Remote learning has opened up the doors to how students access education globally. Whether they’re completing a degree part-time or starting grade three, the possibilities are endless. But online learning doesn’t come without challenges. Students (and in some cases, their parents, teachers and instructors), will need to decide whether synchronous or asynchronous learning is the more effective path for their learning needs.
In this guide, we’ll explain the differences between synchronous and asynchronous learning, highlight their respective benefits and share examples of each.
What Is Asynchronous Learning?
An asynchronous learning system is made up of online classes that students can access at any time and place. Since there are no real-time lectures in asynchronous teaching, students complete their studies based on a highly flexible schedule. Quizzes and tests are used to assess students’ progress as they complete course units or modules.
Asynchronous education encourages a high degree of autonomy and nurtures a proactive, inclusive and comprehensive learning experience. Communication in this model is also asynchronous. Students use text-based forums to discuss class topics and leave feedback on each other’s work. Instructors moderate and participate in these forums and are also available to answer questions via email.
What Is an Asynchronous Class?
An asynchronous class is made up of learning materials that may include:
- pre-recorded audio or video
- presentations or slides
- supplemental reading
- quizzes or tests
These materials are readily available, so students in different time zones and those with family or work obligations can participate in classes that might otherwise be inaccessible. Asynchronous instruction can also benefit those who do their best learning outside of traditional classroom hours.
Students can also pause lessons to attend to other responsibilities and resume when they have another block of free time. This feature provides the flexibility to take breaks and prevent mental fatigue that often sets in during lengthy lectures.
What Is Asynchronous Directed Learning?
Students don’t always have complete autonomy in asynchronous learning. In asynchronous directed learning, the instructor or employer lays out course objectives, content and outcomes. Students are expected to complete coursework and assignments by set deadlines, although they’re free to choose where and at what time they learn. Upon completing the course, students have developed meaningful competencies that connect directly to their educational or professional goals.
What Is Synchronous Learning?
Synchronous learning describes any situation where teaching and learning occur simultaneously. Classes usually take place online at scheduled times via video conferencing or live streams. In a blended or hybrid course, synchronous learning can include traditional classroom settings with in-person attendance.
This model requires students to keep specific schedules and be ready to participate when classes start. All students are expected to interact with their fellow students and be present for the duration of the class. Schedule restrictions, time zone differences and access to technology can be barriers to participating in synchronous classes.
Is Synchronous Learning Face-to-Face?
Synchronous learning can sometimes involve face-to-face learning. The model can look different depending on location and students’ needs.
Online synchronous classes may take the form of video calls, where all participants are visi
Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Learning: Which Is Better?
Synchronous learning is still used in many schools but is no longer the only teaching method. Academic institutions have embraced online asynchronous technology, given the potential it has to reach a wider demographic of students.
Both synchronous and asynchronous learning have distinct benefits. The preferred technique depends on whether an institution wants to prioritize real-time or on-demand courses to match students’ online learning styles.
Synchronous and asynchronous instruction share many similarities. Both terms can describe a type of remote learning that takes place online. The main difference between synchronous vs. asynchronous learning is when lessons are scheduled.
In synchronous learning, courses are conducted in real time. For asynchronous learning, educators prepare classes in advance, allowing students more flexibility in their learning.
What Is the Difference Between Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning?
Real-time synchronous learning creates a dynamic environment in which educators and students can interact with each other. Compared to asynchronous learning, the synchronous format may allow for more immediate feedback and live discussions.
Asynchronous learning is more scalable and, in some cases, can be more affordable if the synchronous equivalent involves travel or venue costs.
Benefits of Asynchronous Learning
A remote asynchronous format doesn’t need to adhere to a rigid schedule. This removes some logistical hurdles that come with in-person forms of education and offers significant benefits in terms of time, efficiency and productivity.
As remote classrooms gain mainstream popularity, more academic institutions are switching to a partially or fully asynchronous learning format. The benefits of asynchronous learning are being applied to classrooms across all levels, from K-12 schools to university campuses.
1. Flexible Learning Schedule
With the aid of asynchronous technology, real-time classes no longer need to be the only teaching option. Asynchronous distance learning accommodates students with busy schedules, allowing them to pick a suitable time to learn without distractions and focus clearly on their studies.
2. Self-Paced Online Learning
Asynchronous online courses allow students to manage their learning progress. Quick students can study in advance with the most up-to-date lessons. Others may prefer to learn at a more relaxed pace, absorbing the content steadily and methodically.
Even for courses that must be completed by a deadline, students can approach learning at their own speed. Instead of feeling rushed, they’re free to spend extra time reviewing each asynchronous lesson to make sure they understand the material.
3. Independent Learning Experience
Asynchronous online learning promotes a high degree of autonomy. Students are encouraged to learn, study and troubleshoot on their own, although online guidance is available if needed. This learning style can improve critical thinking skills while building confidence, discipline
, and understanding.
