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Tools for Asynchronous Learning

This guide contains information for conducting class activities at a distance or online. It provides some information on platform privacy, and some sample assignments for last-minute transitions to distance learning.

Book Discussions in the Time of COVID-19


Many of us organize our instruction around class discussions of assigned readings. While it's possible to replicate this teaching method online through video conferencing, students may not have reliable access to the Internet, audio/video hardware, or a quiet space where they are currently living. It may also be hard to keep to regular class meeting times if we suddenly have to care for family and ourselves in new ways.

Why not replace a traditional reading with an academic podcast and have students do individual or group reflections?


Students will hear directly from authors about their research and relate it to their own research process and the themes of the course.


  • Invite students to choose a podcast that interests them from the New Books Network.
    • Each episode is an interview with the author of a scholarly book. In addition to covering the main thesis and examples from the book, interviewers always ask how authors became interested in their project and how they got started, as well as what they are working on next. Authors may also talk about their research methods.
  • Provide guiding questions for listeners. For example:
    • How did the author become interested in their research topic?
    • Compare the author's origin story to why you chose this podcast? Are you interested in the topic for similar reasons? How are your interests different?
    • What are the main arguments of the book? What does the author want to demonstrate or prove?
    • What examples does the author give to support the argument? Since the author can't share every detail from the book, why do you think she chose to share these details?
    • How did the author conduct the research? Does she talk about sources or methods? Do you have any experience with this type of research?
    • What more do you want to know about the topic or this author's other projects?
    • Was the interview successful in explaining the book? Was it entertaining? Does it make you want to read some or all of the book?

Options for Student Responses

There are many way in which students can answer these questions both for you and their fellow classmates. How do you make it interactive but avoid a bunch of posts that just say "I agree!" to the previous post? Here are a few discussion board ideas.

If Everyone is "reading" the same podcast:

  • Discussion Board
    • Randomly assign one or more of these questions to a small subgroup of students. That way you limit the number of students answering each question, ensuring more unique contributions.
    • Create "reading groups" to work through the podcast together. Canvas allows creation of groups that can work independently and then make a shared contribution.
    • Require at least one personal reflection on the interview, comparing a student's own experience to the author's.

If Everyone is "reading" a different podcast:

  • Discussion Board
    • Student summarize their own "text" in no more than 4 sentences, including the main idea and at least one detail or example. This keeps responses concise but meaningful. Assign partners or small groups to then respond to each other's post with either a question or a comparison to their own texts.
    • Students compare their "text" to a previous reading from earlier in the course. They might compare the content or what they have learned about the author.
    • Students locate a published book review or other news item about the book. Compare how the book is treated in this secondary source to how the author talks about the work. Do they emphasize the same details?

Why Do This?

  • Students can listen to podcasts on their own time with a variety of readily available technologies.
  • Students get to hear about research directly from the researchers.
  • Students get to engage with scholarship in a new format which may generate more interest and attention.
  • Podcasts are usually around 1 hour in length, shorter than the time it takes to read a whole book, which may be just what students need during time of disruption to normal routines.

Other Podcasts

The New Books Network is nice for this type of activity because the interviews are relatively standard and from mostly academic presses. There are many other academic podcasts out there. Find one that best suits your course and discipline of study. Here are a few more to consider.

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