Engaging Students Through Asynchronous Teaching

Lecturer: David Kennedy (david.kennedy@dcu.ie)
Discipline: School of Human Development
Subjects: ED2018 Religious Education and the Child
Level: Undergraduate
Class Size: 400+
Mode of Delivery: Online (Covid-19 remote teaching)

What was the learning and teaching challenge you faced?

  • I had to turn a traditional module, i.e. face-to-face teaching with readings and a traditional assignment, into an interactive asynchronous online module. The need to go fully asynchronous was as a result of not having scheduled time on the timetable during Semester 1, 2020/2021.
  • Traditionally, the module had plenary lectures with supplementary readings around each of the topics, and then small group seminars where we had practical pedagogical engagement with the Catholic religious education curriculum (CPPREC, 2015) and the Grow In Love programme. 
  • In seminars, tutors would usually deliver a presentation on a topic followed by practical students-centred exercises and tasks. The seminars were central to the module, it was where the key practical pedagogical T&L took place in terms of students developing their T&L skills for the RE classroom. This space was key to the module as it was where you could see students working with the material and they could feed back to you. I am the module co-ordinator and the sole lecturer, with other members of the RE team as well as myself leading the small-group seminars.
  • The assignment was an end-of-module 2,000 word written essay with a choice of essay topics. 
  • So the challenge was threefold:
    [1] How do I bring these lectures online?
    [2] How do I turn these interactive face-to-face seminars into interactive asynchronous online spaces?
    [3] How do I enhance the assessment for the Covid context?


What was done?/What did you do?

  • Firstly, I availed of all the CPD opportunities that I could have, those provided by the Teaching Enhancement Unit and others, so that I could learn more about the potential approaches for online teaching during the Covid19 pandemic.
  • Working with my colleagues in the RE team, I decided that all lectures would be pre-recorded and made available on Loop.
  • I reimagined the Loop page with the view to providing better guidance to students, on a weekly basis, around their pre-recorded lectures. I was conscious, however, that students might feel distant with this module because of its asynchronous nature. Informed not only by CPD, but also by a Catholic approach to RE, I wanted to ensure that the human dimension and presence of the module was not lost. With the view to ensuring that my presence was felt by the students in what could very easily become a vacuum of absence, I made a real effort to push myself out there by way of pre-recorded videos that contextualised the material and combined these, the lecture videos, and supplementary text in Loop Books on the page. When communicating with the entire cohort, I recorded a video announcement and published it via the announcement forum on the Loop page. I didn’t want to just “dump” content at the students, I wanted them to feel as if they were being brought through it step by step and I was with them in a virtual way. I also created additional practice quizzes for students to check their knowledge and to assist them in discerning the key learnings from the lecture content. 
  • For the seminars, I needed them to work as an interactive non-graded asynchronous engagement for students. Firstly, I decided this would be a good opportunity for us as the RE team to discuss issues and give the students an insight into our (often differing) opinions. We recorded these group discussions on Zoom and embedded the recordings on Loop for students to watch. I learned how to use the H5P interactive content creation tool on Loop and for each seminar created a small interactive activity for students to complete after watching the RE team group conversation, to probe their understanding. As such, each seminar had its own Loop book containing a pre-recorded conversation with the RE team on the seminar topic and an interactive H5P content. Lastly, each of the H5P interactive content activities ended with a final task for students. Students were asked to make their own contributions to the student discussion forum reflecting on what they learned in the seminar material and subsequently, from interacting with each other via the Forum. These discussion posts were useful for me to see how students were getting on with things.
  • In redesigning the module, I noticed that COVID19 may provide an opportunity to connect students with the wider professional community across the various levels in the Catholic primary sector in Ireland and bring that practical professional perspective into the module. I recruited a number of guest speakers (i.e. teachers, principals, Chair of BOM, National Management Advisors, National Trustee/Patron advisors), and conducted Zoom interviews with each of them for students to watch as additional content. This wouldn’t have been possible before Covid - it would have been too difficult to try arrange guest speakers to travel to DCU and to try to find scheduled timetable slots and a free lecture theatre. The interviewees’ insights into contemporary Catholic RE practice as well as the provision and governance of Catholic education would be very useful to my students who would soon be going out on school placement.
  • I was conscious that I want to not only engage with the principles of universal design for teaching and learning, but to make sure that I embedded them in my module to the best of my ability. While I did have students following the Irish Sign Language (ISL) pathway enrolled in my module, this use of UDL was not just for ISL students but for all students. I ensured a mix of content type - video, audio and text - with subtitles. I ensured consistency in all my material on Loop and provided regular weekly communications outlining what students needed to do. I offered scheduled online drop-in clinics should anyone need to talk with me and I also was available by email. Each of the drop-in sessions was recorded and published on the Loop page for those who were unable to make the session. I made a real effort to give students agency in terms of their assessment by giving them choice around their assessment.
  • I moved the traditional essay assignment to a three-part e-portfolio assessment using the Loop Reflect platform. At three points in the semester I asked students to submit an e-portfolio page which contained their reflections on artefacts in the module, be it a pre-recorded lecture, a reading, something said in the seminar group conversations, and so on. They were free to design their e-portfolio page as they liked and to produce a variety of multimedia - they were free to express themselves, so long as they still stuck to academic conventions. The third e-portfolio was a meta-reflection where I asked them to reflect on their own journey and learning in the module. I used an e-portfolio rubric available on Loop (to which I made some minor adjustments) and used it to grade the submissions. It has rich feedback built in, which sped up the grading process for me significantly (notwithstanding there was 1,200 submissions to grade!).