4. Increased Accessibility to Learning
Depending on where they live, students can’t always find classes at local schools to build the critical skills they need to achieve their goals. Asynchronous instruction enables access to course catalogs from schools across the country or around the world without requiring travel or relocation.
5. Improved Self-Discipline
Working under deadlines requires students to schedule asynchronous classwork around other commitments and be disciplined enough to stick to their plans. Discipline and focus are essential to understanding class material, which requires deliberate effort to remove or minimize distractions.
Developing these skills can improve productivity in other learning activities, on the job, and even in personal responsibilities. Having the ability to pay attention is also beneficial for maintaining relationships and pursuing creative hobbies.
Benefits of Synchronous Learning
Synchronous learning models can offer some advantages over asynchronous classes for students who prefer real-time interaction and quick feedback. The option to include onsite, face-to-face sessions gives instructors and employers the flexibility to design synchronous classes for specific learning objectives that improve student experience and increase the likelihood of positive outcomes.
1. Opportunities to Interact
Synchronous interaction strengthens and reinforces social skills through verbal and nonverbal communication in ways that aren’t possible in asynchronous classes. Gestures and facial expressions provide critical social cues that contextualize conversations beyond text and emojis.
In synchronous settings, students can ask questions and get clarification from their instructors immediately. This is especially important for younger students who are just starting to grasp the class material and have less experience with troubleshooting difficulties on their own.
Interactions between students facilitate knowledge sharing and encourage critical thinking. As students build on each other’s understanding of the material, conversations can become a forum for discovery and academic growth.
2. Greater Sense of Connection
Some students need personal interaction to feel engaged, energized and motivated. Participating in synchronous classes gives them the benefit of connecting with fellow students at regular intervals, making them more likely to succeed.
3. Consistent Accountability
Since students must complete coursework to participate adequately in class, synchronous formats encourage adherence to deadlines. Students who struggle to stay on track can receive direct support from instructors and peers. Knowing there’s a set time to connect with the instructor each week can reduce anxiety and keep students motivated.
4. Personalized Interaction
Students in synchronous learning environments can participate in whatever way they find most comfortable. Video, audio and chat provide personalized communication options that can be tailored to circumstances and comfort levels. Asynchronous communication like email and discussion boards are also available for students to connect with each other or their instructors outside of class.
Instructors can record synchronous sessions and provide replays and transcripts for students who wish to review material after class. This gives students who prefer a slower learning pace the opportunity to return to a subject, take more notes and ask clarifying questions before the next session.
5. Increased Satisfaction
Research suggests that students prefer synchronous learning: They feel more competent and connected, show more interest in course content and are more satisfied with the instruction. Stress levels also appear to be lower when compared to asynchronous classes.
Examples of Asynchronous Learning
1. Video and Audio Learning Tools
Asynchronous learning often incorporates multimedia into lessons. For example, course materials may be explained in a series of video and audio clips that students can access online.
These visual and audio tools for asynchronous learning help make classes memorable. Students may be more familiar with course materials after watching or hearing about them.
For K-12 students, multimedia resources provide opportunities to dig deeper into a topic or gain clarity in areas where they struggle.
Universities can use asynchronous media to provide remote access for students whose schedules or responsibilities make it difficult to attend in-person classes.
2. Online Discussion Forums
An asynchronous learning system includes online forums for students and teachers to communicate openly. Participants can exchange ideas or post theories and reflections about the course materials after viewing each lesson.
Since the chats are ongoing, students can join any time. Asynchronous interaction can enhance the learning experience and inspire new ideas, thoughtful questions and unique perspectives.
Instructors in K-12 classrooms and universities can encourage class participation by asking students to post comments and reply to peers’ posts as part of the course assignments.
3. Curated Course Materials
In asynchronous online teaching, additional readings give students a better understanding of course materials. Instructors can curate a diverse collection of supplementary materials to aid the learning experience.
All course materials can be organized clearly and coherently in one place via cloud-based technology for easy access.
Corporate knowledge bases use this tactic to curate important documents about particular subjects or procedures. This may take the form of a company wiki that can be amended on an as-needed basis to reflect changes and keep employees up to date.
K-12 teachers and university instructors may assign curated materials as homework following a video or audio lesson. Students can use these materials to enhance their comprehension of each lesson and for review before taking tests.
4. Remote Feedback and Assessments
Self-guided assessments are important asynchronous learning activities. Once students have finished a module, online quizzes test their knowledge. These evaluations can be completed whenever each student feels ready. Educators can also attach time limits or restrict the number of times students can submit assignments and quizzes. The right approach will vary on a course-by-course basis.
Teachers can exchange feedback remotely with students based on their progress. This allows students to understand how they are performing in the course and seek additional help if necessary.
