Engaging Students Through Asynchronous Video-Based Discussions in Online Courses

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As growing numbers of students take online and hybrid courses, higher education institutions are looking for ways to cultivate and sustain engagement with students remotely. One method is the use of asynchronous video-based discussions, which offers unique opportunities for instructors and students.

4 scenes of people using computers and laptops.
Credit: PureSolution / Shutterstock.com © 2020

Over the past thirty years, enrollments in online courses have continued to grow, resulting in online learning becoming commonplace today. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges and universities to move all courses to remote or online learning formats, more than one out of three college students were taking an online course each year, and half of those students took only online courses.1 As students experience the flexibility and opportunity that online learning can offer, the number of blended and online courses will likely increase in the coming years. However, this growth is dependent in part on students having meaningful and engaging online learning experiences. Given this, researchers and practitioners need to continue to investigate and experiment with various strategies to connect with and engage students from a distance.

Asynchronous Text-Based Discussions

Over the years, the primary way that online educators have tried to connect with and engage students in online courses has been asynchronous text-based discussions (e.g., discussion boards). These discussions are versatile—they enable instructors and students to interact and have discussions at a convenient time and place. They can also help students who are more introverted or second-language learners participate in class, and they provide time for students to reflect before responding, which can lead to rich discussions.

However, asynchronous text-based discussions have inherent constraints. They can become formulaic (i.e., post once, reply twice to others' posts each week), which can result in the perception that the discussions are simply busy work. They can sometimes lack a sense of immediacy and social presence, and they can feel disjointed, spread over days or even weeks in a course.

Synchronous Video-Based Discussions

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the limitations of text-based discussions led to an increasing number of online educators experimenting with synchronous web meetings (i.e., using applications such as Zoom, WebEx, and Google Meet) in online courses that were otherwise predominantly asynchronous.2 Synchronous video-based discussions can help establish immediacy and social presence, address student questions in a timely manner, illustrate and demonstrate how to solve problems, or accomplish certain tasks that benefit from synchronicity, such as some types of group problem solving and collaborations.3

Despite these benefits, however, the pandemic has illustrated some limitations with synchronous meetings. For instance, live meetings can often result in teacher-centered activities, people talking over each other, technical issues, students who are disengaged and multitasking, and simple eye strain and/or mental exhaustion.4

Asynchronous Video-Based Discussions

Constraints with synchronous meetings as well as asynchronous text-based discussions have led online educators to explore alternatives—specifically, the use of asynchronous video-based discussions (video posts that are recorded and viewed later by peers, who then can respond in some format). Although asynchronous video-based communication is not a panacea and no communication technology is inherently good or bad, research has shown that media variety—specifically, how one uses a communication technology—matters more than any inherent affordances and constraints.5

Asynchronous video has been used in online courses as an instructional tool in many ways. For instance, online educators have created videos to share with students—including recorded lectures (screencasts or lecture capture), how-to videos, and feedback on assignments—for well over a decade.6 Some have even experimented with mixed-media discussions, such as having students take part in asynchronous text-based discussions about videos they or others have created. For example, online educators have had students use a webcam or a phone to create a video response to a certain prompt and then post a link to the video in a discussion forum in a learning management system (LMS), where other students can then respond to and discuss the video. Others have used YouTube's commenting or annotating features to have asynchronous text-based discussions about the content in specific videos.7

In 2007, VoiceThread created a new level of interest in asynchronous video communication. VoiceThread was the first application to enable online educators to have asynchronous video-based online discussions. Since that time, a number of other applications have emerged that enable educators to have asynchronous video-based discussions, including Flipgrid, EdConnect, and Marco Polo. The sidebar "Popular Asynchronous Video-Based Discussion Applications" provides an overview of each of these applications. These applications have different features and capabilities (which will likely change overtime) and are often used in different ways. However, they all enable asynchronous video-based online discussions.

VoiceThread differs from the other three applications in some important ways. VoiceThread enables asynchronous discussions around media (e.g., an image, a video, a document, or presentation), with discussion and comments on media with text, audio, or video. As a result, in practice, VoiceThread is often used for presentations and direct instruction.

