Synchronous vs Asynchronous Learning

With more and more people choosing online education for themselves and their children, the offerings are increasing as well. Choice is definitely a good thing, but it also makes your decision harder when you have so many schools and courses to weed through.

One major factor to take into consideration is whether you would rather synchronous learning, asynchronous learning, or a combination of the two. Many courses or programs offer a combination of both, but have their basis in one or the other. Continue reading to learn more about what each type of learning is as well as the pros and cons of each.

What is Synchronous Learning?

Synchronous learning is the type of learning you would get in a traditional classroom: everybody is there at the same time, interacting and taking in the same information simultaneously. The synchronous settings are led and facilitated by the teacher or course instructor.

In-person courses in a traditional school setting use synchronous learning. In an online setting, synchronous classrooms use chat rooms, video conferencing, live streaming, and other methods to have the whole class meet at the same time. Students are usually able to interact with each other and their teacher, responding to questions and getting help in real time.

What is asynchronous learning?

Asynchronous learning is when everyone tunes in when it’s convenient for them. Teachers post lectures, reading materials, discussion questions, and other class materials onto the course management system, and students complete tasks and learn on their own time. Teachers may give students deadlines to complete modules or turn in assignments, but it’s up to students if they want to do it at 1 am or noon.

Pros of Synchronous Learning

  • Personal connection: It’s much easier for teachers and students to form connections with each other when they meet face to face, even if virtually.
  • Less miscommunication: When teachers are meeting with students in real time, they can make themselves clear and respond to any questions or confusion right away, so students are left confused or wondering what to do next.
  • More clarification: Similarly, it’s much easier for students to ask questions and clarify concepts. When teaching in real time, these questions help teachers know when they need to slow down or take some time reviewing a topic, just as they would in a traditional classroom.
  • Group work: When teachers assign group or partner work, things tend to go more smoothly when students can meet together in real time. Students can talk and get to know each other while they work through the assignment or project together.
  • Easy check-ins: Teachers like to know which students might be having trouble or falling behind, and simply being able to see facial expressions or watch as students work on a problem helps them know who might need more help. Without being able to see students in real time, students could fall really far behind before teachers notice.
  • Structure: Many students need the structure and accountability synchronous learning provides. Students who thrive on routine like being able to rely on what’s coming each day. Without a set class time, some students don’t have the motivation or time management skills to complete their work.
  • Classroom culture: One of the great benefits of meeting together in a physical classroom is the sense of classroom culture and camaraderie students and teachers feel. Synchronous online learning provides more of a sense of culture than asynchronous learning.
  • Instant feedback: Students can find out right away if they’re on the right track or if they need to correct something because the teacher is right there. They don’t have to wait for a response to an email, and they won’t waste their time doing something wrong while they’re waiting to hear back from their teacher.

Cons of Synchronous Learning

  • Wasted time: Synchronous learning can be time consuming for a multitude of reasons, including waiting for everyone to connect, troubleshooting technical issues, and sitting through small talk. Some “time wasters” like small talk or transition time are intentionally used in a traditional classroom to give students a break and to structure the day, but when students can take their own breaks and schedule their own day when e-learning, these breaks and transitions aren’t needed.
  • Scheduling: Many students choose online learning because of the flexible schedule it offers, but synchronous learning doesn’t provide that flexibility. It’s difficult for students who work odd hours or who need to take care of a child or younger sibling to attend class at a scheduled time. This can also be an issue if students are in different time zones.
  • Connection and technology issues: If the connection goes out or students have trouble with technology during a synchronous lesson, they’re going to miss out on that information. This could also mean they let partners or group members down during group work.
  • Distractions: Synchronous learning, especially in an environment where the whole class joins in a big video chat, can be very distracting: students jump in and out with connection issues, look at each other rather than the teacher, fail to mute their microphones so there is background noise, play around with backgrounds and filters, angle their camera so other students can see pets and other family members in the background, etc.