How did it work for you?

  • The module was transformational. It was much more interactive and reflective than before and gave a lot more agency to the students. They had a role to play in the module. It allowed them to explore the topic as opposed to being taught the topic.
  • I was bowled over by their engagement in the discussion forum. I thought the topics might be too heavy for them, but because they had the time to delve into the material at their own pace, their contributions to the forum were meaningful and substantial.
  • The e-portfolios were creative, individual and interesting. Although there were a lot of submissions to grade I enjoyed exploring them and getting to know the students through what they created. That is not as easy when reading a written essay!
  • I got to model good practice for the students as to what technology can bring to teaching and learning, which I hope they will implement in their own practice as teachers of the future.

Tips for implementing this practice

✔ Stick with your plans - if you implement a system or a structure then follow it through so students have consistency. You might be tempted to slip back into the old way of doing things, but try to resist it. You need to buy into it yourself and that will work for the students because they get a consistent, clear set of guidance. 

✔ Try to know what the student cohort is like, what their needs are, and so on. I was able to do this as they were a second year cohort. Knowing this in advance is good because changing a fixed asynchronous structure isn’t as easy as a synchronous face-to-face setting where you can adapt your content or approach quickly if needed. 

✔ Use your Loop page as best you can. Lay it out nicely, consistently, cleanly, so students can find material easily. Release material in sections week by week so students are not overwhelmed. Explore the types of Loop activities you can set up for students, don’t just use Loop as a file repository.

✔ Engage in CPD from the Teaching Enhancement Unit, be it a workshop, calling into a drop-in clinic with some questions, or engaging in a short programme. There is help there if you ever want to try something like this.

Reflections and future plans?

  • The module required a lot of work on my part to plan, to create the content and to grade the e-portfolio submissions, but it was worth it. The students were engaged, they were learning, they were reflecting, and on the whole we were, myself and the RE team included, an online community involved in this. I want to try to retain that sense of community going forward into whatever the future looks like post-Covid19. 
  • I plan to stick with the e-portfolio assessment but perhaps reduce from three submissions to two. Students would still have plenty of scope to explore the topics in a creative way but it would take a little bit of pressure off the submission and grading processes and deadlines.
  • I want to retain the interviews with guest speakers as that adds different voices to the module and gives students a sense of what it’s like out there in Catholic primary schools and the sector at large. I will still create them as asynchronous material for students to engage with at their own pace.
  • I want to explore how best to bring the best of what was done with this module in its asynchronous online format and blend with the traditional face-to-face format when we see the other side of Covid19.


  • David speaks about this module in a podcast with the Teaching Enhancement Unit. Listen to it here.


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