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Synchronous vs Asynchronous learning: What are the implications of each type of learning for planning and designing your course?

When we think of the relationship between learning and time, there are two ways to think about it and two words that come to mind: synchronous, and asynchronous.

In this article, we’ll explore Synchronous vs Asynchronous learning. What are the implications of each type of learning, for how you will plan and design your online course?

Synchronous vs Asynchronous Learning: What’s the difference?

  • Synchronous learning takes place live, in real-time, with people gathered together in the same space… whether that space is physical space such as a classroom, or a virtual space such as a Zoom meeting.
  • Asynchronous learning takes place in a manner untethered to time. It is learning that happens at the learner’s own choice of time, in any physical space of their choosing (although the virtual space where asynchronous learning takes place will likely be specified by the learning creator).

The appeal of asynchronous learning is immediately obvious – Who wouldn’t want to be able to learn at their own pace on their own time from the comfort of their own home, car, or even on the beach?

The problem is that most adult learners’ lives are so filled with external time-based demands, that even the courses they really want to take asynchronously can sometimes end up on the back burner.

The distinction between synchronous and asynchronous learning existed before the advent of online learning. 

  • People have always met live in person in physical classrooms and location-based discussion groups, to learn together in real-time. 
  • The same people may also have gone off on their own to pursue reading and complete homework assignments, each at their own pace and in their own time and space.

But the advent of online learning makes the distinction between synchronous and asynchronous learning activities more critical, because the learning SPACE (the online learning portal or arena) can now be accessed either live in real-time together with others, or alone – whenever, wherever.

When our learning SPACE is online, rather than in a geographical location in the physical world, it becomes more critical to make distinctions about the nature of our learning TIME.

Back when there was only classroom-based learning in the physical world, the main question one had to answer was: “WHERE do I have to show up in order to learn?”  (And then, incidentally, “WHEN do I have to be there?”)

With online learning, the importance and weight given to time and space are reversed, so that we first must ask ourselves: “WHEN do I have to show up?” (And then, incidentally, “WHERE do I have to go?”)

If you’ve got the time of a Zoom meeting reserved on your calendar, you can get the meeting URL at the last minute and still make it to class on time.  

The important question to consider becomes, WHO CHOOSES when you need to show up and be present for your learning experience? Is the learning you’ll be gaining in the online space only available to you at a specific time (synchronous, with time) or can you access it any time you want, on your own schedule (asynchronous, without time)?

Synchronous Learning

Examples of synchronous learning (taking place live, in real-time) include:

  • A live Zoom class meeting with required pre-registration
  • Zoom breakout rooms with structured small group activities
  • A scheduled workshop with live Q and A
  • A live streaming webinar
  • A Facebook Live
  • A scheduled group chat
  • Live group coaching
  • Live one to one coaching

What is Synchronous Learning best for?

Synchronous interaction of all kinds is something that people are hard-wired to enjoy. Live social interaction fosters community and allows for immediate adjustments to the needs of each member of the group (as long as the instructor and group members have created a favorable climate for doing so).

Synchronous learning offers the advantages of:

  • Immediacy
  • Accountability
  • Community
  • Engagement with the instructor and other learners
  • Immediate feedback from others while the learning is taking place

Because it brings people together in real-time and in a shared space (whether virtual or physical) around a common topic or purpose, synchronous learning promotes engagement with the instructor and fellow course participants. It allows for on-the-spot feedback and immediate “course correction” (pun intended) if it becomes clear that one student, or many, need help with a specific aspect of the material. The instructor can immediately notice if learners are getting lost, stuck, confused, or need additional help. Learners can get targeted, directed guidance WHILE they are engaged in the learning task.

In a flipped classroom model, synchronous learning is used for activities where high interpersonal engagement will yield the most benefit. For example, the instructor could have students read preparatory material before class at home (asynchronously), and then come to class prepared to do a (synchronous) live role play, put on a debate, or work in teams to solve a complex problem.

One reason that synchronous modalities are generally preferred for piloting a course, is that course developers need feedback about how learners are taking in, reacting to, and processing the course material, and that type of feedback can only be obtained through direct live observation of the learning process, in real-time, as it’s happening.

