Synchronous vs. asynchronous online learning

This post is part of an effort to explore how different online learning methods affect knowledge retention among students.

In many ways, the distinction between synchronous and asynchronous learning is a false one.

Asynchronous online learning usually allows collaboration between students and teachers using email, discussion boards and wikis. The flexibility of this collaboration makes it an attractive option for students with work or family commitments. Some say that it encourages students to spend more time reflecting on their contributions to class discussions, leading to higher quality work.

Synchronous online learning, on the other hand, relies more on instant messaging, webinars and videoconferencing.

In practice, many online courses are a combination of synchronous and asynchronous methods of interaction. For example, one of my courses in Quinnipiac’s Interactive Media program made use of an asynchronous wiki and email list supplemented by synchronous communication such as conference calls and Chatzilla “office hours.”

Moreover, the medium of interaction – synchronous or asynchronous – between students and teachers is only one element determining the effectiveness of a course. A 1996 paper on distance learning (PDF download) indicates that the timing of student interaction is only one of six major considerations when designing distance learning courses. The others are:

  • delivery and access to learning materials;
  • control over learning materials;
  • symbolic/audio-visual characteristics of the learning materials;
  • the “social presence” created by interaction;
  • the human-machine interface.

Although interesting studies have focused on the effectiveness of synchronous vs. asynchronous learning, these are generally based not on statistic or grades but on “measures and perceptions of communication, which have been shown to have a positive effect on perceived learning, grades, and quality assessment of assignments.” (Hrastinksi, S (2008) in EDUCAUSE Quarterly (EQ), vol 31 no. 4.)

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