After an initial rush to video conferencing platforms like Zoom, those pushed out of classrooms and into the realm of remote learning are beginning to run up against the limitations and challenges of maintaining a synchronous teaching system remotely. A number of logistical challenges facing both students and educators, from being scattered across time zones to having limited and intermittent internet access, are forcing both parties to switch begrudgingly to asynchronous learning.

But incorporating asynchronous learning in your class doesn’t have to be a mere concession to the times. In addition to making learning less stressful and more equitable for all, asynchronous learning can actively add new possibilities and opportunities to your courses.

For models of what asynchronous interaction systems can do to encourage meaningful engagement, we can turn to the world of gaming and game design, where asynchronous play is ubiquitous and can take many forms. The simplest form of asynchronous gaming is “turn-based” gameplay, in which players take turns performing actions (versus acting all at once, in “real time”).

What "turns" can do for your online course

Allow "players" with different schedules and across different time zones to interact meaningfully.

It’s no secret that the switch to remote learning has brought with it many time-based logistical challenges, including vastly different time zones, intermittent internet access, and other unpredictable obstacles that can make firm, regular scheduling impossible. Games have solved this problem by incorporating asynchronous turn-based play, giving players the opportunity to submit “turns” and accept challenges if and when they have a free moment.

Competitive phone games in particular excel at this kind of asynchronous play. In games like Word Blitz, players challenge each other by sending invitations to compete - invitations the recipient can accept and play through at their convenience. Phone games tend to excel at this is because they are designed to capture the limited moments before and after you use your phone for other things rather than compete against other obligations for large chunks of your time. This isn’t to say that your class should be relegated to the position of an afterthought to other activities - just that adding "turns" in this way does give students greater flexibility to fit their contributions into the fluctuating demands of their everyday lives.

Motivate students to complete shared projects.

Now may not seem like the time to try to motivate students via competition with classmates or races against the clock, but implemented well, these can serve as powerful and enjoyable motivators. Asynchronous gaming excels at motivating players to compete indirectly rather than directly, allowing use of these motivators while remaining relatively gentle and forgiving.

Take Civilization, a turn-based video game in which you and several other players build and advance a real-world civilization from the dawn of time to the information age. Civilization motivates its players to compete indirectly by racing to be the first to hit certain milestones, but doing so in a turn-based manner. For example, “Wonders” - buildings that take many “turns” to build and offer disproportionately valuable bonuses and resources - are unique, meaning only the first player to build a Wonder can reap its rewards. Failing to build a Wonder before another player completes it is a gentle defeat that loses you little - any resources you invested into its construction are immediately refunded and freed up for other uses - and the potential rewards of completing it on time motivate players to at least try.

Not keen on asking students to compete with one another, even gently? Consider making time itself the enemy, mobilizing the class to collaborate on achieving a certain goal together by a certain deadline or checkpoint in exchange for some sort of bonus or achievement.

Give instructors time to collate and respond to student turns.

Asynchronous games are often simulation games - games that attempt to simulate the nuance and complexity of a real-world event or system. Trying to reconcile the changing values of many different variables and actors in these systems is a task so complex and time-consuming most games must rely on complex algorithms to sort out what’s happening moment-to-moment. The same can be true of something like student responses to a set of assigned readings - while we want to do justice to how everyone’s thoughts on a particular set of topics interact and the many directions further discussion can proceed in, we’re often limited in synchronous teaching to pursuing only a small subset of these topics and interactions, and doing so in an artificially linear way.

Consider instead interaction styles like in the turn-based game Diplomacy, in which players take on the roles of real or imagined countries with particular goals and must engage in prolonged, complex negotiations with other players in order to achieve those goals through political deal-making. “Turns” in the game might be set to last up to twenty four hours, giving players an entire real-world day to negotiate, propose counteroffers, and even stonewall one another before any official “policy updates” and votes must be submitted.

After each turn, a single centralized “game master” then takes a period of time to collate all the submitted “turns,” consider how each player's actions might interact with those of others, and produce an update on how the state of the game world has been changed. This time, built into the rhythm of the game, gives players a break from the intense simulation and gives the “game master” sufficient time to think deeply and critically about how the players’ actions might interact. The result is a thoughtful game more than capable of simulating something as complex and nuanced as international relations.

How you can implement "turns" in your online course

Convinced that turns could do your online course some good? Here are a couple ways to implement "turn-based" learning that you can try.

Make class discussions turn-based for greater depth and focus.

Trying to conduct discussions over Zoom, but finding it hampered by A/V issues and the domination of just a few voices? Using discussion board or forum posts to simulate or start remote class discussions but frustrated at its surface-level, scattered nature? Consider adding a turn-based discussion structure that extends over a few hours or even days.

After an initial phase of students posting observations and questions, shift to a phase of students responding to one another's posts, followed by a phase of the instructional staff responding to those threads with further questions and provocations. Repeating three or four times will allow you to play out a deeper, more focused discussion that builds meaningfully on itself over the course of several "turns."

Compete one-on-one or in teams to master the material through turn-based challenges.

Not sure how to handle deadlines or motivate students in the absence of traditional grading schemes? Consider using "turns" to give gentle structure and competitive elements to course work.

One form this can take is giving students the option to challenge one another (either individually or in teams) to complete some practice assignment (like a p-set) or practice assessment (like a quiz). Challenges are not mandatory to accept, and can be accepted and completed at the recipient's convenience. Whichever party "wins" the challenge once both have completed it is granted some reward, and "losing" has no penalty. Caution: avoid awarding final grade bonuses or time as the rewards for this! Game-based grading schemes can be difficult to adjudicate and balance, and time should be available to whoever needs it whenever possible, not apportioned by lottery.

This page was created by the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning's "gameLab," which works to develop innovative pedagogy and digital tools inspired by games and game design. For more information on the Learning Lab and its goals, visit its website.

Created By
Ceci Mancuso


Created with images by Susan Holt Simpson - "These colorful, scuffed blocks are part of a collection I purchased from a sweet elderly couple who kept them in a box for their grandchildren. Their grandchildren long-grown, they were happy to share them with me." • Tim Gouw - "Side by side running lanes"