Pros of Asynchronous Learning

  • Efficiency: Asynchronous learning can be very quick and efficient. Students simply log on, get right to the point of what they need to learn or do, and move on. This also allows them to take breaks when they need to and to power through information when their minds are ready to learn.
  • Scheduling: Asynchronous learning is ideal for people who can’t take classes during the traditional school day. It also works really well for families who need to share a device and have to schedule who gets to use it when.
  • Pacing: Students can go at their own pace, so those who need more time get all the time they need, while students who move through material quickly can move on when they’re ready. This can eliminate the frustration students feel when the classroom pace is too fast for them, and the boredom students feel when the classroom pace is too slow for them.
  • Review: Students are able to go back and rewatch lectures to review information or clarify concepts that are confusing to them.
  • Multitasking: It isn’t the best idea for students to try to watch TV or socialize while doing their schoolwork, but asynchronous learning does give students a great opportunity to multitask efficiently. For example, students can listen to a lecture while washing dishes or going for a run.
  • Appeals to different learning types: Rather than requiring all students to come together to listen to the teacher or join in a video chat, asynchronous courses can provide information to students in many different ways so they can choose how they want to consume the information. For example, a teacher might offer a video lecture, an audio lecture, and a transcript of the lecture so students can choose which they prefer. All types of delivery offer the same information, but allow students to pick what works best for them.
  • Timing: We all have different internal clocks that make us more alert and primed to learn at different times. Students can learn when their brains are wired to learn; night owls can do their work at night while early birds can get up early and complete their classes first thing.
  • Teachers have more time for questions and feedback: Rather than spending their time teaching live lectures and talking to students all at once, teachers can create materials ahead of time so they don’t have to spend time delivering the content. They then have more time to spend answering questions, responding to emails, meeting one on one with students, and providing meaningful feedback on assignments.
  • Students can learn offline: If students don’t have wifi at home, they can download course materials somewhere else and then be able to work at home without worrying about a spotty, slow, or nonexistent signal.
  • Deeper thinking: Students have more time to think about a concept before they respond. In a “live” format, students don’t get a chance to meditate on the content before being called on or being asked to share their opinion. With asynchronous learning, students might have a few days to think about what they are learning in a reading or lecture before being asked to post to a discussion board or share their thoughts.
  • Everyone has their voice heard: Like in a physical classroom, in a face to face video chat, students who are more reserved often don’t offer their opinion. It’s easier for these students to join in discussions that aren’t happening in real time because they have time to craft what they want to say, and they’re not afraid somebody else is going to talk over them.

Cons of Asynchronous Learning

  • Lack of social connection: Students can go through a whole course without even knowing what their teacher looks like or talking to him or her one on one. This can make the learning process very distant and impersonal.
  • Misunderstanding: When only communicating via email or text, it’s easy for teachers to misunderstand students and vice versa. Students might not understand concepts, teachers might not understand questions students are asking via email, and it’s easy for everyone to misinterpret tone and intentions in communications.
  • Teachers can seem unavailable: Sometimes students assume teachers aren’t available to help them or answer questions since it can almost seem like the course is running on autopilot.
  • Motivation: Some students have a lot of trouble finding the motivation and discipline to listen to lectures, read required readings, and complete assignmentments without face to face meetings and a strict schedule. Students who typically require a lot of prompting from their teacher to stay on task are often the ones who struggle the most with this.
  • Students try to rush: When there is no set time that students need to be logged in and learning, they can be tempted to cut corners and rush through their work.

Should You Choose Synchronous or Asynchronous Learning?

Thankfully, you likely don’t have to choose one or the other. Many courses offer a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning, but many lean more toward one or the other.

For example, a course might have all lectures in a live, synchronous format while all other course tasks are asynchronous. The teacher might start the morning going over concepts and giving students assignments, and then let them work through those assignments on their own time throughout the day.

In another example, a teacher might post all course materials for students to access asynchronously on their own time, but might require weekly one on one or group check-ins.

Before choosing a study tract or course, think about which type of learning best matches your style and preferences. You might even find that you like having a combination of synchronous and asynchronous courses. If you’re not sure if a course is synchronous or asynchronous, contact the school or the teacher to get a better idea of how the course is structured.

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