Asynchronous Learning vs Synchronous: A Teacher's Guide

As remote learning becomes more commonplace, educators are searching for new ways to adapt to their students’ needs and schedules. Capturing the same connection and engagement of the traditional classroom is one of the biggest challenges online educators face. Alternative synchronous (or “synch”) classrooms, where everyone learns and interacts in the same space at the same time through live video streams, video conferences and even telephone conferences, have helped to fill the gap. 

But even synchronous tools often fall short in providing the level of support and time that students need to thrive. Rather than accepting this as simply a downfall to remote learning, educators are increasingly integrating new strategies that combine both synchronous and asynchronous learning tools to benefit their students.

Asynchronous Learning Definition

Given the changes in our teaching environment — some a natural evolution as technology advances, and many the product of the COVID-19 pandemic — asynchronous (or “asynch”) learning has gained popularity as teachers and students leave the traditional classroom and take distance education to the web. Asynchronous learning means a teacher provides the tools for learning, such as lectures, assignments, and exams, but students can complete the coursework at their own pace subject to established guidelines. 

For teachers who are juggling multiple online classes and other responsibilities, introducing async learning tools can free up time without compromising the level of support and education students receive. For students, asynchronous learning provides the opportunity to participate on their own schedule without regard to time zone issues. 

Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Learning

When choosing the best tools for your online classroom, it’s helpful to consider what each type does and how it is intended to function. Ideally, a mix of both synchronous and asynchronous tools is most effective to achieve optimal learning outcomes. By building a diverse roster of resources, you can be more flexible with your teaching and your students will have more opportunities to progress and maintain productivity.

Synchronous Learning

With traditional synchronous learning, educators and students gather in the same place at the same time. This familiar model applies when teaching K-12 or lecturing at the university level. 

Examples of synchronous learning include:

  • In-person classrooms
  • Live-streamed lessons
  • Virtual classrooms
  • Video conferences through tools such as Zoom
  • Webinars
  • Phone calls

Asynchronous Learning

Asynchronous learning is not an alternative to synchronous learning but instead provides additional invaluable tools to complement traditional learning methodologies. The more remote the educator’s students are, whether by design or due to practical considerations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the more useful asynchronous tools become when filling in lecture, meeting and other gaps. 

Examples of asynchronous learning tools include:

  • Discussion boards
  • Blogs
  • Collaborative tools on G Suite
  • Recorded video updates through platforms like Grapevine
  • Online courses
  • Digital libraries
  • Email lists

Benefits of Synchronous Learning

Close Interaction With Others

Whether in-person in the classroom or via technology, synchronous learners are able to  engage with the teacher and one another through the immediate exchange of information and thoughts, often face-to-face. Students who are less motivated on their own benefit from synchronous environments where they can be inspired by others, guided by their teacher, and participate in interactive discussions with their peers. This has been the most familiar learning environment for students through the generations.

Immediate Feedback

Synchronous learning is collaborative and responsive; if students have a question, all they have to do is ask. Teachers are able to convey information more quickly, gauge how it’s being received, and provide further clarification in real-time. This level of support can be beneficial for students who are struggling with a subject or require more one-on-one instruction.

Personal Connection and Engagement

Remote learning can feel disconnected and isolating for many students. Synchronous tools such as live streamed lessons and webinars can help maintain a sense of connection and teamwork that educators work so diligently to create in their physical classrooms.

Benefits of Asynchronous Learning

Self-guided Learning

When utilizing asynchronous tools, students choose the best time and environment to study. For adults, the rigid schedule and demands of synchronous learning can create challenges, especially for those who work or travel often. An asynchronous approach allows students to complete course content on their own schedule; this embraces the individuality of every student’s unique learning style and retention needs. If they’re an early bird, they can get started on their coursework as soon as they wake up, but all the night owls won’t miss a thing when they log on at night, either.

Potential for Deeper Discussion

Discussion boards and collaborative documents and sheets allow students to engage with one another in a highly productive way. They have more time to formulate thoughtful responses and provide better feedback than they might in a faster-paced synchronous environment. The ability to reflect on others’ posts and comments can also prompt deeper research and lead to a stronger takeaway from the course material.

Greater Flexibility

While asynchronous learning tools may feel more “hands-off” than educators are accustomed to, they provide greater flexibility for learners who may need additional time to review material, practice skills, and complete assignments. They also allow students to avoid the pitfalls of isolation between lectures or other engagements by maintaining more interpersonal connections with their teacher and peers, thus staying more engaged in the course and improving learning outcomes.

Top Tools for Asynchronous Learning

Transitioning from the familiarity of synchronous learning can feel daunting, but there are a variety of tools that have been designed with accessibility in mind. Their intuitive interfaces make it easy for students and teachers to start using them right away.

If you have the luxury of doing so, it’s a good idea to integrate asynchronous tools gradually. This gives students time to familiarize themselves with the new method, ask questions and become confident in switching between both synchronous and asynchronous tools.

For educators who find themselves in the position of having to adapt to asynchronous tools quickly for their remote learners, fear not. Although you may feel a bit adrift right now, these tools can help you regain your footing and become more comfortable teaching from home.

Videos

As a complement to live, synchronous lessons, recorded video updates can be a useful tool to help students stay up-to-date on course assignments and progress. Grapevine, for example, allows educators and students to record and upload videos to a group dashboard where group members can watch and respond on their own time.

From an educator’s standpoint, this is a great opportunity to provide lesson briefs, share learning resource information, broadcast program curricula, respond to inquiries, and encourage group engagement. To avoid passive learning, students can be required to upload videos sharing their coursework and progress, and discuss any interesting facts they’ve learned or report any struggles they’re having. Classmates respond as well as teachers, creating a more collaborative environment for learning and motivation.

Group Discussions

Discussion boards, collaborative tools, and messaging services give students a space to socialize and share opinions. Educators should always supervise and lead the exchanges, but there are plenty of opportunities for students to spark new ideas and explore subjects in greater depth. 

Collaboration Tools

PowerPoint as well as G Suite tools such as Docs, Slides and Sheets allow teachers and students to document and present information in a multitude of ways. Work with these tools can be done independently or as a group. Completed work can be stored and viewed at any time, and serve as a springboard for subsequent groups to engage in further research, exploration and critical thinking. To help students coordinate efforts more effectively, team-based project management apps like Asana can be implemented.

Moving Forward with Asynchronous Learning

Remote learning is a new environment for many educators, and with it comes a steep learning curve to ensure the best possible outcomes for themselves and their students. Educators are quickly becoming acquainted with virtual classrooms, teaching via video conference and the like, and are increasingly concerned about the potential loss of productivity that comes with distance. 

Fortunately, though, as the education landscape evolves, so too does the technology that supports it. Familiar synchronous learning tools are now being supported by innovative and efficient asynchronous tools.

As you decide how to integrate asynchronous learning into your teaching methodologies and learning management systems (LMS), consider your objectives, the gaps that need to be filled, the age of your students, and the accessibility of tools. Take the time to experiment with different forms of synchronous and asynchronous learning tools until you find the right combination for you and your students. In time, you’ll likely be surprised at how dynamic your new non-traditional classroom can become.