Browse Tag by asynchronous

5-steps for online activities that work

a network of illustrated people indicating how people collaborate remotely
Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Have you hesitated to set collaborative tasks outside the live online sessions because you’re not confident people will participate? Have you done so but had mixed results?

An online learning programme is most effective when you blend live (synchronous) and self-paced (asynchronous) activities. This doesn’t mean that quality discussion and collaboration is confined to the live online sessions.

In this post I share my 5 step strategy for creating and facilitating asynchronous activities.

There are many benefits for including self-paced activities: getting everyone together at one time may be difficult; you may have global teams or shift workers who would benefit from collaborating with others normally outside of their time zone; it gives time to reflect and apply etc. These are only some of the many reasons we should be building these into our learning programmes.

Don’t be mistaken that all your learners will be motivated enough to make the effort when left to their own devices. Let’s be honest… would you? I know there were times when I haven’t. Procrastination is human nature. We all need some accountability, encouragement and guidance at some point. Your learners are no different.

I’ve done a few MOOCs (massive open online course) in my time … well, when I’ve said I’ve done a few MOOCS, I’ve started many but completed very few. Why? Although they were all very well structured, had great content and peer discussion forums, the lack of tutor involvement and feedback on discussions was seriously lacking. Of course, this was not surprising when the MOOCs are free. Real human support is a premium service – it’s expensive and time consuming to provide.

If you want your learners to invest their time and effort to participate together in self-paced learning activities, you must invest your time too.

My 5-step strategy

This can be a challenge for those new to facilitating self-paced online learning so here are 5 of my strategies I’ve used successfully when planning and running self-paced online learning experiences.

  1. Set expectations
  2. Give direction
  3. Observe activity
  4. Encourage and coach
  5. Wrap it up

1. Set expectations

Tell your learners, as early as possible, what their course activities will be each week, what activities will be collaborative and how much time they will be expected to put in. Repeat it several times in the early stages e.g., in the general course information, in the learner study guide, in any welcome message and again in the first live online session if this kick-starts the course.

This may seem too repetitive but, believe me, from my past experience, learners miss this important information and have not diarised anything other than dates and times of live sessions. Of course, they don’t do this deliberately – like us all, they are busy with their day-to-day work; very likely, their manager or administrator booked them onto the course. Once you have their contact details, get that information out to them as soon as possible and make it succinct and clear.

2. Give direction

Hook the learner in with an engaging, brief and meaningful title. Help motivate them so they are keen to participate. Think short catchy headlines. Being mandatory is not enough – motivation comes from an emotional connection.

Follow up with the goal and a brief explanation of the how the activity will work and what the learners should do.

Trigger discussion and collaboration e.g., pose a problem, give links for research, give an example, ask a question etc

Let them know what minimum and/or maximum output you expect e.g., how many slides/pages/words, peer feedback posts etc

Be specific in how your learners should respond, using what tools and how long they should spend. Set a realistic deadline.  Remember that the benefit of self-paced learning is that they can be flexible with their time. Allow people enough time to read peer work, research and respond as they work around their day-to-day work and home life.

Make it easy for your learners to carry out their tasks; their effort should go into learning. Make sure they have all the tools (and guidance on using them), templates and links. I recommend you also include links to where they are to submit their work even though it may already be obvious.

Explain what they can expect from you and how you will support them. They’ll appreciate knowing when to expect responses to activities, assignments and messages. They will be equally appreciate knowing you will be there for them when they they need help.

This brings me to the final 3 strategies – what you will do as the facilitator.

3. Observe activity

Just as you would in the physical classroom, you need to monitor progress whilst allowing your learners space to collaborate. Contrary what you might think, you can use your observation skills – you’ll just use them differently. Observing asynchronous tasks online is less obtrusive than in the classroom when your physical presence can interrupt discussions.

You can ‘lurk’ unseen while they talk in text chat, message board and forums etc. This would not come as a surprise because you’ve explained that you will be checking in regularly and will be around to support.

This doesn’t mean you need to be constantly online. Set aside moderation time regularly and make notes that you might need to summarise at the end of the activity.  You’ll need to manage your time well and it can be useful to block times in when you plan to do this. Write down any interesting points and ideas they share; you’ll need these later. If you are using an LMS/VLE, tracking software can only record marks and completion otherwise, keep your own records.

Keep an eye on individual activity or lack of it. People don’t always ask for help. Use your expert judgement for when you may need to move the the next step on an individual basis. If you don’t observe, you won’t be aware.

4. Encourage and coach

Whilst it’s important to keep your distance, learners will benefit from your encouragement every now and then. You could join in the conversation occasionally, which is especially useful if the ideas dry up or to bring the conversation back on track.

Give feedback on progress so far and give time checks and reminders if progress has slowed down. “I’m loving the ideas so far…” or “ we have 2 days before we bring this to a close so you might want to choose a volunteer to post your findings” are a couple of examples of what you might say.

The personal touch is important; a phone or Zoom call can help when giving feedback to individuals who need extra support.

5. Wrap it up

If you’ve ever participated in online discussions, whether on course forums, in live text, on Twitter chats or in WhatsApp, you’ll know how difficult it is for individuals to keep up with all the conversations. This is especially true when the chat is very active.  Learners don’t have the time to trawl through the conversations to pick out key learning points; they may miss them.

Review the discussion by summarising key points, pulling together common themes. Looking at discussions holistically can often highlight connections not seen by the individuals contributing. You might feel it appropriate to highlight specific contributions and list any resources people have shared etc.

To round off the activity, signpost them to their next step. It’s useful to provide a link to anything you would like them to complete next and to any resources.  If the next activity is a live online session, then a link to this would be useful if it’s already been scheduled, otherwise, link to the details.

That’s a lot of work!

Yep, indeed it is. But so is facilitating learning live online and in the classroom. Isn’t that our job as learning facilitators? The powers that be in senior management may think that your job is done once your learners have left the live online environment. You become invisible, you can’t easily record ‘training’ hours, scheduling live training around it is a nightmare for administrators but that’s a subject for another day.


I hope my strategies for running successful asynchronous online activities have given you some ideas.

If you’ve been running self-paced learning experiences already, why not share some of your tips and strategies. If you would like to chat through some ideas, drop me a line on email, Twitter or LinkedIn.