Assessments provide accountability for students learning asynchronously in K-12 and higher education settings. Quiz results help instructors gauge how well students grasp the course material and highlight where specific students may be struggling.
5. Individual and Group Assignments
Instructors may add individual or group work to asynchronous courses. Writing assignments are a standard method for encouraging review and deepening comprehension of the topics covered in lessons. Students complete assignments on their own and submit them directly to instructors or post them to discussion boards for peer feedback. In university courses, assignments may serve as the basis for presentations that count toward students’ final grades.
Grouping students together to collaborate asynchronously on projects improves engagement and offers a sense of community. As group members work to achieve common learning goals, they build skills in cooperation, project management and conflict resolution. These skills are critical for students of all ages but have particular applications in the workplace, where diverse teams can benefit from improved asynchronous communication.
Examples of Synchronous Learning
1. Virtual Classrooms
A virtual classroom is a real-time video lesson that students attend together with their cameras on, ready to participate. Instructors use features like chat, hand raising and emoji reactions to encourage engagement and discussion. These features help young students pay attention and provide students of all ages with a sense of social connection.
Like virtual classroom lessons, webinars occur at set times. But in this synchronous learning model, only the instructors speak or present. Students interact using a chat feature to ask questions about the material, or they turn their microphones on to participate in live Q&A at the end.
Webinars are usually recorded so that participants can review sessions later. University instructors may also choose this synchronous format to deliver lectures on complex topics that require visual illustration.
3. Online Conferences and Summits
When a single webinar isn’t enough to cover a topic, instructors or employers may hold an online conference or virtual summit. These events bring groups of expert instructors together to deliver a series of virtual lectures over the course of several hours or days. Students may be required to attend every session or given the choice of which lectures to watch. Classes are delivered in webinar format and recorded for future access.
A conference or summit allows instructors to cover complex subjects in depth or present a series of related topics in a short period.
4. Discussion Groups
Discussion groups can be part of virtual classroom lessons or scheduled as separate synchronous learning sessions. Instructors divide students into breakout rooms to talk over the class material or work on a related assignment for a set amount of time.
High school and university students benefit from the social nature of discussion groups. Participating in these sessions also builds collaboration, communication and cooperation skills that they can take into the workplace, where they may be required to give presentations on what they learn during employer-led synchronous training.
5. Traditional Classrooms
Face-to-face classes can be part of learning models that blend synchronous and asynchronous learning. The in-person sessions may occur in a classroom, lecture hall, or conference room.
Most K-12 schools still use this type of synchronous teaching as the basis for instruction, but the growth of technology allows for more flexibility at the university level. Older students may only need to attend classroom sessions for courses that involve lab work or hands-on assignments.
How to Design Asynchronous Learning Courses
Delivering courses asynchronously calls for planning and preparation to ensure that students can access, understand and benefit from the material.
1. Determine Goals and Objectives
Each course should have clear outcomes for students, such as a subject to master, a skill to build or a competency to develop. Instructors can design class content and assignments to guide students toward these goals. They may also curate supplemental materials to reinforce key concepts.
2. Set up Tools and Technologies
Asynchronous teaching usually requires an online platform like a learning management system to deliver classes and assessments. These programs provide tools instructors need to record lessons, deliver personalized learning experiences and assess students’ progress. All students must have access to a computer and a reliable internet connection to participate.
3. Diversify Materials and Activities
A range of varied materials and learning activities keeps students engaged in asynchronous classes. Instructors may, for example, alternate between assigning reading, writing or group projects to enhance understanding of class material. Assignments that apply class concepts to real-life situations help students visualize how the knowledge they gain will benefit them in the future.
4. Decide How to Evaluate
Self-assessments allow students and instructors to gauge progress through an asynchronous course. Quizzes given at regular intervals ensure that students understand the material before moving on. Instructors may assign additional work to test comprehension or provide additional materials for students who struggle to grasp a particular concept.
5. Create Space for Community
Bringing asynchronous students together in a discussion forum, online chat group or other collaborative platform gives them the connection and support they need to achieve course outcomes. Instructors may set rules for engagement to guide discussions or support collaborative activities that emphasize important points from each lesson.
6. Develop a Framework for Feedback
When students submit assignments or request help while learning asynchronously, they should know when to expect feedback. Instructors can set specific times to be present on discussion boards or provide dedicated email addresses for direct contact. Peer-to-peer feedback may be appropriate for older students who are mature enough to offer constructive advice.
These steps provide a foundation for successful asynchronous learning. As students move through courses, instructors can evaluate student performance and feedback to continually improve learning experiences and outcomes for remote students of all skill levels.
There are pros and cons to both asynchronous learning and synchronous learning and both types can be applied to the K-12 and higher education spaces.
Haley Wilson is a Content Marketing Manager at D2L, specializing in the corporate learning space. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Guelph as well as a Master of Arts focused in history from Wilfrid Laurier University.
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