Lightning Talks in Asynchronous Education

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Student Engagement
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Faculty across higher education are charged with creating educational strategies to better engage diverse learners. Instructors in all programs have a responsibility to provide dynamic, quality education, but online instructors must also consider the unique needs of the typical online student. Most online learners are enrolled in academic programs out of a motivation to improve or advance their careers, and value the flexibility and time savings that an online program provides. It’s no surprise that online learners need their academic demands to fit easily into their existing personal and professional responsibilities. This is especially true for students in asynchronous programs.

As faculty, how do you design an online course that is innovative and rigorous, while ensuring that students actually engage with the content? Texts like “The New College Classroom and “Small Teaching Online provide a wealth of creative and evidence-based pedagogical strategies to effectively engage students. The authors of those texts all agree – lectures, when used, should be short. What can be shorter than a lightning talk?

Lightning talks

Lightning talks are short presentations, with a vibe similar to TED Talks. They are composed of a specific number of slides that auto-advance after several seconds. The exact length varies by format; for example, Ignite style talks last 5 minutes (20 slides auto-advancing every 15 seconds), while Pecha Kucha presentations are 6 minutes and 40 seconds (20 slides auto-advancing every 20 seconds). Regardless of the exact length, the presentation is highly focused yet conversational, with an emphasis on storytelling.


Lightning talks are starting to make their way into educational research, and they seem to offer real benefit in the classroom. Teaching strategies need to be engaging but also translate to real-world skills that can help students tackle the opportunities and challenges of the professional world. Lightning talks provide opportunities to develop and refine soft skills that are critical in the modern workforce. The restrictions and limitations of lightning talks fuel creativity and problem-solving. The presentation does not rely on the slides, but rather is enhanced by the images or key words displayed. Lightning talks also enhance communication skills. In order to be successful with this style of presentation, students must be able to organize their thoughts and deliver them clearly and persuasively. No more “death by PowerPoint.”

Not all students may enjoy the strict format of a lightning talk presentation; however, students themselves have reported benefits of listening to and presenting with this style. As presenters, students may feel more focused on their topic; as audience members, they may prefer listening to a presentation that seems more prepared which may lead to improved understanding of the topic.

There are also benefits for faculty. As an assessment method, this type of presentation does not require hours of viewing or grading. Each presentation only lasts a few minutes. Lightning talks can also help with student engagement in the online classroom. I’d like to share an example from one of my recent asynchronous courses. I incorporated six recorded Ignite style lightning talks every few weeks as a supplemental resource, along with recordings from three optional one hour-long synchronous live sessions. Each of the lightning talk lectures was viewed at least once by the students in the class, whereas the hour-long recordings were not viewed at all.

Things to consider

Although there are some exciting benefits of lightning talks, they should be used thoughtfully. They may not be appropriate for all course content. Topics that are more complex and nuanced may require more time to unpack. Additionally, if the presentation style is new to students, they may experience cognitive overload if they’re not provided the necessary resources to be successful.

Lightning style talks can also be incorporated into in-person classes, which may provide additional benefits and challenges. If assigned as a student assignment, faculty won’t have to worry about setting aside multiple classes devoted to student presentations which frees up time for other learning activities. The brief nature of the format, however, does not allow for questions during the presentation, illustrative tangents, or content adjustments that longer form, less rigid presentation styles afford. Finally, while online students can slow down recordings, or simultaneously view a transcript or captions, delivery in person may come with accessibility challenges.

Tips for application

Maybe you’re interested in incorporating lightning talks into your course, but are nervous or intimidated by the time constraint. I was too, at first, but it became easier with practice. When choosing a topic, keep it simple. Don’t try to cram an hour-long lecture into 5 minutes. Instead, pick one or two key points to emphasize and build your presentation around that. If you are teaching a new content area, focus on the big picture – what do you want students to remember? When designing the presentation, keep in mind that students will have a limited amount of time to view each slide. The slides should support the narrative, and contain images, or only a few words or key phrases.  When it comes time to deliver or record the presentation, make sure to rehearse the timing. Practice is essential to a successful lightning talk.

Students may have similar concerns. To support them, provide a presentation template with the transitions built in. That way, students won’t have to worry about any technological barriers and can focus their mental energy on their selected topic. You can also provide examples of your own lightning talks throughout the class as a way to normalize the pace and format. Finally, encourage them to practice, practice, practice.

More research is needed into the use of lightning talks in education. Why not incorporate them into your classroom?


Written by Nicole Zmuda, PhD, LCS, Assistant Professor in the Master of Social Work online program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.


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