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Asynchronous Learning Across Time Zones

Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2020). Asynchronous Learning Across Time Zones. Columbia University. Retrieved [today’s date] from https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/teaching-with-technology/teaching-online/asynchronous-learning/

Asynchronous learning gives students the flexibility to access course information, demonstrate their learning, and communicate from anywhere and at any time. The following resource provides tips for setting up an online course that allows students to engage with course material, activities, each other, and the instructor at different times. This type of learning requires instructors to be transparent, timely, responsive, and present. As you consider asynchronous learning, keep in mind how you can ensure that all your students (regardless of their time zone), can achieve the learning goals of your course and how you will assess their learning. 


Communication and Community

Instructor presence and communication in an asynchronous learning environment are essential. In times of uncertainty and rapid change, it is important to communicate often and build community. Communicate how what you ask students to do aligns with the course learning goals. CourseWorks tools that can help with communication, instructor presence, community-building, and transparency are: 

Communicate expectations of learners

Asynchronous learning encourages students to take even more responsibility for their own learning. Thus it is important that instructors provide guidance for students on how best to engage with the course materials and demonstrate their learning. For example:

  • Orient your learners to how you have organized their learning experience with your CourseWorks site and the tools that you will be using (e.g. Modules, Files, Groups, etc.) 
  • Share guidelines for asynchronous interactions and invite student feedback on the course’s online etiquette policy
  • Tell students how often, and when, you expect them to participate online (e.g. before each synchronous class meeting, twice a week, by midnight EST on Sundays). 
  • Provide estimates for “time on task” for online activities, assignments, and assessments. This can help students manage their time and prioritize their efforts. 
  • Set due dates that provide enough time for learners to complete a task, activity or assignment, regardless of time zone; and allow for flexibility. 
  • Encourage students to adjust the time zone in CourseWorks (Canvas) so they do not miss due dates.
  • Provide guidance on what you expect the length of asynchronous contributions to be (e.g. word limit for discussion posts, time limit for video contributions)

Communicate what learners can expect from you

  • Let students know how they should reach you and when they can expect to hear from you.
  • Share your availability with your students (i.e., when you will be online to answer questions, provide feedback, grade, and/or update the course). Sticking to a set time daily provides consistency for your learners. For example:
    • Be transparent about when you will respond to student questions. Specify what in a “timely manner” will look like in your course. E.g., expect a response within 12 hours or sooner.  
    • Be as responsive as possible. Since students may not be able to have a live (synchronous) online conversation (chat or Zoom) with the instructor given time zones, it becomes even more important to be responsive to student questions in a timely way so that students do not get stuck while learning in the course and give up.

Check-in with your learners

  • Students may feel particularly isolated given the current circumstances. Be sure to check in regularly with your students–as a whole class, groups, and individually. 
  • Ask students to reflect on how current circumstances impact their learning, and engage with their responses. Reflection can engage metacognitive skills and help build community across distance.
  • Connect current events to course content. The current situation has relevance across disciplines. Having students apply concepts to real-world situations is not only good pedagogy, but can help students in your course speak about their own experiences and observations no matter where they are. 


Assessment of Student Learning 

Rethink course assessments so they are accessible to all learners regardless of their geographic location and when (what time) they are taking the assessment. Design assessments that promote academic integrity, take into account the resources that students have access to, and allow students to demonstrate their learning. Many tools within CourseWorks can be used for both formative and summative assessments, as well as for providing feedback. For detailed information on inclusive, learner-centered use of CourseWorks for these purposes please see the Assessment and Grading in Canvas (Online) 2.0 self-paced course. 

  • Consider what your process learning objectives are (dialogue, critical thinking, metacognition) and how those can be adapted to an asynchronous set up. 
  • Communicate clear instructions for your assessments. State what will be assessed, when, and how. 
  • Identify due dates that provide all students enough time to complete the assessed task. 
  • Provide clear guidelines/rubrics for assessment and activities. 
  • Give timely and clear feedback on student work, so that students know how they are performing and know what they need to do going forward to improve. 
  • Remind students that they can access resources to support their completion of course assessments. Post links with the assessment instructions to CourseWorks. For example: online Writing Center consultations and Online Research Support from Columbia Libraries may be useful as students work on an assignment that requires research and writing. 



In order for students to learn meaningfully in an asynchronous learning environment, they should have opportunities to engage with course materials, with their peers, and the instructor. As students adjust to an online learning environment, it is important to foster a learning community online which encourages student-to-student interactions and includes instructor presence. It is also important to provide students with multiple means of engagement.   

