Online Teaching: Synchronous or Asynchronous?
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
When converting to online or distance learning, one of the first decisions you will have to make is whether to offer learning synchronously or asynchronously.
Synchronous learning is learning that is happening in real time. Methods of synchronous learning include videoconferencing, teleconferencing, live streaming or live chatting. Some people may naturally gravitate toward synchronous learning because it is most similar to face to face learning. Synchronous learning does offer certain benefits which include the ability to experience immediate personal interactions and connections as well as the ability to provide and receive immediate feedback. There are disadvantages to synchronous learning too, however. One disadvantage is dealing with all aspects of the technology in a live setting. You will have to mute and unmute students to allow their participation. Some of their cameras won’t work. Often, they get bumped off so you have people coming and going as you are interacting. Bandwidth can also be an issue. Additionally, synchronous learning does not allow for flexibility in scheduling. If you teach in higher education or you work for a boarding school, remember that some of your students are now in different time zones. Do they really need to get up a 5am to listen to your online lecture live? Remember too, that some families may have only one computing device and multiple school aged children with parents now working from home. This can make scheduling many synchronous sessions difficult.
Asynchronous means “not keeping time together” which means that students can learn on their own time, in their own place. Asynchronous learning might include self-guided lesson modules, streaming video content, virtual libraries, posted lecture notes, or exchanges across online discussion boards or social media. One advantage of asynchronous learning is flexibility. If students are sharing a computer with several family members, they can complete their work on their own time. An additional advantage is pacing. If students are working on their own, they can work at their own pace. If they need more time to read and complete an assignment, they can have it. If they need to stop and rewind a video to take notes or process information, they can do this without slowing anyone else down. Students who work more quickly may also be able to master more content in a shorter period of time, or in more depth. Some potential downsides of asynchronous learning include isolation and a risk of apathy. Sometimes working in the asynchronous environment can be lonely. (There are numerous ways to promote collaboration in an asynchronous environment. More on this to come). Some students may not have developed the self-regulation skills to complete work independently over long periods of time.
As you develop online or distance learning courses, it is important to give some thought to which learning is best completed synchronously vs. asynchronously and to be intentional about your decision-making. It might be beneficial to include some of each in your course to meet the needs of a variety of learners. One advantage of the pandemic's disruption of school is that it affords teachers the opportunity to rethink aspects of teaching and learning to best support and engage students.