A disadvantage of synchronous learning from the instructors’ point of view is that it is not as fully scalable as asynchronous learning, and so does not take optimal advantage of the online learning space. If course participants have to show up at a certain time and place in order to learn from the instructor, the instructor has to show up then too. This means that the amount of synchronous learning any online course creator can offer is limited by the amount of time they have available for live online teaching.

ProsCons
  • Immediate
  • Engaging
  • Students more likely to actually show up and participate
  • Social
  • Interactive
  • Dynamic
  • Instructor can quickly address individual learning needs
  • Breakout rooms can allow for dynamic small group interaction and problem-solving
  • More likely to lead to student success (if students show up!)
  • Learners get immediate feedback from the instructor and peers
  • Instructor can observe learners directly
  • Time zone differences
  • Getting people to actually show up
  • Too few or too many people on a Zoom call
  • Not engaging if done poorly
  • Instructor must be skilled at fostering social interaction and connection
  • Can be fast-paced… hard for those new to online learning and teaching to keep up with
  • Instructor must know how to address individual learning needs
  • Individual needs can clash and be mutually exclusive
  • Impossible to meet individual needs all at once in a large group Zoom call
  • Limits the scalability of your course

 

Asynchronous Learning

The ability to learn asynchronously (at your own pace, in the privacy of your own home) is one of the things people like best about online learning. For busy working parents, or those in far-flung time zones, asynchronous learning may be the ONLY type of learning they can take advantage of. 

Asynchronous learning does not take place at a specific time, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take time. In order to get the most out of asynchronous learning, it’s critical to set aside some time on your OWN calendar to make it happen. 

But there’s a catch, because while people love the IDEA of being able to learn on their own schedule, most of our schedules are packed so full of things we HAVE to do, at specific times, that something we merely WANT to do, and can do ANY TIME, too often turns into something that gets done at …NO time. 

An effective solution is to have a time limit on when asynchronous learning needs to be completed, but allow your course participants to complete it whenever they want, within that time frame.

Asynchronous learning is fully scalable from the course creator’s point of view, because you can create a course once and then sell it an unlimited number of times, teaching an unlimited number of people. With asynchronous learning you truly can “teach while you sleep”. The problem is that learners’ time to pay attention to any course is NOT infinitely scalable.

Many people have learned this lesson the hard way, and now won’t commit to paying money for an online course, unless they know they have the time and cognitive bandwidth available to pay ATTENTION to it as well. This development is a good sign as it shows that people are realizing that an online course won’t yield its benefits unless we put in the time to actually learn from it.

What is Asynchronous Learning best for?

Examples of asynchronous learning include:

  • A fillable PDF
  • A video 
  • An mp3 audio file
  • A recorded replay of a class or webinar that was originally conducted live
  • A physical book
  • A digital flipbook
  • An interactive drag and drop activity
  • An online quiz
  • A threaded discussion forum

Asynchronous learning offers advantages such as:

  • Flexibility
  • Freedom
  • Privacy
  • Opportunity for reflection and revision
  • Distance and perspective
  • Repeatability
  • Automation
  • Scalability
  • Engagement with the learning materials and the learner’s own thought processes

Asynchronous learning is good for things like pre-class preparation and reading, or hands-on interactive activities that learners can do on their own. It can also be used effectively for automated learner evaluation, automated feedback (for example, through a survey or poll) and to help learners extend and transfer what they’ve learned to other areas of their lives.

Asynchronous Learning Pros and Cons

It takes longer to create asynchronous online learning programs than to deliver live instruction in person. That’s because many of the functions that the instructor performs live in synchronous learning situations, must be deliberately and proactively built into asynchronous online learning ahead of time.

Asynchronous online learning must be carefully and skillfully designed using learning design best practices, if it is to be effective, so that the learning materials THEMSELVES can stand in for functions (such as providing guided practice, offering feedback, and correcting errors) that instructors normally perform during live instruction.

This means that to be effective, asynchronous learning requires a higher degree of instructional design skill than synchronous learning. The lack of immediate feedback from learners means that course creators need to ANTICIPATE learners’ needs in advance (or know them from having previously taught the same material in a synchronous format).  

If you know from previous synchronous teaching experience where your learners are likely to have questions or get stuck, you can design your asynchronous course and learning materials to address those issues up front, leading to a better learning experience, happier customers, and fewer tech support calls.

