Oct 25 2021

The Changing Face of Instruction: Synchronous vs. Asynchronous E-Learning

Synchronous and asynchronous online courses each provide different benefits. Research shows students learning in the COVID-19 era prefer one over the other.

Eleven years ago, researchers warned in the journal TechTrends that universities would one day need to deliver courses in alternative ways to ensure continuity of instruction for students in case of impending pandemics.

In 2020, their prediction came true.

From February 2020 to March 2021, schools turned to online synchronous and asynchronous forms of education as waves of COVID-19 presented a rocky return to traditional on-campus learning. More recently, a growing number of schools are turning to synchronous hybrid learning (SHL), where students can learn together face-to-face and online at the same time through a blend of synchronous and asynchronous modalities.

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What’s the Difference Between Asynchronous and Synchronous Learning?

Synchronous teaching is defined as a one-to-one encounter between teacher and student. It is collaborative, location-based and time-based, with students interacting either in real-time classroom discussions or in an online format through videoconferencing, live chat or phone calls. It fosters active participation and interactive discussions.

While students may find this format more dynamic, its delivery can lead to frequent interruptions and distractions, and its inflexible schedule can exclude students in different locations and time zones. Conversely, asynchronous teaching allows students to review course content on their own schedules. Examples of asynchronous learning include prerecorded videos, podcasts and emails.

Do students prefer asynchronous learning? Not everyone does. Experts say this format works best for students who are self-disciplined, for those who want to go at their own pace and for those with unstable internet connections.

GET THE WHITE PAPER: Learn how to build out blended learning environments for higher education.

But asynchronous instruction can still provide general benefits to learning outcomes. 

Christopher Tuffnell, an instructor in innovative and digital education at the University of Wollongong in Dubai, says that whenever he wants students to understand an especially important part of his course, he delivers it asynchronously to help learners digest and engage with the data.

On the other hand, he says, “When I want students to create, evaluate, analyze and apply certain concepts, then I create a synchronous space that’s guided by the instructor and characterized by in-person peer interaction.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to make hybrid learning happen in higher ed.

Research shows that synchronous instruction seems to provide better results. However, each modality is equally important, says John Spencer, an associate professor of education at George Fox University in Oregon.

“Both have advantages and disadvantages for collaborative work,” says Spencer. “Students need to think intentionally, and educators strategically, about when to use either approach for student projects.”

Do Students Prefer Synchronous or Asynchronous Learning?

Last spring, a team of researchers in the U.S. and Canada surveyed 4,789 undergraduate students across 95 countries, finding that 84 percent of those students (recruited via Instagram) preferred synchronous over asynchronous delivery for its immersive and social qualities. In contrast with nontraditional distance learners before COVID-19, who valued asynchronous courses for their flexibility, today’s students prioritize face-to-face instruction and connection with others.

Pandemic-induced isolation has made synchronous instruction particularly appealing. This type of education is also familiar to students and instructors because it resembles traditional classroom formats, according to a study published by Frontiers in Education.

The past few months have seen the growing appeal of an evolving system that has various names, including “blended synchronous” learning, “synchromodal” learning and “HyFlex” learning. In this style of learning, instructors blend in-person and online elements, aiming to integrate the best of asynchronous and synchronous instruction. In this format, students who seek an in-person classroom experience interact with remote students who prefer that same real-time experience, but from a distance.

RELATED: See how small IT departments can manage HyFlex classrooms at scale.

Instructors can also convert synchronous lessons into an asynchronous modality by translating their course elements into video chats, assigned readings, shared documents, uploaded media, online quizzes and discussion boards for flexible viewing.

With all of this said, some educators find blended synchronous learning environments challenging. Aside from potential technical problems, challenges include knowing how to communicate with in-person and remote students at the same time, as well as integrating traditional materials with technologies such as chat rooms, virtual whiteboards and cameras.

Still, researchers find synchronous hybrid learning a pragmatic alternative for navigating pandemic-related uncertainties in education. In a 2020 report, Julia Priess-Buchheit of the Coburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany concluded that when instructors and students learn how to use technologies to communicate, SHL can be “a solution between extremes that balances different needs in times of social distancing.”

As experts predicted more than a decade ago, it could well be the alternative education of the future.

Nattakorn Maneerat