Whereas VoiceThread is set up to comment or have asynchronous discussions around a piece of media, Flipgrid, EdConnect, and Marco Polo focus primarily on having asynchronous video-based discussions. Flipgrid and EdConnect also enable screen recording (i.e., a person can use the application to create a screencast and then let others post a video reply to it).

Popular Asynchronous Video-Based Discussion Applications


Company Description: "VoiceThread is a communication and collaboration platform that enables students and faculty to engage in high-quality conversations about digital media (video, images, documents, presentations). The conversations and interactions are unscheduled and on demand, and a unique commenting toolset allows participants to make rich media comments using video, audio, and text, with animated annotations. The VoiceThread experience humanizes online learning environments, making them warmer, more fun and rewarding, more accessible, and yet still highly efficient."

Licenses: Free, individual, and site licenses available
Resource: What's a VoiceThread Anyway?
Review: "VoiceThread," Common Sense Media.
Common Use: When you want to have asynchronous discussions about media


Company Description: "Flipgrid is a free video discussion platform from Microsoft that helps educators see and hear from every student in class and foster a fun and supportive social learning environment. In Flipgrid, educators post discussion prompts and students respond with short videos, whether they are learning in class or at home."

Licenses: Free individual account; no site license currently available
Resource: Getting Started: Educators Video
Review: TrustRadius, Flipgrid
Common Use: For whole-class or small-group asynchronous video-based discussions or as a way to use video to discuss screencasts (e.g., instructor feedback)


Company Description: "Distance Learning at Your Fingertips: EdConnect video-based messaging brings personal, face-to-face, collaboration to the online learning experience. Now you can access your group wherever you are, in the moment that's right for you."

Licenses: Free individual account and paid site licenses available
Common Use: For whole-class, small-group, or one-on-one discussions or as a way to use video to discuss screencasts (e.g., instructor feedback)

Marco Polo

Company Description: "Marco Polo is a face-to-face video messaging app that helps people stay close."

Cost: Free basic account with a paid plus account.
Resource: How to get started with Marco Polo
Review: "Marco Polo—Video Chat," Common Sense Media.
Common Use: Most commonly for social purposes but can also be used in academic settings to have whole-class, small-group, and one-on-one discussions by recording video messages with or without text and images

Common Ways to Use Asynchronous Video-Based Discussions

There are a number of different approaches to using asynchronous video in higher education.

Interactive Student Presentations and Demonstrations

Student presentations and demonstrations are common ways to assess not only what students know but also what they can do. These presentations and demonstrations are best when they are accompanied by questions and feedback. VoiceThread allows students to upload and narrate media, presentation slides, or videos; these narrations can also include "ink" drawn by a digital pen for emphasis. The instructor and other students can then post questions or feedback to specific slides in the presentation using video, audio, or text. Video presentations or demonstrations can also be created in Flipgrid or EdConnect as a webcam or screencast video. Alternatively, students can upload prerecorded videos for their instructor and peers to view and comment on. Additionally, these video presentations and demonstrations can then be easily shared with those outside the course, adding a layer of authenticity that is difficult to achieve with in-person courses.

Student Discussions

The use of asynchronous video can be helpful for rich, reflective discussions in which students can take time to consider their responses and then record and rerecord or edit them as needed to provide a thoughtfully crafted response. One example is using this format to connect with students on a more human level to help focus on students' emotional wellbeing. Applications such as Flipgrid and EdConnect can be used to host asynchronous discussions in which students can use either their computers or apps on their phones to record short video replies to a prompt. Instructors and fellow classmates can then post video replies. Video-based discussions are excellent for conducting icebreakers at the beginning of a course or checking in with students, especially during challenging times, to see how they are coping and to identify areas where an instructor can provide help and support.8

Instructor Feedback

Feedback is critical to student learning. Despite the importance of feedback and the amount of time teachers spend providing it, little research has explored feedback in online courses, leaving instructors needing "more feedback on feedback."9 Feedback is most useful when it is timely and specific. However, in practice, it is hard for those two qualities to coexist because the more specific the feedback, the longer it takes to provide. Instructors have indicated that providing feedback using video allows them to efficiently provide a level of detail that would be difficult and time-consuming using text alone.10 Furthermore, when students are creating digital projects such as websites or infographics, providing detailed feedback comments within the context of the project can be difficult. In those cases, screencasting features in Flipgrid and EdConnect or stand-alone screencasting tools such as Loom and Screencast-o-matic allow instructors to record their feedback as audio while video-recording the student's project on the computer screen. Providing feedback using communication tools such as Flipgrid and EdConnect allows students and instructors to discuss students' work further.


