Designing asynchronous learning material: the Pomodoro way

This post shares my reflection on making asynchronous learning materials during COVID19. I taught physiology to years 1 and 2 medical students at Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia. My usual approach in the classroom is: passive – active – passive i.e. I would first clarify the concepts in which students listen passively, ask questions to push students to think actively, back to passive again, and so forth.

 

When the pandemic hit Malaysia and the country went into complete lockdown, teachers were asked to decide if they wanted to make their teaching session synchronous or asynchronous. It was a stressful time as it was just my third year of teaching, and I still had a lot to learn about teaching. Fortunately, this happened during the semester break, and I had time to ponder these potential issues. Synchronous online sessions happen in real time, just like an in-person teaching session but online. Asynchronous sessions, on the other hand, allow students to go through the learning materials at their convenience.

 

I chose to make all my teaching sessions asynchronous after reflecting on several issues which the students and I might encounter if they were synchronous sessions. The student demography in the university consists of both local (Malaysian) and international students (ranging from Australia, to South Asia, and all the way to Canada). Considering where the students were from, the first problem with conducting synchronous sessions would be the time difference. After making adjustments, we had only a couple of hours a day where the schedule was appropriate for everyone.

 

Using Zoom for teaching was my first time, I needed to take into consideration student engagement, internet connectivity (both students’ and mine), glitches etc. Taken together, I realized that there were more things that were not within my control for a synchronous session, so asynchronous session was the better choice: the students could just go through the materials at their convenience. They could learn at their own pace without the need to stress themselves (and myself) about internet connectivity during a synchronous session or waking up at 5 in the morning; And I could avoid real-time technical issues in the middle of a teaching session. What’s left is student engagement. How do I engage students during asynchronous teaching? What can I do to motivate the students to complete the seemingly ‘boring’ hour-long lectures when they were on their own? Once I decided to make asynchronous materials, I actually felt relief in a way as I just needed to focus on making the materials rather than worried about other issues.

 

When I started working from home during the semester break, I had productivity anxiety which I had not experienced before. I began watching videos and reading articles which people shared on how to be more productive. This was when I discovered the Pomodoro technique. In general, this time management technique improves productivity by breaking down the work day into 25-minute blocks (also called Pomodoro’s) with 5-minute breaks in between the blocks. This actually gave me the idea on how I could help the students to go through the asynchronous learning materials with ‘less suffering’, as well as to achieve more when they were on their own.

 

I divided an hour-long lecture into three parts: Part 1, Part 2 and Summary which mimicked the block mentioned above. Parts 1 and 2 were recorded lectures that were 20-25 minutes long, and the Summary was a short, 5-minute roundup of what had been mentioned. Within the recorded lectures, I also prepared activities for students to assess their own understanding (active learning). For instance, after describing the structure of the skeletal muscle, I inserted another diagram of muscle fibers and asked students to pause the video to try and label the diagram. After explaining the two-neuron model, receptors and the neurotransmitters in the autonomic nervous system lecture, I prepared another diagram and students were asked to pause the video to fill in the blanks. When students resumed the video, I explained the answers. The videos were uploaded into Microsoft Stream and the links to the videos were shared on the university learning management system. I could easily track the number of views of the videos.

 

In between the two parts, there was a 5-minute-long interlude that mimicked the break in Pomodoro technique. A variety of activities was used in the interlude, including a short reading or fun fact related to the previous part. For instance, a question that required students to apply what they learned from the previous part; or games such as crossword puzzles, drag-and-drop for students to match the meanings with the terminology; or in the muscle physiology lecture, a short reading on rigor mortis were given in the interlude. Students could skip this if they wanted to but I encouraged them to follow the activities in the interlude to take a break from the passive listening, and do something active.

 

Other small things I did with this ‘Pomodoro arrangement’ of the learning materials included a clear instruction and the estimated time required to complete it. These are common if one is familiar with taking online courses. Clear instructions and estimated time of completion helped setting goals and expectations for the students the moment they opened the asynchronous learning materials. This might seem trivial, but it’s one of the keys of getting things done.

 

I included captions to all my videos to improve accessibility. Particularly for the new students, they might need time to get used to my accent and certain terminology. On top of that, captions could also be useful to English speakers to improve comprehension (1). PLYmedia found that videos with captions are more engaging and the viewers tend to watch until the end (1). These are something that I wanted for my videos as well. In fact, the sound quality, the accent of the teachers, the internet connection, and whether English is the student’s first language, could all affect the quality of synchronous teaching without proper captions. I would acknowledge that adding captions could be troublesome. When I first tried to edit the caption generated automatically by Microsoft Stream, I was amused by how bizarre it was, full of errors. However, I was actually glad as it reminded me to put efforts into my speaking and pronunciation (especially if you do not have a good microphone). One thing that I learned was that YouTube actually has a better AI system in terms of generating captions, the accuracy rate was high. After getting used to recording videos and adjusting how I speak, I didn’t have to do much editing in my subsequent videos. I also took caption-editing as an additional step to assess the contents of my videos.

 

The completion rate of the videos was 100% based on the number of views recorded in Microsoft Stream and students showed great appreciation about the captions in their feedback. When I asked them privately how they felt about the ‘Pomodoro arrangement’, some students said that they felt accomplished whenever they finished the 20-plus-minutes long videos and were motivated to continue. I believe this is the effect of the original Pomodoro method. Although COVID19 is pretty much ‘over’ in most countries and in-person teaching has resumed, I think this ‘Pomodoro arrangement’ could still be beneficial in blended learning. One might argue that there is no need to deliberately include the ‘breaks’ for the students since the students can just pause an hour-long video on their own. But I see no reason why we can’t actively make this happen by breaking up the lectures into smaller chunks and inserting fun active learning in between.

References:

[1] Albright, Dann. “7 Reasons Your Videos Need Subtitles [Infographic].” Uscreen, 18 Nov. 2020, www.uscreen.tv/blog/7-reasons-videos-need-subtitles-infographic/.

Dr. Tan received his BSc and MMedSc from the University of Malaya, Malaysia, and his Ph.D. from the National University of Singapore. He then worked at Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia (2018-2021) as lecturer, teaching physiology to years 1 and 2 medical students. Currently, he is a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen), teaching physiology and histology to years 1 & 2 medical students.

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