Teaching & Learning


Initiatives and resources supporting the objectives of UCL's Education Strategy 2016-21


Online asynchronous teaching: an interview with Dr Clare Bentall

Interview with Dr Clare Bentall, Programme Leader, MA in Development Education and Global Learning, on her approach to asynchronous teaching on a fully online programme.

Student on laptop at a bench with a coffee. Credit: Anete Lusina/Unsplash.com

28 September 2020

Following on from his recent interview with Dr Nicole Blum on designing asynchronous activities, Eliot Hoving (Learning Technologist, UCL Digital Education) sits down with Dr Clare Bentall, Programme Leader of the MA Development Education and Global Learning.  Here, he shares her experience of using asynchronous activities, their benefits and her approach to encouraging student participation in online forums.


Recap: What is asynchronous teaching? 

Asynchronous teaching refers to forms of education and learning in which it is not necessary for everyone to participate at the same time – students can engage when convenient for them. Asynchronous learning and teaching methods can promote equity, inclusivity, and flexibility, while also offering more time to develop thoughtful responses. 

Our Connected Learning approach recommends that a significant amount of module content should be offered through asynchronous online learning. For guidance, please go to the Connected Learning Essentials 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.

How do you use asynchronous activities? 

The MA in Development Education and Global Learning was designed to be online from the off, so students who choose it know that they’re choosing to work at a distance. So, we designed it to be asynchronous completely. Partly, because the tools available now weren’t around then but also because we have people in many different time zones and it wasn’t possible to find a time when working professionals around the world could be online at the same time.

We do some 1:1 synchronous tutorials using Zoom or Teams or whatever the person prefers – it’s much easier to arrange with an individual.

Because this has worked so well, I’ve designed my newer module to be completely asynchronous even though – because there were more full-timers based in the UK in that cohort – it might have been possible to do more synchronous activity. It works extremely well so I don’t feel there is a great need to work out which day is going to suit which time zone for a whole group of students.

What is your approach to asynchronous teaching?

The way we’ve designed these modules reflects the way we would teach anyway. I don’t ever do a long lecture; even with a face-to-face group of 200, I wouldn’t ever do a long lecture.

My take on teaching and learning is the learners need to be working because they’re the ones predominantly doing the learning. Obviously I will learn as well, but it’s predominantly their job to do the learning for their course, so they need to be working.

I might do very short presentation of 10-15 mins on something, but there would always be an activity and always something collaborative for them to do in the class.

Students learn an awful lot from talking to each other, particularly if there is variety in people’s backgrounds in the group. They need to be thinking and trying out the ideas, not just listening to them, thinking they get them but then not having the opportunity to apply it.

We have designed our modules to give our students tasks to do where they have to produce something collaboratively. It doesn’t have to be particularly complicated. They might have to agree a summary of an understanding of a theory perspective for example, or present something diagrammatically or fill in a grid. So, not anything too complicated for them, involving too much technology, but something that requires them to individually process the content that we’re giving them; apply it – in the case of our students, we ask them to apply it to their professional context; and then come up with a group consensus about something which they’re prepared to share with the wider group.

So, our online asynchronous work mirrors what would happen in the classroom where you’d put students into a group, they’d discuss something, they’d try it out, and they’d come up with their final presentation to the class. We use a very similar structure online.

The content is given to them through our readings. On our MA, we don’t even do any recordings, talking heads etc. – it’s all in the readings or links to videos, Ted Talks etc.

I have done some short voiceover on PowerPoint for a different module I teach, just for variety and so they can hear what I sound like, but basically the content comes through the readings, material on the Moodle site and what they bring from their professional backgrounds. We see our students has a huge resource. They know their professional context far better than we do, and we use that. We want them to help each other understand the different contexts.

So that’s essentially our model, it’s very simple – not overly exciting with different tools etc. but it works so we’re not desperate to try to fix it!

How do you facilitate asynchronous discussion?

We basically use the discussion forums a lot. We create forum spaces for each of the activities. Over a ten week term, we will probably have five main activities. We’ve worked out with part-time students that two weeks per activity is better for collaboration – one was too short.

Each activity has its own forum space to mirror the experience of sitting in class, having a group discussion, where students are not yet ready to share with us but are sharing with each other. So we’ve got four groups, a discussion space for each group and then the main discussion space for the final activity. They post in the final activity space when they’re ready to share.