The increased availability of applications that enable asynchronous video-based discussions presents a number of implications for practitioners and researchers of blended and online learning.

Implications for Practitioners

  • Variety is the most effective strategy, and instructors/course designers should consider which communication options work best for which learning objectives.
  • Practitioners benefit from observing/learning from examples of previous uses, and these examples are not as plentiful for asynchronous video. We need more examples of how these tools can facilitate learning in a wide range of content domains.
  • Video requires more internet bandwidth and powerful devices, access to which can still be problematic for many learners who may be at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Instructors/administrators should ensure that their classes are equitable for all and that all learners have access to the tools and bandwidth for video-based learning.
  • Each of these companies has striven to make its applications accessible to all learners. However, the degree to which the applications are truly accessible and usable for all learners, including those who have disabilities, needs to be tested and investigated further.

Implications for Researchers

  • We need to better understand which students benefit or engage better with asynchronous video versus asynchronous text or synchronous video.
  • How does asynchronous video support the development of online relationships and perceptions of immediacy, social presence, and connectedness? Is asynchronous video as effective at supporting this as synchronous video?
  • We have a rich literature base on how to moderate and promote asynchronous text-based discussion, but how many of these strategies work effectively with asynchronous video?


Even long before the COVID-19 pandemic, online educators experimented with different ways to interact, connect, and engage with their students. Most of the time online educators have turned to asynchronous text-based discussions to accomplish this, simply due to ease of use, the aforementioned affordances, and their familiarity with this method. However, during the past decade, online educators have begun using synchronous video-based discussions more and more—a usage that is likely (for better or worse) to increase drastically as a result of the closure of campuses due to COVID-19. However, asynchronous video-based discussions are another option that online educators should consider when they are teaching online.


  1. "Fast Facts: Distance Learning," National Center for Educational Statistics.
  2. Peter Fadde and Phu Vu, "Blended Online Learning: Benefits, Challenges, and Misconceptions," in Online Learning: Common Misconceptions, Benefits and Challenges, eds. Patrick R. Lowenthal, Cindy York, and Jennifer Richardson (Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers, 2014), 33–48.
  3. Stefan Hrastinski, "Asynchronous and Synchronous E-Learning," EDUCAUSE Review, November 17, 2008.
  4. Karolina Muszyńska, "Collaborative Software for Supporting Communication and Cooperation in Project Teams," in Advanced Information Technologies for Management, eds. Jerzy Korczak, Helena Dudycz, and Mirostaw Dyczkowski (Wrocław: Publishing House of Wrocław University of Economics, 2010), 205–17.
  5. Patrick Lowenthal and Dave Mulder, "Social Presence and Communication Technology: Tales of Trial and Error," in Social Presence in Online Learning: Multiple Perspectives on Practice and Research, eds. Aimee L. Whiteside, Amy Garrett Dikkers, and Karen Swan (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2017), 32–44.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Craig D. Howard and Rodney Myers, "Creating Video-Annotated Discussions: An Asynchronous Alternative," International Journal of Designs for Learning 1, no. 1 (2010).
  8. Patrick Lowenthal, Jered Borup, Richard West, and Leanna Archambault, "Thinking Beyond Zoom: Using Asynchronous Video to Maintain Connection and Engagement During the COVID-19 Pandemic," Journal of Technology and Teacher Education 28, no. 2 (2020): 383–91.
  9. Michael Eraut, M., "Feedback," Learning in Health and Social Care 5, no. 3 (2006): 111–18.
  10. Jered Borup, Richard West, and Rebecca Thomas, "The Impact of Text versus Video Communication on Instructor Feedback in Blended Courses," Educational Technology Research and Development 63, (2015): 161–84.

Patrick R. Lowenthal is Associate Professor at Boise State University.

Richard E. West is Associate Professor at Brigham Young University.

Leanna Archambault is Associate Professor at Arizona State University.

Jered Borup is Associate Professor at George Mason University.

© 2020 Patrick R. Lowenthal, Richard E. West, Leanna Archambault, and Jered Borup. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.