Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Asynchronicity: why won’t those discussions work?

For some time I have been trying to figure out why asynchronous discussion isn’t working that well in teaching postgraduate quantitative genetics. I had a feeling this would be the case, but I still can’t tell you why, intuitively, I thought this. It has something to do with the quantitative nature of the study – but we’ve seen problems with it that we haven’t seen in other quantitative areas (like veterinary epidemiology and animal health economics).

But interviewing students this week have given me the clues I was looking for, I think.

Reason 1: learning genetics necessarily takes students through complex quantitative tasks that do not make sense unless everyone is at exactly the same point.

Reason 2: meta-cognition and therefore high level discussion (what some of the students have called “real discourse”) happens at specific points in the units of study – probably at the end (or at the end of sections) - rather than continuously. This might be because learning the theory and the calculations is quite involved and there is a need to concentrate on them before trying to draw them all together to think about at a higher level might take some weeks, rather than happening on a week-by-week basis.

This might mean that we could:

  • leave the students on their own to work through problem sets OR
  • we could schedule regular synchronous chats, where students work through problem sets synchronously (we tried this and it worked pretty well, but there are some practical problems)
  • schedule meta-discussions at specific points in the units to happen either asynchronously or synchronously

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