ProsCons
  • Available on demand
  • Self-paced
  • Makes participation possible from all over the world, despite time zone differences
  • Private
  • Allows for intensive interaction with the learning materials
  • Allows for deep self-reflection
  • Automated feedback can be instantaneous
  • Infinitely scalable
  • Getting people to complete the work
  • Learners may end up putting it on the back burner due to other demands on their time
  • Learners may get lost or confused and not know how to get help
  • Not engaging if done poorly
  • Over-reliance on video alone leads to a poor learner experience
  • Instructor must be skilled in learning design in order to optimize results
  • Instructor can’t tell immediately if students are lost, stuck, or confused
  • It takes a lot of work and time to create individualized asynchronous materials to address different learning styles and needs
  • Engaging, interactive asynchronous activities may be more technically complex…meaning navigation may be challenging or the tech may not work for all learners
  • Creating engaging asynchronous learning activities requires tech skills
  • Creating engaging asynchronous activities may involve investing in software and platforms 

 

Harnessing the power of Synchronous and Asynchronous learning together:

What does all this mean for you as an online course creator? Should you create courses that are synchronous? Or asynchronous? Should your whole course be one or the other? Or should you combine aspects of both with Blended Learning? What are the advantages and disadvantages of synchronous versus asynchronous online learning?

The benefits of using both

In designing any kind of learning, it’s important to think about the affordances and constraints provided by the teaching and learning situation. Affordances are things the situation, medium, or context allows you to do easily and well. Constraints are things the situation, medium, or context makes it difficult or impossible to do.

Combining synchronous and asynchronous learning in ways that make best use of the affordances while circumventing the constraints of each, provides an optimized learning experience for your course participants.

When to use each type of learning

Sometimes you will only be able to weigh and balance what works best in each format, once you’ve seen how actual students perform. For example, if you provide a live weekly class meeting (synchronous) followed by asynchronous self-paced follow-up activities to help your course participants implement and practice what you presented in class, notice whether they actually do the activities on their own, or not. 

When a week is allowed for completing a self-paced (asynchronous) activity, many learners put it off till right before the next live (synchronous) class. This shows the value of synchronous learning as a motivator. People often find it difficult to get motivated to take action on their own, but will do so when faced with having to be accountable to their peers and instructor in person.

One solution that has proven effective is live (synchronous) co-working sessions, where course participants meet briefly on Zoom to share what they plan to work on, then spend the next hour or two in breakout rooms each working on their own, and then come back to the main meeting to share their progress. Adding co-working sessions is one way to bring the benefits of synchronous learning (such as community, sharing, and accountability to others in real-time) into an asynchronous activity like completing a self-paced action plan or homework assignment.

Another thing to be aware of is that the SAME learning activity may be experienced synchronously by some members of an online course and asynchronously by others. For example, learners from time zones that are asleep when a cohort-based class meets, will necessarily be experiencing the live synchronous class meetings in an asynchronous manner via recorded replays. 

What this means for the instructor is that it’s important to keep the needs of both synchronous and asynchronous participants in mind, even within a single lesson. A class discussion that is engaging and lively to experience in person, may come across as disjointed and hard to follow for those watching on the replay. One solution is to present the live instruction in a straightforward way without allowing comments and interruptions, so that learners watching on the replay can follow the thread of instruction… and then promote lively discussion among those attending synchronously, after the lecture portion of the presentation has been delivered.

Are there some principles we can apply to know when to use each type of learning? 

Yes, there are!  

Example curriculum blending Synchronous and Asynchronous learning

Let’s take a look at an (imaginary) sample online culinary program which includes a Master Baker course bundle and a Master Chef bundle.  

Synchronous vs Asynchronous Learning Example
An example of Synchronous vs Asynchronous Learning

You could teach the introductory courses (about how to source ingredients) asynchronously. The reason is that in those courses you would mainly be presenting information, using video, PDFs, directories of suppliers, etc. The important thing in those courses would be for students to interact with the MATERIALS and with online sources (such as supplier directories). It would not be important for learners to interact with each other or the instructor in real time. So you could easily and optimally create asynchronous learning activities for those introductory parts of the program. Some of the asynchronous activities, such as the bulk sourcing practices video, would be reusable in both course bundles, which would save some lesson development time.

Once you get to the Artisanal baking techniques and Top tier cooking techniques courses, though, it will create a richer learning experience to provide some synchronous activities. Since the program is online each student would have to do the actual food preparation in their own kitchen (asynchronously) and film themselves. Then you could have everyone watch all the films and complete their feedback/critiques using a checklist. All of that is asynchronous. 

