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The Power of Project-Based Asynchronous Learning

How do you design action-based learning for outside of the live classroom?

In this Article
Doug Bergman

For over two decades, Doug Bergman has been a leading computer science education innovator and disruptor, as a high school teacher, department chair and technical curriculum development leader, most recently with Udacity.

Author, speaker and creator of the influential forward thinking in learning blog, Doug has long advocated a project-based approach to learning. He spoke with us about the unique challenges of designing project-based content for asynchronous training.

Project-Based Learning

CR: What do you mean by project based learning?  

DB:  With project-based learning, you’re not just going to passively hear about a topic– you’re going to be part of that learning. You are not going to just know about something, but you will know how to apply it and actually use the skill. 

I’m a huge proponent of learning objectives that are action-based. In today's digital world, being able to actually do something is much more valuable than to just know about it.

Look, the instructor who is up there in the front of class, or a talking head on video, is not the teacher that learners are going to relate to. Certainly, it’s a huge advantage when the instructor is charismatic and engaging, but learners want to be actually doing what they’re studying. 

They don’t mind working hard, they don’t mind struggling, they don’t mind it being a challenge, as long as there's a reason to be doing what they’re doing. 

Challenges to Asynchronous Learning 

CR: What are the challenges to asynchronous learning? 

DB: The biggest challenge to any asynchronous learning is that you don’t have your students in front of you, like in a live course. You don’t have the ability to adjust your teaching dynamically if you encounter learners who master material faster than others, or ones who need an extra example or alternative explanation. 

Student-First Mindset

CR: How do you overcome this challenge? 

DB: In business, upskilling by definition means a company wants to invest in its own people to help them get better. On a personal level, people themselves just want to get better in a certain area to improve their work or make a career change. So the motivation is there.

If that motivation meets an experiential learning environment, that’s going to be a win-win. But you have to anticipate questions, struggling points, needs for multiple examples, and stories that show real world relevance.

CR: Can you give us an example? 

DB: Udacity for example has a “student first” mindset with asynchronous learning. They’re constantly asking, what’s the best experience for the student? What’s their motivation? 

Udacity designs curriculum that gives remote students a reason to learn, and also the ability to practice and challenge themselves, through visuals, stories, and examples that simplify complex ideas. That's how learners engage with the material as much as possible in an asynchronous environment. 

One of the biggest challenges has been to discover what techniques we can apply to create this kind of experiential, discovery based learning remotely, where you’re not just passively handing learners content. 

Best Practices

Asynchronous Learning Best Practices

  • Online discussion board
  • Hands-on activities
  • Live student feedback
  • Mix up the content 
  • Add “personality” to create a connection

CR: What are best practices for asynchronous learning?

DB: Creating engaging asynchronous learning happens when you take the best of in-person learning and bring something similar to the asynchronous environment. For example, if the best in-class experience involves several hands-on activities, moving around, collaboration, and sharing… then how can those elements be recreated? 

Georgia Tech has their OMSCS degree, which is 100% asynchronous, and they have developed a powerful collaborative model in several ways:

Online Discussion Board

First, they use an ongoing class discussion board. In fact, I can’t imagine a student getting through a class without being able to ask for help, advice, or just post a related article there. TAs monitor the board but it’s usually fellow students who answer questions. It’s not real time interaction, but it is a chance to engage with others. 

Hands-On Activities

Hands-on activities can be done in a variety of ways – through games, puzzles, scenarios, links, reflections, and so on. A good content-building system should allow for these types of components. 

Georgia Tech took this to the next level by having students review their fellow students’ project submissions and give them live feedback. For enterprise level training this can be one through scheduled online meetings. Research continues to support that interaction with fellow learners is vital in any learning.  

Mix It Up

To replicate the moving around, make sure the asynchronous content mixes it up. You don’t want to present the exact same thing hour after hour. Change the layout, change the order, change how learners are interacting with material. Add some surprises, even humor – this give the class “personality” and helps learners connect. That connection is the hardest thing to do in the asynchronous learning environment.

Project-Based Learning Resources

Getting Started

Research Supporting Project Based Learning 

Example of Project-Based Async Learning

CR: Can you give us an example of this approach for corporate training? 

DB: Again, using Udacity as an example, the company offers unique online Nanodegrees that encompass this approach. I helped design the curriculum for degrees in Azure Security, Cloud Computing and Go. These Nanodegrees combine online courses with a series of real-life activities and projects, that require you to actually demonstrate the skills you are learning, to help you build a portfolio to show employers. 

The courses can be hard. I know learners will struggle, but when they get through it, they’re like, okay, I worked my butt off for that. I have something to show for it, and not just a certificate, but an actual portfolio grade piece of work. Now I can show that I am a better software developer.  

As I mentioned before, students don’t mind working hard if they see the value in it. And this goes for any age from middle school through adulthood.

CR: You’re designing a curriculum where your learners are trying to climb a mountain. 

DB:  Exactly, although the height and steepness of the mountain is different for each learning. If you’re taking a computer programming course, you should have a number of computer programs you have produced by the end of that course, to demonstrate what you learned. 

Compare that to watching a bunch of videos, taking a knowledge test, and then you’re apparently “certified.” That’s a very different experience. 

Power of Async Projects

Async Project Best Practices

  • Discovery learning 
  • Plenty of resources
  • Many types of content
  • Freedom of Choice
  • Define Project Needs

CR: Can you expand on the importance of projects?  

DB: The reason for projects in “project-based learning” is that instead of just being told how and why, you actually figure it out on your own. I call this discovery learning. Yes, you get help from the course content and instructor, but the project “makes” you do it. 


And if it is a well thought out and engaging project, learners will enjoy the “figuring out” part. But keep in mind, with asynchronous, you must have plenty of resources, examples, and other places students can go for help. You’re replacing the instructor looking over the shoulder, or the learner staying after class for extra help. 

So figure out lots of ways of meeting students where they are. There is no single approach. Mix it up – add images, video, and several multi-media examples students can refer to when they get stuck. Also consider that you will have beginner, intermediate, and advanced learners, so add resources that cater to all levels.

Freedom of Choice

One final word about projects. If you can give learners some freedom in the choice of their project, that will be a win-win. Students will be willing to put in extra effort and extra time if they buy into what they are doing. 

Define Project Needs

I realize it can be hard to design a project asynchronously, especially if it will be evaluated. Defining exactly what needs to be included in the project, and offering suggestions on how those requirements can be demonstrated are key.

CR: Thank you, Doug!

For more on Doug’s approach to project-based learning, check out his recent presentation for AWS Educate: 

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