As we move deeper into the remote learning landscape, course designers and instructors have to consider the unique needs of students who are learning 100% virtually. As they plan for the weeks and months ahead, educators are struggling with a central question: Is synchronous or asynchronous learning more effective for the remote learner?
Course designers must now get creative about how to provide learning content that works best for online students. That means they need to be strategic about the mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning content they offer—and both types of learning have their place in a fully remote environment.
The most effective type of learning is one that combines the agency and empowerment of asynchronous learning with the camaraderie of synchronous learning.
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning
What’s the difference between synchronous and asynchronous learning?
Synchronous learning happens live, in real time. It’s the most traditional learning format. Synchronous learning is what most of us think of when we think of “school” or “class”: a live lesson with an instructor and peers. Live webinars and videoconferences are examples of synchronous learning for virtual learners.
Asynchronous learning happens when students and instructors do not interact in real time. Under this model, students can access learning content on their own time and proceed at their own pace. Online discussion boards, video lectures, and most online learning, or e-learning, courses fall under the asynchronous learning umbrella.
The Benefits of Synchronous Learning
While synchronous learning is difficult to execute in a fully remote learning environment, it does present unparalleled opportunities for a sense of community and camaraderie to develop, and opens the door to powerful peer learning experiences.
Students develop a community. When students and instructors meet in real time, whether in-person or via live video, they form a true community. Indeed, it’s that community, more so than learning content, which prompts people to pay thousands of dollars per semester to colleges and universities. Even when separated by a screen, students can interact directly with one another and with their teacher when learning synchronously.
It allows organic conversations to unfold. When students engage with the learning material at the same time and in the same place (whether that place is a classroom or a Zoom room), organic conversations unfold in real time. Students can interrupt lectures to ask questions and interject with comments that enliven the discussion. Moreover, instructors can encourage collaboration among students by separating classes into smaller groups where lively conversations offer varying perspectives and deepen understanding.
It can boost participation. When given the option to complete tasks on their own timetable, many students will wait until the last possible moment. Synchronous learning creates a sense of urgency. Real time deadlines and expectations lead to greater participation.
Students can gain immediate feedback from instructors. When meeting in real time, students can ask instructors to elaborate or clarify in the moment—something they can’t do when learning asynchronously. This can enhance students’ understanding of the material more quickly.
Challenges of Synchronous Learning
Synchronous learning—particularly in a purely remote environment—also comes with several challenges.
Synchronous learning becomes challenging when it’s remote. The very benefits that make synchronous learning appealing in person—i.e., opportunities for real-time discussion, questioning, and instructor feedback—are more difficult to execute online. Instructors teaching to a screen of small, student-filled boxes may find it challenging to identify when students are confused or disengaged. Moreover, the limited capabilities of videoconferencing software make it harder for students to attract the instructor’s attention when they have a question or comment.
Virtual conversations are harder to interrupt. Synchronous learning works well when an organic discussion emerges among the students and teacher. It’s harder to interrupt the flow of an online lesson with the kind of impromptu interjection that would feel perfectly natural in an in-person environment. Without these vibrant conversations, synchronous virtual lessons can feel stale, and students might suffer from a lack of engagement or a deficit of attention.
Successful online synchronous learning requires high-performing technology. A successful remote synchronous class requires access to necessary tools, including a strong internet connection. Technical difficulties can preclude students from fully understanding or engaging with the lesson.
The Benefits of Asynchronous Learning
Asynchronous learning is a helpful option for all learners, but especially for remote ones. When learning asynchronously, students interact with learning content at their convenience and can delve deeper into topics that interest them.
Students can access materials on their own time. Asynchronous learning gives students the flexibility to learn at a time that works for their own learning styles and within their schedules. This is particularly helpful now, as students navigate pandemic-related financial, health, and mental challenges.
Students learn at their own pace. When learning asynchronously, students engage more directly with the material they find most interesting and/or challenging—pausing lessons they find confusing, rewinding and replaying the most salient content, and proceeding at the pace that works best for them. When instructors use collaborative tools like Eduflow, they can further enhance student engagement with learning flows and interactive content designed for individual learners.
All types of learners have equal access and attention. An asynchronous format produces uniquely empowered students who take control over their learning in a way that might not have been possible in a purely synchronous environment. Asynchronous learning prevents more reserved students from getting bulldozed by louder voices as they might in a live environment. It essentially levels the playing field, offering each student the same opportunity to control their learning.
It’s more cost-effective and scalable for instructors. Rather than teach the same lesson multiple times to multiple classes, instructors can create a single lesson for each section. This frees up time and resources for instructors to be more personally available to individual students.
Challenges of Asynchronous Learning
In a completely asynchronous environment, students miss the camaraderie that comes from real-time conversation and face-to-face (or screen-to-screen) interaction. The solitary nature of asynchronous learning can be detrimental to student’s mental health and academic results, if it’s not paired with some sort of real-time follow-up.
A Blend of Asynchronous and Synchronous Learning Is Most Effective
So which type of learning is most effective in the end? We believe a hybrid approach is best for the virtual learner. A mostly asynchronous environment empowers students to learn at their own pace and according to their own schedule, while strategic opportunities for synchronous meetings foster a sense of community and prompt more in-depth discussions of relevant topics.
To take advantage of the benefits of asynchronous learning while optimizing opportunities for synchronous interaction, instructors could consider flipping the classroom, which engages students in asynchronous coursework before meeting synchronously to discuss what they learned. Educators should plan to optimize synchronous time with plentiful debates, breakout conversations, and student presentations to avoid the pitfalls that can characterize remote synchronous lessons.
When relying heavily on asynchronous learning, instructors should focus on making lessons more interesting and engaging for students by creating customized learning flows and interactive experiences. Collaborative learning tools can help course designers create content that keeps students interested, empowered, and in control of their educational experience.
Use Community to Support Online Learners
Remote learning isn’t always easy, but it can be very useful and productive with the right approach.
An innovative and interactive asynchronous learning model helps students learn more deeply at their own pace and on their own time—and Eduflow provides tools to support instructors in this endeavor. When they couple interactive and engaging asynchronous lessons with thoughtful uses of synchronous time, instructors find that virtual learning is truly effective—and empowering— for every learner.
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