The program would really add value for learners at this point, though, if they come together synchronously to discuss their results in real time. (Having a deadline and knowing they will have to be accountable to their peers in a live group session, will be an added motivator to get the asynchronous activities done). In live sessions, the aspiring bakers and chefs can ask questions, discover common challenges, exchange solutions, talk about feelings and participate in other types of live interactive sharing that can only happen when learners meet together in groups.

The way you determine which activities should be asynchronous and which should be live, will depend on your specific lesson material. But here are some guiding principles to think about:

Asynchronous learning is good for:

  • Gaining the learners’ attention (for example, through a short humorous video)
  • Telling them what they are about to learn
  • Reminding them of what they already know
  • Presenting the information

These are the first four of Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction. They involve the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: requiring students to remember and understand the instruction.

Synchronous learning works best for the intermediate hands-on steps in a learning process… where you provide guided practice, elicit independent performance, and provide feedback. 

These are the 5th, 6th, and 7th events of instruction, where you ask learners to apply the new instruction and analyze how they’re doing in using it. At this point in the learning sequence, learners are moving towards the middle levels of Bloom’s taxonomy: applying and analyzing what they’ve learned.

The difference between simply being exposed to information versus actually learning how to do something new, lies in following these hands-on implementation steps. 

An online learning program that is totally asynchronous can indeed fulfill these implementation steps, as long as the course creator follows learning design principles to ensure all the steps take place effectively. Simply presenting learners with a video to watch will not be enough.

Once you get to the later stages of the learning process in the master culinary academy, you can go back to asynchronous learning without sacrificing learner engagement. The 8th and 9th of Gagné’s events of instruction, “assess performance” and “help learners extend and transfer what they’ve learned” can be done well asynchronously. You can provide assessment in the form of a computer graded test, or a self-reflective journal.  By definition, students will extend and transfer what they’ve learned to their own lives on their own time. We are now at the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, where we ask learners to evaluate their learning and use it to create something new. The privacy and time for creative self-reflection provided by asynchronous learning work well for activities of this nature.

Additional factors to consider

Many factors other than the flexible or fixed nature of scheduling, impact the effectiveness of both synchronous and asynchronous learning. 

Because synchronous learning involves people learning together in real time, it is highly interactive and allows for spontaneity, synergy, and serendipity to emerge in the learning situation. It takes a high degree of interpersonal teaching skill for instructors to manage this type of intense interaction well (whether in a physical classroom, or online). 

Making sure that each participant in a live learning situation has access to the learning space, feels welcomed, has a chance to participate and be heard, can be challenging especially if the number of participants is large. Past about 15-20 learners in a live Zoom session, it becomes important to have a 2nd person (or more) to perform functions like monitor the chat, let late- comers into the room, and answer questions, in order to allow the instructor to present material while also meeting all participants’ needs. 

If care is not taken to ensure that all learners’ needs for access, participation and understanding are met in real time, then what is the advantage of synchronous learning? If participation in a live Zoom call requires nothing more than passively staring at a screen, that material might as well be delivered asynchronously, allowing learners more freedom as to when to watch and what to do at the same time. 

For example, some people learn auditory material (such as a taped lecture or podcast) best while performing other activities at the same time, such as routine household chores, exercise, or walking. The key is to allow learners to find their own optimal level of sensory attention and well-being. Listening to a pre-recorded lecture asynchronously while walking on a treadmill may provide a much more attentive and engaged learning experience than watching a live talking head on a screen deliver the same content while one is forced to sit still on Zoom for an extended period of time, with no interaction with others.

The overall CONTEXT in which learning is taking place, affects the nature of synchronous versus asynchronous learning, as well. In a university or corporate training setting, attendance at synchronous learning activities is likely to be required in order to achieve a grade or fulfill a work or training requirement. The student must show up live at the specified time. Attendance will be taken and recorded, and non-attendance carries a penalty. This type of requirement can make synchronous higher education activities difficult or impossible for parents of young children, or people who work full time, or students living in far flung time zones. Asynchronous activities will work much better for such students.

