When Susan Whitman first agreed to teach an online asynchronous class at the University of Vermont back in 2019, she was worried.
A College of Nursing and Health Sciences lecturer at UVM, Whitman’s first experience with asynchronous learning had come as a student back in the 1990s when she’d taken biochemistry “online.” For that course, the professor mailed VHS tapes of dry lectures to students, who would then be tested on the material. The experience was the opposite of interactive or effective. “I learned nothing from this,” says Whitman, a physician assistant and national board-certified health and wellness coach, who also mentors health coaching students at Duke Integrative Medicine and The University of Vermont.
She decided that her online asynchronous course, “Intro into Integrative Health” (HLTH101), would be different. She had taken a series of self-paced module courses that dealt with online teaching pedagogy offered by UVM, and then incorporated what she learned into her approach. The result is a class in which students engage with her and the material, in some ways more deeply than in her in-person classes.
Whitman, who continues to teach the course, was recently awarded The Prelock Online Teaching Award, a UVM award for superior online asynchronous teaching.
Below she shared some of the strategies she employs to connect with students, many of whom she has never talked with synchronously.
1. Asynchronous Online Teaching: Don’t Try and Fit an In-Person Class Into an Online Setting
Even though Whitman had taught “Intro into Integrative Health” previously in person, she realized that she couldn’t recreate what she’d done before online. “Teaching in person and teaching online are two very different things,” she says. “You can't just take an in-person class and say, ‘Oh, I'm just going to do this online,’ especially in an asynchronous format. It's really got to be different.”
While it may seem daunting for any instructor, particularly one who has been teaching for years, to start from scratch with a course, Whitman has learned many principles for online design that helped guide her through the process.
2. Asynchronous Online Teaching: Incorporate Backward Course Design
Whitman was able to build an effective asynchronous course because she focuses on backward course design, she says. This instructional strategy has instructors starting with the learning objectives they want to impart and building assessments and assignments from those learning goals. “For my intro to integrative health class, I want them to think deeply about our healthcare system. I want them to try out and put integrative health practices into their own lives,” Whitman says.
3. Asynchronous Online Teaching: Incorporate Different Types of Assignment and Responses That Require Students to Connect Material to Their Lives
To support her learning goals for the course, Whitman assigns a variety of material, including TED talks, meditation apps, scientific journal articles, podcasts, and YouTube videos. “Students really like variation, they don't want to just listen to a lecture,” she says. She has students respond to the material in various ways, including a weekly journal, and by posting to a discussion board hosted on Yellowdig, an LMS plugin for managing discussions and other student comments.
Whitman also encourages students to share their experiences with class material. If the week’s topic included chiropractic care, for instance, she’d ask students, “Have you ever experienced chiropractic care yourself? What was that like for you?” In the weekly journal, students are asked to talk about their self-care practices for the week.
Since the class is online, Whitman believes students are more open to sharing their experiences, especially in their journals, which are only read by Whitman and her teaching assistants. This helps them connect with her and the course material more deeply.
4. Asynchronous Online Teaching: Prioritize Time Around Connecting With Students
Building connections in an asynchronous course can be difficult, Whitman says. To actively do so, she uses the time she would normally dedicate to class prep and sessions for direct student interactions. “Each week I spend that two hours that I might have spent in class with them, reading their journals, responding to their journals, and really having them feel like they're heard in this class,” she says. “And I think that connection makes a big difference. I go on to their discussion board and say, ‘Oh, wow, that's such a beautiful photo of whatever they posted.’”
This can be time-consuming although building a strong foundation for the course in the planning stages helps alleviate some time constraints once the semester starts. Plus, the response from students makes it worthwhile, Whitman says.
5. Asynchronous Online Teaching: Let Students Get to Know You
To help students get a sense of the instructor’s personality and presence in the class, Whitman posts a five-minute video each week. “This is often me on my phone just sitting there saying, ‘Hey guys, so great to see you this week. These are some of the fun things I saw on the discussion board. This is what we're going to be talking about this week. This is my dog behind me, and we're going for a walk today. What is it that you're doing for self-care today?’” Whitman says. “I found authenticity really helps with that connection. I teach health coaching as well, and in health coaching, we're all about trying to help people find connections with people. I find that I can connect with my students by being me.”
6. Asynchronous Online Teaching: You Can Connect Without Synchronous Meetings
Initially, Whitman scheduled three online office hour sessions into the course. These sessions were an open invitation for students to come to talk about integrative health with her, but out of the class of 40 students, maybe three met with her, and these meetings were just quick ‘Hellos.’
While it’s important to be available to meet with students online, Whitman is able to foster connections without those meetings actually taking place since the nature of the course involves students opening up and writing personal things. However, even when teaching less inherently personal courses, it is almost always a good idea for instructors to encourage students to connect course material to their lives. Whitman finds doing this in her course helps the students learn, grow, and connect with her and one another, even online. “Something fascinating about this class for me was that I didn't ever meet them, yet I felt like I knew them,” Whitman says.