Synchronous Vs Asynchronous Learning: In-Depth Guide

An In-Depth Comparison of Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning

Digital learning approaches basically come down to two schools of thought:

One emphasizes the reproduction of traditional class structures using the digital equivalents to facilitate live meetings and discussions.

The other uses tools unique to the digital learning experience to create flexible course planning where students can participate and even complete group projects without ever having to be logged in at the same time.

These two schools of thought are called synchronous and asynchronous approaches to learning. The best way to understand the strengths of each is to take a look at the way they work for online and face to face learners alike.

What Is Asynchronous Learning?

The simplest asynchronous learning definition possible is also probably the most accurate. It is any classroom format or model that provides instructors and students alike with the flexibility to work in their own time. The literal meaning of the word asynchronous itself is out of time or not in time, as in all the parts of the course are moving independently of each other instead of sharing a schedule.

Features of Asynchronous Learning

Deadlines still exist in this format, but presentations from instructors or others are instead made via video or audio recording, or sometimes offered live with a recording for those whose schedules conflict. Assessments are scheduled with completion due dates, but left to the learner to approach when ready up to that date.

Finally, course discussions and participation in social learning is accomplished via forums like discussion boards or messaging systems. The goal is to provide a course structure that works with any student's schedule as long as they engage regularly to make progress.

Asynchronous courses are still usually bound by time constraints like the length of a semester or quarter, but not always.

Many L&D programs have ongoing forum courses for professional development, as do the teacher training areas of many college learning management systems.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning

If asynchronous learning is set up to allow students to learn in their own time, then synchronous learning is best understood as its opposite.

Course participation is scheduled with concrete meeting times, students are expected to work together in time if not in groups on the same work, and the instructor dictates the pace of the work for everyone. This is the way traditional face to face learning environments usually operate.

Correspondence schools and other long distance learning options did predate digital learning as iterations of asynchronous learning, but today asynchronous courses are almost always online. The main difference between synchronous and asynchronous learning is whether students gather at once to learn.

Which Learning Model Is Best? How Do You Choose?

When it comes to digital learning, asynchronous approaches have gained wide favor with instructors at every level.

From corporate learning & development programs to university degrees and K-12 virtual learning environments, long-term instructors prefer asynchronous programs. Here are the commonly cited reasons why asynchronous learning is favored by experienced online instructors:

  • Collaboration and group work is completed easily and sometimes with more consistent group-wide participation because students can read one another’s contributions and respond with notes or additions of their own work at their own pace
  • Personal emergencies and changes to student work schedules do not conflict with participation in asynchronous coursework, making it easier to achieve a level playing field for all learners
  • Synchronous learning requires a lot of resources, either in the form of data costs and software investment or in the infrastructure investments necessary to have a brick and mortar classroom
  • Synchronous coursework tends to lose a lot of time to troubleshooting technology whether it is conducted face to face or online, especially as instructors in brick and mortar classrooms depend more on high tech presentation tools

So does this make asynchronous learning better?

In a digital environment it is hard to make the case it's not, but there are courses where it's better to opt for a synchronous classroom.

This is especially true when it comes to learning hands-on skills that take practice to fully internalize. That’s why many programs for technical and practical education use hybrid courses.

Students learn asynchronously when picking up the knowledge of how to do things, then they move into a setting where instructors can observe and provide feedback on the projects that put new knowledge to work.

Programs that benefit from synchronous components if not a fully synchronous schedule include:

  • Nursing courses with lab components
  • HVAC repair
  • Automobile repair and maintenance
  • Welding
  • Pottery and sculpting
  • Musical performance

There’s a definite theme to the situations where synchronous learning shines, and that theme is real time performance. For the vast majority of programs, asynchronous digital approaches are quite efficient and flexible.

How an LMS Platform Can Facilitate Asynchronous Learning

Today’s LMS platforms make setting up asynchronous coursework easy in a variety of ways. It helps that asynchronous teaching has been the standard for many online programs for more than a decade, because that means this generation of eLearning software is largely built to suit teachers using that approach.

That includes:

  1. Making course materials available to learners at all times with deadlines built around the latest acceptable completion time, rather than an assessment date everyone must perform on
  2. Constructing courses that monitor student progress and automatically serve content designed to suit the learner’s needs, reviewing work that is unmastered and quickly moving past topics the student exercises mastery over quickly
  3. Using behavioral insights and other progress monitoring tools to provide data to instructors and automatic feedback to students to help build engagement and positive study habits
  4. Assessments designed to encourage students to show core competencies rather than all or nothing tests and projects with high stakes results
  5. Social learning opportunities like discussions and group work facilitated by file exchanges, forums, and other platform tools

These structural features make creating strong asynchronous courses simple even for new instructors.

When paired with an experienced instructional design specialist who can provide insight into the advantages offered by digital learning, these tools become even more powerful. That’s why so many institutions are investing in purpose-built LMS designs powered by OpenLMS.

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