Engagement with course content

  • Invite learners to engage with text, video, or other course content, make notes, and to post their questions, comments, thoughts, etc. to an online Discussion in CourseWorks. 
  • Have students find resources or examples of what is being covered in class and contribute those to a Discussion thread in CourseWorks or to a shared Google doc.

Engagement with peers

Engagement with instructor

  • Help students make connections to course content, both previously learned content and new information (e.g., through discussion summaries, inviting students to reflect on their learning and make connections). 
  • Have an active presence in online discussions or collaborative documents by modelling contributions and responding to posts. You can subscribe to a discussion to be notified when students post. 
  • Provide affirmation and feedback on the contributions of your learners. You can use SpeedGrader, feedback in Quizzes, and other tools to do this. 


Course Organization

To guide students through the online learning experience within your CourseWorks site, provide a course structure that is modular, chunking learning into units whether by course topic, theme, or week. The CourseWorks Modules tool allows course materials, activities, assessments to be organized so that students know what to do and in what order (see Canvas Guide). If you have a mix of synchronous class meetings via Zoom, and asynchronous elements, thinking through what you want students to do when, is vital. Some strategies you might use:

Before a synchronous meeting

  • Have students reflect on what they already know about the content, what they would like to know, or questions that they have. 
  • Have students submit discussion questions/responses/summaries/problem sets ahead of the scheduled class time. Students can respond so that the voices of those students unable to make the synchronous session are heard.
  • Ask students unable to participate in the synchronous session to record themselves responding to a prompt, or walking through a problem set. This can enhance their presence in the course more than just using text-based responses in a Discussion thread. 
  • Create a knowledge check for students to complete based on course readings, pre-recorded lectures, or other asynchronous content. This can be done easily using Quizzes in CourseWorks, and can include different question types and multimedia. 

After a synchronous meeting

  • Have students who are unable to make the class meeting summarize the discussion based on the Zoom recording and/or chat.
  • Ask all students to reflect on the class session whether they were able to attend in real time or not (e.g. what were the key takeaways, what are you still confused about, etc.). This can be done in CourseWorks through Assignments, Discussions, or an Ungraded Survey using the Quizzes tool.

Fully asynchronous courses or between synchronous meetings

  • Prompt students to think about what their approach will be to learning in an online environment. This develops metacognitive skills, increases student agency, and helps them create a strategy for their online learning.  
  • Assign rotating roles to your learners such as discussion starter, moderator, source and example finder, summarizer, etc.
  • Consider creating discussions that require students to post before they see other students’ replies.
  • Invite students to reflect and contribute in different modes (e.g. text, images, video, and more as CourseWorks supports submission of these).
  • Create a general discussion space for students to share their thoughts, ideas, concerns, questions to foster community. Given the rapid and unexpected transition to online learning, students may need even more opportunities to feel connected and less anonymous and alone.
  • Students can also be encouraged to engage in online journaling practices throughout the semester. EdBlogs is a blog platform available to Columbia instructors which can be used for this type of ongoing reflective practice. 


Accessible Content

To engage with course content and learn from them at any time and from anywhere, the materials must be accessible. 

  • Create and curate accessible resources
  • Alternatives to live lectures 
  • Technological considerations 
    • There are many educational tools and technologies available that can support your asynchronous online instruction (e.g. platforms for collaborative reading, note-taking, annotation, mind-mapping, polling). 
    • Before deciding to use these, consider whether all students will have access to it given their geographical location. Not all programs are available in all parts of the world. 
    • Be mindful of the learning curve of any additional tool you want students to use and plan time for them to get used to the features, or be able to provide support documentation.
    • Remember that your students are taking multiple classes and may be overwhelmed with how many different tools, platforms, and software they might be asked to use.    

Asynchronous teaching


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Darby, F. (2019). How to Be a Better Online Teacher: A Comprehensive Advice Guide. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 

deNoyelles, A., Zydney, J. M., Chen, B. (2014). Strategies for Creating a Community of Inquiry through Online Asynchronous Discussions. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 10(1), March 2014. 

Matos, N. (2016). There’s No Such Thing as Asynchronous Teaching. Chronicle Vitae. July 11, 2016. 

Miller, M. (2020). Going Online in a Hurry: What to Do and Where to Start. The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 9, 2020.

Nilson, L. B. (2017). Online Teaching at Its Best: Merging Instructional Design with Teaching and Learning Research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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Stanford, D. (2020). Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us. iddblog.org