Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning

There are typically two types of digital learning; online and blended, and two delivery methods; synchronous and asynchronous. Each has profound significance in how you approach digital learning with your students.

Online learning is as simple as it sounds: students learn entirely online. Today this is almost exclusively via the Internet, although some schools use Internet-connected technology through which students log into a network via their computer or personal technology. If your school provides this service, your experience in digital teaching will only be altered by the constraints of the local system, and any restrictions placed on students for accessing other resources via the Internet.

Blended learning is likely something you have already encountered. It incorporates face-to-face activities with online activities. You may provide certain lesson components in the classroom, and have students view videos or web content, or conduct research on the Internet to complete part of the investigation and learning online. This can support both synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning.

Synchronous Learning

Synchronous learning involves a group. The teacher and students meet online in real time. This requires access to a specific digital learning space such as a web-conferencing virtual classroom. Real-time interaction takes place between the teacher and students, and among students. You can use a variety of technology-based tools such as chat rooms or forums, and video-conferencing software such as Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom, etc. Device-specific tools such as FaceTime are not going to provide the group access you will need.

For videoconferencing, the teacher and students require a web camera attached to the personal computer, or the camera built into an iPad, tablet, or Smartphone. Smaller devices such as Smartphones are less desirable for synchronous learning because it is more difficult for the user to input text or see all of the content, but if these are the only devices available to some of your students, you will have to make decisions about what to present based on the circumstances.

Chances are, if you are engaging in synchronous learning, that your school will be providing the virtual space in which teaching and learning will take place. If not, choose tools and sites that provide the greatest access to everyone in attendance.

One of the challenges to synchronous learning is getting everyone to the same virtual space at the same time, for the same amount of time. If students are at home or traveling, this will not always be possible so it is wise to record the activity for future playback by those who could not attend, and have supplementary activities for them as well. Given these challenges, asynchronous learning is the most likely scenario in which you will find yourself as the teacher in a digital learning environment. If you are providing synchronous learning, in almost all cases your school or district will provide you with the required tools, which may be part of a Learning Management System as discussed later in this course.

Asynchronous Learning

Asynchronous learning occurs when students learn the same concepts using the same or similar materials at different times and in different locations. Students work independently. An example of asynchronous learning is the use of resources and assignments that students complete on their own, and then share with the class and/or the teacher by submitting their work online through email, online discussions boards or forums, or a school-based network.

Even though students work individually and on their own time within an assigned schedule, asynchronous learning does not typically mean isolation from other members of the class.

Social relationships integral to group learning can still be developed through asynchronous communication, but this requires time and special tools. It is important to remember that technology-based media are emotionless, and allowing students to identify themselves through imagery and usernames (think of these as nom de plumes) will help to build emotional involvement.

Five Stages of an Asynchronous Learning Community

The five stages for developing an asynchronous learning community (Waltonen-Moore, et al., 2006) are:

  1. Introductions—this is the “getting to know you as an online entity” stage in which students make an introductory emotive connection by logging into a forum or predesignated online space (e.g., blog, chat room, web conferencing site) and introducing themselves by providing information about who they are and how they view the course subject, etc. For example, you may have students choose an icon or character image that represents them (avatar) so that their contributions are easily identified by the teacher and other students. Each student displays a personal preference by the avatar they choose.
  2. Group participation—once members of the study group begin to communicate with each other, even though it is not in “real time”, norms are established for length and quality of submissions and appropriate language and terminology. A sense of group identity must be created to establish relationships that build commitment, or attrition and poor participation will increase over time.
  3. Interaction—in this stage the students interact with each other and the teacher as the group’s focus is established and the work begins in earnest. If the only interaction is teacher-to-student and student-to-teacher, the lessons simply become homework, and the opportunities for student engagement with the content, and real learning, are less.
  4. Group cohesion—in this stage students validate or challenge each other’s ideas and contributions. Students are reflective of what they have done, and what they have seen from others. The group coalesces around specific learning objectives.
  5. Expansive questioning—students are comfortable with the environment and this shows in their contributions. Focused upon the lesson content, students not only post facts or conclusions, but start to “think out loud” and invite other students to participate in their personal meaning-making and self-directed inquiry. Although each student is still working individually at their own location, and on their own time, they share and respond to the thoughts and ideas as if they were in a group setting.

Asynchronous Tools

In an educational context, learners can use asynchronous tools to learn from others and to share their ideas. Having the opportunity to connect with other learners within an online course is important, and although students may not be involved in synchronous ‘real time’ learning, asynchronous tools can still supply these opportunities.

