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Designing asynchronous activities and moderating online discussions

Interview with Dr Nicole Blum, Senior Lecturer, MA in Development Education and Global Masters, on her approach to asynchronous activities and moderating online discussions.

Student on laptop with books open

10 September 2020

Eliot Hoving (Learning Technologist, UCL Digital Education) recently interviewed Dr Nicole Blum on her approach to designing and facilitating asynchronous activities on the MA Development Education and Global Masters programme.  Here, he shares share some of her tips on developing these activities and moderating online discussion, as well as a walk-through of a Moodle module from the programme. 


About the programme

The Development Education and Global Learning MA introduces students to a range of perspectives and approaches to development education, global learning and global citizenship. The programme offers a collaborative online learning environment through which students develop their own knowledge and skills, as well as interacting with, and learning alongside, peers from around the world.

The programme started in 2008 and runs completely online and asynchronously. The cohort is mostly practising teachers based in the UK or overseas, and professionals working for education not-for-profit organisations. Students are typically part time, often working professionals, with family and work commitments.

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Take a tour of a core module 

Principles and Practices of Development Education (CPAS0080) is a core module in the MA programme.  In the videos below, Nicole provides a walk-through of the CPAS0080 Moodle course (9 minutes 43 seconds).

She begins with essential course information provided to students at the start of the course and opportunities for students to meet each other in icebreaker forums. She talks us through collaborative asynchronous activities on Moodle using the Moodle Forum and Wiki activities, and finally how she prepares students for summative assessment. 

The video is broken up into the following sections:
1. Welcoming students and keeping a consistent course layout
2. Learner reflection using a personal learning blog (starts 1:13)
3. Icebreakers (starts 2:13)
4. Discussion activities for small groups and whole cohorts (starts 3:21)
5. Creative and collaborative activities using the Moodle Forum and Wiki (starts 5:11)
6. Aligning discussion with the assessment and the importance of peer feedback (starts 7:18)

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Designing engaging online learning

I asked Nicole how she and her colleagues went about designing course modules. In the video below she explains the thought process the MA team used at the time, which also guides their thinking when designing any new course.

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How do you design engaging online learning activities? 

  1. Start with the key learning outcomes for the course overall, or for the individual activity.
  2. Use readings or media to get students generating ideas.
  3. Create an activity which allows students to work collaboratively and share their ideas in interesting and creative ways.
  4. Link the current activity to the next activity, and then to the assessment. 

Encouraging students to participate

One of the commonly cited challenges of asynchronous learning is how to get students to engage. Nicole shares her tips on communicating the importance of group discussion activities to students and encouraging students to get involved.  

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How do you encourage student participation? 

  1. Communicate the importance of peer learning across all materials, including handbook and introductory posts.
  2. Present the programme as collaborative rather than teacher led.
  3. Emphasis the benefits of a global population of students who can share diverse experiences and knowledge.

Moderation and tutor presence

In an online course where activities are predominantly asynchronous, how does a staff member maintain presence? One way is through moderating discussion. In the video below, Nicole explains how she goes about interacting with students in both their group discussions and the whole cohort discussion forums.  

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How do you moderate online discussions?

  1. Welcome post at the beginning of the activity to signal presence.
  2. Avoid leading smaller student group discussions; occasionally facilitate and encourage.
  3. Set expectations; when and how frequently you will moderate.
  4. Send a reminder and encouragement to students who haven't participated yet; "your peers are waiting for your participation". 
  5. During whole cohort discussion, draw out links between smaller group discussion. 

    Learn more: Global Education for Teachers MOOC

    Dr Nicole Blum is currently working on a MOOC called "Global Education for Teachers" with her colleague Dr France Hunt, who is also a member of the Development Education Research Centre and part of the MA team. The MOOC will launch on FutureLearn in mid-October. You can view it on the FutureLearn course page and enquiries can be sent to: DERCMOOC@live.ucl.ac.uk.

    Nicole is also happy to be contacted to discuss her work and for general guidance on effective asynchronous teaching.