Transforming Asynchronous Learning Spaces

Computer with gadgets and tools attached to it as little transformer computer

I don’t know any of my students. For 20 years, in our experience learning and teaching online, we knew no one. Like a chapter out of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, we passed through life unnoticed with no meaningful connection to another living soul. We tasked ourselves with a constant comparison of our experiences. The perspectives of the student and instructor challenged norms and beliefs which resulted in a model to transform the asynchronous learning space.

Although there are many articles and recommendations to improve learning, often centered on a theory or concept, we have found a gap: Many of the recommendations fail to translate because there are no steps beyond the general. To enact a transformation of the asynchronous learning space, defined actions and obstacles provide instructors a way to immediately change one’s practice.

Ask any teacher or professor, from pre-kindergarten to graduate school, and one common factor defines success at all levels: Relationships. We have noticed in the asynchronous learning environment the importance of cultivating community. Research found a humanistic theory of schooling, where the physical health, academics, social, and the personal included in planning and implementation, could move asynchronous learning to help build strong, meaningful relationships (Coker, 2021). Like in our communities or a physical classroom, one cannot just place people side by side and expect them to be neighborly.

Learners work better in environments where they have a connection to each other. Such connections support learners in engaging in the content and identifying the WITI (the “witty”), or Why Is This Important? To achieve this, a multiplier is needed:

  • Transforming Asynchronous Learning = Social * Academic * Personal (SAP)

The SAP protocol requires students to do more than answer a discussion question, respond to a fellow student, or write a paper.

Conversation Corner-Questioning-Debating-Alternatives (CC-QDA): A structured response system

Initially, we found students did not know what or how the SAP protocol worked, so we developed concrete steps and actions to help better explain. Thinking routines became a guiding principle operationalized as a structured response system (SRS) as CC-QDA (conversation corner, questioning-debating-alternatives):

  1. Social. Introductions should not be the starting and ending point of developing social connections. Students in face-to-face work together and collaborate, but asynchronous learning spaces often require every activity in isolation. Requiring peer learning and collaboration on assignments and discussions means students should co-create and co-reflect together—both during and outside of class.
  2. Academic. QDA pushes the idea of a Socratic seminar by making every response question the original poster (a great system is the 5 Whys), debate (doubts, obstacles, and unforeseen problems), and provide alternatives (two to three alternatives which might be better) while encouraging reciprocal teaching. Playing devil’s advocate, role playing, and offering a pre-mortem can also stimulate meaningful discussions.
  3. Personal. Conversation corner (CC) is always optional, but students are encouraged to share what they want to get to know about each other and lighten the seriousness of the class. Students are asked to do CC in every discussion post and email, including adding pictures.

Initiating CC-QDA into the asynchronous learning space

First, CC bridges the gap between being nameless, faceless participants in class to real people with real problems. Students, if comfortable, often share about deaths, divorces, and illnesses, and also the triumphs, such as births, grandchildren, and vacations. Lastly, students celebrate the day-to-day events as well, from gardening to cooking dinner to putting up holiday decorations. There is constant support and a listening ear.

Secondly, the QDA portion of CC-QDA, or Questioning-Debating-Alternatives, helps to provoke genuine curiosity among peers. The CC-QDA helps to nurture collaboration while supporting each other. Students move out of their comfort zone and challenge peers to qualify their thinking and often amend their attitudes, beliefs, and values. A structured response system necessitates all the components of reciprocal teaching while activating prior knowledge.

Variety generates interest and presents several strategies for students to consider multiple perspectives at once while using CC-QDA. Role playing means students have to pretend to be another interested party and present from that perspective; discussions could have multiple roles assigned, such as students who have a last name beginning with A-M have one role and N-Z another. A pre-mortem provides a tabletop exercise with students pretending it is a year later, where nothing the poster said is correct. Students develop obstacles, downsides, and unintended consequences while presenting alternatives and better solutions. Finally, reciprocal learning (the instructor and students act as predictor, questioner, clarifier, and/or summarizer) allows students to unpack goals and objectives (Knotts & Seago, 2021) by examining a topic from many different angles.

Balancing CC-QDA to foster authentic discussions

There were hiccups. Students found what Giacumo and Savenye (2020) warned: Thinking routines and structured response systems can overwhelm students and make learning inauthentic. Students can be put off by instructors who are too forceful or involved. Each semester, students are not comfortable being disagreeable and combative after such pleasantries of the CC. Students often perceive themselves unable to deliver a cogent response, so they may even refrain from responding altogether. Striking a balance between thinking routines and authentic discussions requires vigilance and a feeling of safety.

The instructor can melt resistance and increase compliance by praising and modeling expectations before, in action, and after. Offering sentence starters can also help students see how to form a discussion which challenges and stretches thinking. QDA does not equate to being disagreeable or attacking a person but offers both optimism and synergy through collaboration. Teaching Honor the Answer (HtA) means to first seek to understand and honor what was told before pushing back. QDA acknowledges students for their strengths while developing new perspectives. Reciprocal teaching allows genuine student engagement and opportunities to synthesize and evaluate knowledge.

As an instructor or a student, if we saw another discussion that started with “Good job,” there would be little reason to continue reading. Students must be deliberative, introspective, and creative without being overwhelmed with too many directions and thinking routines. Many students look forward to sharing with friends while also completing coursework. The SAP protocol helps to cultivate a community of learners.

As a student and instructor, we have made more contacts and friends over the past year in asynchronous classes than the previous 20 years combined. We ask students to get to know each other first in every interaction to become colleagues, friends, and possibly establish lifelong connections while sharing the lives we lead and the ups and downs of life. Making students human is not a waste of time but a necessary step on the road to learning.

David Coker, EdD, is an adjunct professor of education in the Advanced Education Program at Fort Hays State University Online and runs an alternative school at a juvenile detention center. He serves on different editorial boards and publishes regularly on educational leadership, policy, and technology.

Tiffany Harris-Marion is a certified educator and executive director of IMON Excellence Academy, a blended learning academy for children and youth with unique abilities or special needs. She is also pursuing an education specialist degree in educational leadership and innovation at Fort Hays State University while advocating for children and youth of vulnerable populations in her community. 


Coker, D. C. (2021). Education, policy, and juvenile delinquents: A mixed methods investigation during COVID-19. Journal of Education and Learning, 10(1), 22-38.

Giacumo, L. A., & Savenye, W. (2020). Asynchronous discussion forum design to support cognition: Effects of rubrics and instructor prompts on learner’s critical thinking, achievement, and satisfaction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 68(1), 37-66.

Knotts, A., & Seago, N. (2021).  Impact of the design of an asynchronous video-based learning environment on teacher noticing and mathematical knowledge. Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice, 21(4), 190-206.

Sandanayake, T.C. (2019).  Promoting open educational resources-based blended learning. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 16(1).