You have to deal with each of these discussion spaces slightly differently. We worked out early on that if you go into these group discussion spaces as a tutor and you say something sort of authoritative about what they’re discussing, they stop discussing. And that’s a bit similar to when you’re monitoring a class during group work; when you sit down at a group and you join in the discussion, all the talking comes to you and they stop talking to each other.

So, in order to keep them working and talking to each other, we work very hard to let them know that we’re there; you know, we are reading what they’re putting, we’re aware what’s going on, we know if they’re stuck. So I would do something like: “Oh, that’s a very good start…It’s interesting that you’d mention this…I’m looking forward to seeing what you do with that when you present the final version”. So, it’s just a way of saying yes, you’re on the right track keep going.

They might say “I wonder what Clare thinks about this” because they can’t decide and then I’ll go in and say “well, I think that might be the easier way to go” or something similar, but I’ll try not to give my view on the content unless absolutely necessary because what you’re trying to do is encourage the discussion, encourage them to share, chase up members of the group who haven’t posted yet. So what I might do is say “well done to the two of you for getting going, I’ll see what’s happening with your colleague” and then I will email that colleague and say “Look, do go in and participate, they’re waiting for you before they can move on”.

Once they’ve posted in the final activity space, we comment then on the final product. Which also means then that you don’t have to comment individually on every single person’s work; you comment on the four groups or five groups or however many groups you’ve got. And what I tend to do is read it through, make notes of things that capture my attention or are a bit controversial, or where I think they’ve maybe misunderstood a bit of research or writing. I might look for something that maybe relates to my own experience that I can then talk about. I comment in no particular order on the things that have caught my eye.

I try to pick up on each group’s activities without necessarily saying “Group 1 said…” and try to do it in a way that is not closing the debate on whatever the topic is. Rather, I present more information for them to think about so that there is a chance that they will also then reply to those comments and we have a bit more of a dialogue, rather than ‘this is Clare’s final comment on the subject and then we move on’.

Obviously, our content is very debatable which lends itself to this approach. It’s not so fact-based as some other courses might be; a lot of theory, different perspectives, scope for applying it to this or that type of education and coming up with a different view, so it lends itself to that.

Really understanding when you need to encourage participation and when you need to focus on content is quite crucial to getting this to work.  

How do you encourage student participation?

We do monitor participation. When we developed the MA originally, we had a big debate in the IOE about how we translate what was then our 80% attendance requirement into online. In a class you can attend, sleep your way through the class, sign the register and count as having attended. Online, you can’t attend without doing something. So, in a sense our attendance requirement was a participation requirement, so we agreed to translate the attendance requirement into a participation requirement and we told students we would be monitoring this.

Anyone who looks like they are getting behind, very early on in particular, would get an email saying “Look, you do need to participate otherwise you might not have done enough of the module to be able to do the assessment at the end”.

But we find on the whole that we don’t have to use the stick too often. On the whole, if students aren’t participating it’s because they’re ill or because life has gotten very busy that week and they’ve failed to do is to let us or their colleagues in the group know. So, what we do a lot of is say “Look, you might have a really busy week; if you’re in a group, you need to tell your group members that you’re going to be a but behind, you need to discuss in your groups who is going to do what when; what are your internal deadlines you’re aiming for in order to make our deadlines; if you can only work at the weekend, let them know that’s the case, so everyone is able to manage their own time”.

I don’t think many people pay for a huge amount of money for a masters course and decide not to participate. I think that would be a very strange decision to make. I’m not saying we’ve never had someone like that but on the whole, they have invested quite a large chunk of money and they are doing it for their own professional benefit so we probably don’t have to chivvy as much as you might students in other contexts.

Our numbers are also much lower than some; I was reading some of the contributions to the Connected Learning Essentials staff development programme and some colleagues have hundreds of students where it’s quite hard for one student on a very large cohort to feel that the lecturer knows who they are. Wheras if we’ve got 30, they can feel that by the end of the module, we do know every single person we’ve got. We know where they’re based, what they’re doing, what their professional life is, or if they’ve got particular family or work contexts that makes life difficult, so getting a sense of a cohort such that people want to help contribute to each other’s learning as well as their own is possibly easier than it is in large groups or other contexts that people have but it’s important.


Image credit: Anete Lusina / Unsplash.com