilized Flipgrid as a way for students to introduce themselves at the beginning of the term, and then I had students post comments in written forums for the rest of the term.
Students commented on how much they appreciated being able to see and hear from their online classmates. Due to the positive feedback, I decided to pilot-test Flipgrid for a single forum to break things up in the middle of the term. I noticed that student involvement and enjoyment of Flipgrid far exceeded that of written forums, so I have switched all forums for my online courses to Flipgrid.Asynchronous online learning can foster community when it approximates classroom discussion. Try apps like Flipgrid or VoiceThread to facilitate this kind of video-sharing learning environment. Click To Tweet
The advantage of Flipgrid is that it much more closely approximates classroom discussion than a written forum ever could, given that you can actually see your fellow classmates, hear them talk, and discern their tone (whether they’re using sarcasm or irony, etc.). Personalities come through much more obviously than in the written forums, as well.
Presently, I still use Flipgrid for that initial introductory video during the first week of the course so that students have a low-pressure opportunity to learn how to use Flipgrid before an official forum discussion comes around. In my experience, after that initial week, students already have the hang of the platform and they are good to go for the rest of the forums.
Flipgrid is simply the asynchronous audio-visual recording platform that I know and use regularly in my online classes. If I found something more fitting to my objectives, I’d be open to switching platforms.
BUILDING MEANINGFUL ONLINE CONNECTIONS
For theological educators, fostering community is a crucial task to the holistic nature of the student experience. As we strive to build meaningful connections in an online environment, this task is particularly salient in an era of quarantine and social distancing. Asynchronous audio-visual recording platforms like Flipgrid in the place of written forums were a key component of how I had been approaching this task within an online modality prior to COVID-19, and I believe it will be an invaluable resource for the days ahead.
Check out other tech tools for teaching: Using Technology in Preaching to Reach Every Learning Style.
This article was adapted from an original piece featured in Didaktikos Magazine.