Workers who are required to attend a live meeting that takes them away from their other work duties, may find the synchronous requirement either a burden, or a welcome escape from their regular routine. In either case, it’s important for whoever is creating the activity to ask whether a live synchronous meeting is really necessary — or could the same or better results be achieved by having everyone participate on their own time at their own desk. (The short and pithy way of framing this is: “Did that really have to be a meeting? Or could it have been an email?”)

Outside of university or corporate settings, fewer external motivators come into play. It takes more internal motivation for learners to complete asynchronous activities on their own when no grade or work consequence is riding on their doing so. Even if your course is well designed and highly motivating, the urgent nature or other demands on your learners’ time may make it hard for asynchronous coursework to compete… even if the learner really wants to complete it. When there are no EXTERNAL motivators (such as grades or job requirements) to compel attendance or completion of self-paced activities, course creators need to really understand their audiences’ INTERNAL motivations and build in motivational factors to promote ongoing participation and engagement every step of the way, especially when things get tough.

A best practice for adult learning is to allow the learner to control the pace of instruction. Some online course creators try to control the pace FOR the learner, by dripping out content on a schedule.

Drip schedules attempt to impose a degree of synchronicity on asynchronous online learning. Sometimes this can be effective. For example, in a time-limited challenge where a cohort is going through a series of activities day by day, it makes sense to drip the activities out one day at a time. (The reason this works is not so much that the time is being limited though. It’s that showing up to share the experience with other participants is a strong motivator.)

It’s up to you as the instructor to decide what works best for you and your learners. The important thing is to consider all the angles. For example, if you are running a 10-day challenge and you close off day 1’s activities after day 1 is over, people will learn that you mean business and they must complete each activity on the day it is due. HOWEVER, you will have boxed yourself and your learners into a corner, because now everyone who didn’t get to complete day 1 ON day 1, won’t be able to catch up on their own time and progress to day 2. 

The reality we face as online course creators (outside of settings where learners HAVE TO complete everything in an online course to get a grade or fulfill a work requirement), is that we must use a combination of enticements and gentle reminders to support learners in completing our programs in the manner that will best meet their needs. 

The more engaging and motivating you can make your learning activities, the more likely people are to complete them. One of the things that strongly motivates adult learners is the ability to connect with and gain support from others. The community aspect of what you teach can be either synchronous (live class meetings or planned registration-only workshops) or asynchronous (threaded discussion groups, online forums, or chats). 

It will be interesting to see what works best for your learners as you notice where they consistently show up and where they are most active and engaged. Do you see more participation in your (synchronous) live meetings, or your (asynchronous) Facebook or Thinkific Community group discussions, for example? The ideal outcome would be that you find high levels of participation in both, and that you find your asynchronous and synchronous learning activities positively reinforcing each other!

Having a combination of live meetings, recorded replays, an online forum or community or group that is open 24/7 and so forth, allows everyone to participate in the ways that work best for them. In fact, perhaps the idea of CHOICE and of allowing adult learners the option of participating either synchronously or asynchronously according to their preferences and needs, is one of the strongest features of the online learning space.

Conclusion 

Effective teaching, and effective learning, both take time. The time spent teaching and learning can be mapped to the instructor’s and/or learners’ schedules in either fixed or flexible ways. 

Learning that is mapped in fixed ways is synchronous…taking place at a specific time. Learning that is mapped in flexible ways is asynchronous…taking place at unspecified times of the instructors’ or learner’s choosing (but not at NO time.  Learning that takes place at NO time is not asynchronous…it’s simply ineffective).

The Line of Understanding from Learn and Get Smarter, Inc. integrates Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction with Bloom’s Taxonomy, and shows us that it is the middle stages of instruction (where learners need to start applying the teaching and using it on their own) where synchronous learning is most important and effective. If asynchronous learning is used at these stages instead, it’s important to ensure that proper instructional design techniques are used to build in guided practice, independent performance and feedback so learners can achieve real results instead of just being exposed to information.

  • Synchronous learning requires teaching skill and the ability to manage spontaneous interpersonal interactions effectively, in real time. 
  • Asynchronous learning requires learning design skill, and the ability to create a structured learning journey that your course participants will be taking on their own, without you and their peers there live, to support them.

Combining synchronous and asynchronous learning in ways that take advantage of what each does best, will provide a richly layered and highly optimized learning experience for your course participants. A combined approach allows for both social interaction and personal reflection and keeps your course in front of all your learners in a way that is both structured and flexible.