A discussion forum is an example of an asynchronous tool that allows participants to log into a site and communicate with others. Students can post messages that follow a specific instruction or theme, read the posts of others, receive feedback from peers and the teacher, and generally participate in the course on their own time.

Asynchronous tools need a facilitator to monitor learner participation, ask for feedback, move participants into groups, and allow access to specific discussions. The teacher can partition students into groups, or engage the entire class in one forum. Asynchronous tools can range from text-only environments to those where attachments can be used including pictures and links to related websites and content. Within social media, Facebook is an example of this type of asynchronous tool, although it is not recommended for use in education given the unfettered nature of social media. Google Hangouts is a commonly used tool because it provides for free access, and the ability of the teacher to create private groups using adequate security to ensure that only the students and their families will be involved.

In whatever online forum is used, the teacher should understand and be able to use the following feature sets:

  • The Message Body—this is where the main message and instruction set is posted for everyone to see.
  • Threaded Discussion—these are typically forum ‘rooms’ or areas that relate to a specific message, topic, or set of instructions. In a threaded discussion, the teacher posts a statement or question and students respond. Each response appears in a thread, or continuously populated list, directly below the statement or question, allowing the thoughts to stay cohesive. A discussion is threaded if it shows an outline of the topic, and the replies to the topic follow a common thread.
  • Editing Tools—these will vary depending on the type of site you use (e.g., school network, online discussion forum, Google Hangouts, etc.). Generally, they allow the teacher to edit the content on the page by restructuring sections, removing unwanted posts or attachments, or simply correcting text errors. The teacher must learn and be able to fully use the editing tools for the digital learning site. Some may be shared with students, such as the ability to correct spelling errors, and the teacher provides clear and concise instructions for students about how to use the editing tools they are given access to.
  • Attachment Tools—some sites allow students to attach documents or pictures to their submissions. There are several things to be careful with in providing for and using attachments. File size is a common concern. Whenever possible, provide instruction as to the maximum size of a file (typically in kilobytes or megabytes) that can be attached or uploaded. For example, if you have 30 students all providing 4 MB files it may slow down the loading of the site in web browsers or reach a maximum capacity that does not allow some students to provide their own materials. Know the limit and stay within it. This is especially true when using email. Most email servers place a maximum file size limit on email attachments that simply means an email with an attachment that is too large will never be received.
  • Formatting Tools—some sites and resources provide tools to alter the format of text, such changing the type and size of fonts or adding color to words to assist students in expressing themselves. These will vary by site and tool and the teacher will need to explore and understand any formatting tools that are present.

Benefits of Using Asynchronous Tools

The primary benefits of using asynchronous tools are convenience and control. Students can participate at times that are convenient, from home, with parental or family involvement. This removes some of the principal barriers to participation and allows the teacher to engage each student in a wider variety of ways. The teacher can give students greater control over their learning. When receiving tasks that require the student to commit to outcomes, the student can schedule their own time and engage at a deeper level with the content without the physical restrictions of limited classroom time, limited access to related learning resources, and limited access to other students. If the content allows for research and discovery via the Internet, the student has greater responsibility for, and control over their participation.

Not all learning is directly related to course content. Asynchronous tools allow the teacher to involve students in discussions that can be more general in nature, or specific to an important aspect of the subject matter. Students can and will engage in discussions with other students that can lead to discovery, and increase student engagement through peer relationships.

Asynchronous learning provides more opportunities for differentiated instruction. The teacher can have specific and targeted one-on-one discussion with a student and family members about aspects of learning unique to the needs of that student.

Other benefits of asynchronous tools include:

  • Use of visual and auditory media—activities and lessons can be more engaging with the use of various media that can be attached to learning content and assignments. Access to video clips, music, slideshows and other forms of entertaining and engaging digital content is wide and varied on the Internet.
  • Time for reflection—students can reflect on what they have seen, the contributions or influences of their peers, and their own thoughts and contributions, having greater control over their time than during a classroom session. It is common for students to stop thinking about what they have been doing in class as soon as a classroom session ends, but there is no end to the learning session at home until the student decides they are done with it.
  • Discourse is not dominated by the loudest students in the class. Peer relationships are different when learning takes place online and when students are disconnected from the physical associations they experience in the classroom.
  • Assessment practices are more authentic—presenting, displaying, and demonstrating work is easier when it is submitted online at a time and in a method determined by the student.