Asynchronous Improvisation

When I was a grad student teaching creative writing I used to walk a mile-and-a-half to class. My walk was valuable time for me to think about my lesson plan, and to tune in—in that psychic way that teachers have—to how the day felt, and whether changes should be made to the plan. Even before I saw my students, I often revised my approach to the day’s subject matter. On a nice day, we might go outside. On one particular day, we played hopscotch and recounted stories from our childhoods. On another, I dared them to do something unexpected (even to them) for the hour.

When I first began to teach online, I bemoaned the loss of the spontaneity of the classroom. Online, I thought, I would never again enjoy the quick report of shots fired in dialogue across desks, in circles of chairs. The LMS, as I knew it, provided no opportunities to decide in the moment to take my class outside, to play hopscotch, to be daring. Courageous teaching took place in and outside of the on-ground classroom; and I worried that online learning would not look like learning at all.

To an extent, it’s true that teaching online—especially in a learning management environment—requires planning so far in advance that a teacher doesn’t often know who her students will be. We are forced to design our class for the ghosts of students, or worse, for stereotypes of students. Designing a class this way is almost entirely about design, and very little about execution, primarily because once the course is designed and students get access, very little can change. The syllabus, which most people see as a contract between student and teacher, prevents improvisation as much as the constraints of design and planning do.

Yet, as I’ve said before, “the core of digital pedagogy [is] an acknowledgement that the space of learning is more fluid and adaptable than we might have planned on.” So, instead of looking at the asynchronous nature of the online classroom as a hindrance, we should consider what it offers us as teachers, and what it offers our students as learners. Pretty much perpetual are the conversations about how online learning is different from on-ground learning, and too many people bemoan those differences ipso facto. But, as Maha Bali and Bard Meier point out in “An Affinity for Asynchronous Learning,” we need to back up, reconsider the real possibilities with asynchrony, and then proceed creatively and productively.

Doing digital pedagogy always requires adaptability and not a little bit of swagger. In this case, we need to look at ways that asynchronous learning environments limit us and decide if we can eliminate those limitations. For example, the syllabus. Every class must have one, right? Not necessarily. But, if we have an administration breathing down our necks, or QA folks nosing about in our online courses, then we probably can’t remove the syllabus entirely. Instead, we need to find ways to build flexibility into the syllabus that will allow for a more spontaneous, more creative, more daring kind of interaction to take place between our students and our plan.

For example, find a way to allow your students to not just create discussions on their own, but to make those discussions not at all peripheral to the main thrust of the learning. Have students decide not what they want to discuss, but what discussions are necessary to the class. And here, I’m not talking about students voting on discussion topics that you create, but creating their own ideas for what can and should be discussed about the subject matter.

Another option: allow students to bring their own materials to bear on the learning. Ask them to write—asynchronously—a collaborative manifesto for the class that supplements (and sometimes overrides) the syllabus. If you’re teaching Moby Dick let them decide how best to embrace the book. Will they write reports, or make papier maché whales? Will they give video presentations, or collaboratively write a comic for the book online? Whatever they come up with, be prepared to invent right alongside them.

There are two keys to this kind of asynchronous improvisation.

1. Creativity. As the instructor, you have to make space in your course planning, in the drawing up of the syllabus, for students to be creative with their response to the course material. You will need to design that space—literally—into the course. If, when students arrive on the scene, the course is laid out so tight you could bounce a penny off it, they won’t believe your exhortations to be creative. (And yes, you’ll need to exhort. This kind of pedagogy is three-ring pedagogy.)

2. A student-centered focus. Behind everything I’ve described is a generous helping of critical pedagogy, and a sincere desire to empower students. It was not for sheer fun that I took my students out to play hopscotch. It was a deliberate move to allow them to see the power of their own stories and memories. So when we open up to improvisation by putting learning in our students hands (and snatching it deftly away from the LMS), we not only manage to make our classes more lively, but we also persuade learners of their own capacity to learn, and to engage with the world in learning ways.

Creating improvisation does not need to require synchronous tools. In fact, the key to capturing the delightful vitality of a classroom in an LMS environment has nothing to do with tools at all, but rather in whose hands learning rests. What I’ve found is that when we turn over a certain degree of lesson planning to students, spontaneity comes rushing back in.