If you’re considering online college, we’re guessing that flexibility is at least one of the reasons. Get an education anywhere, anyhow, anytime. That’s what the commercials say, right?
Well, that actually depends on the type of online education you pursue. In the broadest possible terms (I can’t stress the broadness of it enough), there are two categories of online learning: synchronous and asynchronous.
While it’s not uncommon to hear online education described in general terms, synchronous and asynchronous online education can actually be quite different. One experience might be right for one learner but unsustainable for another.
What kind of learner are you? Are you a self-starter or a social butterfly? Do you thrive in the warm embrace of a supportive instructor or do you do your best work in a virtual isolation chamber? Does professorial oversight motivate you to be your best self or does it just cramp your style? And most importantly, what kind of online experience is your best bet for success?
Sorry to get all personal. You don’t have to tell us. We’re not trying to pry. But we are here to help.
Consider the advantages and disadvantages of both Synchronous and Asynchronous learning. Once you have a clear sense of what differentiates these experiences, you’ll be better prepared to choose between the two. And once you can do that, you can truly whittle down your options as you seek an online education.
Synchronous Learning: Moving in Stereo
Synchronous learning is the kind of learning that happens in real time. This means that you, your classmates and your instructor interact in a specific virtual place, through a specific online medium, at a specific time. In other words, it’s not exactly anywhere, anyhow, anytime. Methods of synchronous online learning include videoconferencing, teleconferencing, live chatting, and live-streaming lectures.
+ Classroom Engagement +
If you’re the kind of learner that likes active discussion, immediate feedback, and a personal familiarity that you can only get through real-time interaction, you’re probably a candidate for a synchronous learning experience. This is an especially important distinction if you’re just making the transition from the traditional classroom to an online setting. The personal contact that you get through live videoconferencing, lecture broadcasts or messenger chatting can make it a lot easier to make the transition. Essentially, you can have all the personal engagement of a classroom without getting all sketched out about germs during cold and flu season.
+ Dynamic Learning +
This experience comes with more than just engagement though. There’s a case to be made that synchronous online learning is simply a superior way to learn, that it allows for a more dynamic exploration of topics, ideas and concepts than is possible in a medium with time lag. Videoconferencing, for instance, makes it possible to ask questions and receive answers mid-lesson; to discourse and debate with classmates at a brisk and exciting pace; to collectively drive a conversation into unexpected new directions. There is a speed and immediacy to synchronous online learning that, at its best, evokes the same level of accountability and engagement as classroom attendance. If you thrive at a swift pace, surrounded by competing and complementary ideas, this is as close as you’ll come to the real thing.
+ Instructional Depth +
It’s also a good way to go if you’re the kind of person who will simply be distracted to the point of disturbance if you can’t see what your professor is wearing on a day to day basis. Is he sitting in leather-appointed home library wearing something with elbow patches or is he wearing a velour jogging suit and lecturing from the front seat of his car in a Waffle House parking lot? It’s hard to tell with asynchronous learning and that can be a bit unsettling. With synchronous online learning, you’ll interact regularly and frequently. You’ll actually get to know your instructor. This is not just a good way to confirm your instructor’s credibility. It also provides regular opportunity for face-to-face discussion, individual guidance, and perhaps even the chance to establish a mentorship. If you’re the type of student that does your best work with the help of accessible and supportive instruction, you’re probably a synchronous learner.
- Rigid Schedule -
If you’ve chosen online learning because of your hectic and unpredictable work schedule, synchronous learning may present you with some challenges. The defining characteristic of this learning experience is its adherence to a set schedule. Lectures and class discussions will take place at established meeting times. If your job as a registered nurse keeps you on call at strange hours, or your parenting responsibilities render you fully occupied during the day time, or your hobby as an amateur storm-chaser means that you have to be ready to roll at a moment’s notice, you may have a hard time satisfying your course requirements. If flexibility is the number one reason that you’ve decided to go the online route, make sure you can manage your synchronous learning responsibility around your schedule.
- Technical Difficulties -
The above concern is especially pressing if you’re a person on the go. If your work or life requires extensive travel, or at least the kind of mobility that forces you to complete coursework in weird places like coffee shops, airport terminals and hotel lobbies, you’re probably always carrying a laptop and always searching for a wireless signal. That search could be pretty stressful if you’re desperately trying to log in for a videoconference, lecture, or heaven forbid, an exam. Frankly, my internet randomly craps out even when I’m sitting at home fiending for a Netflix binge. It happens. As a synchronous learner, technical difficulties like spotty internet, crashing hard drives, and dying batteries can become anything from an inconvenience to a disaster. Instead of logging in and sitting for your exam, you’re sweating profusely and sputtering profanities at your computer. Who has the time for that?
Asynchronous Learning: Time in a Bottle
Asynchronous learning happens on your schedule. While your course of study, instructor or degree program will provide materials for reading, lectures for viewing, assignments for completing, and exams for evaluation, you have the ability to access and satisfy these requirements within a flexible time frame. Methods of asynchronous online learning include self-guided lesson modules, streaming video content, virtual libraries, posted lecture notes, and exchanges across discussion boards or social media platforms.
+ Flexibility +
If you’ve got a demanding schedule or weird hours, you’re probably an asynchronous learner. Your learning will typically revolve around materials that can be accessed on your own time, (though often within a set time frame like a week or two). Materials might include text-based lecture notes, self-guided interactive learning modules, or pre-recorded lectures and podcasts. If you need to complete a module on the train ride to work; if you have to listen to a lecture on headphones while your baby naps; if you work the graveyard shift at a sewage treatment facility, sleep until the middle of the afternoon and do your best reading while Dr. Phil reruns blather in the background, you totally can. Asynchronous learning gives you the materials. It’s up to you to complete them at your convenience.
+ Pacing +
One of the most empowering features of asynchronous learning is the fact that your experience is typically self-guided. Read at your pace. View on your time. Complete based on your understanding … as opposed to the pressure to hit a deadline. If you’re a quick learner, you can choose to power through materials and units that come easily to you. If it takes you a bit more time to absorb new information and knowledge, this path also gives you the chance to review information, take notes, and practice retention without concern over the speed of a lecture or the pace of your classmates. Shape your learning experience based on your needs as opposed to the tempo of the classroom.
+ Affordability +
If one of the leading motives behind your online education is affordability, there are countless opportunities for learning that carry a lower price-tag (or are perhaps even free) because they can be administrated without day to day instruction. Though there are many asynchronous experiences in which you can and must interact directly with an instructor—often through methods of communication with high time latency like email or social media—there are just as many ways of learning without any professorial support. Self-guided modules, video tutorials, and virtual libraries all offer you the chance to pursue your education with a minimum of oversight. Though oversight comes with its advantages, the biggest advantage to not having it is that you don’t have to pay for it. This means that there are myriad asynchronous learning options out there that can provide you with new knowledge and skills at a minimal (possibly even nonexistent) cost.
- Isolation -
Of course, if you like the personal touch, and you do your best pontificating when you feel like people are actually listening, asynchronous learning can be a lonely experience. Social media and email simply can’t deliver the same kind of intellectual energy as real-time interaction. This atmosphere is also a less collaborative one. The opportunities to interface with, debate, and network with classmates are scarcer. In a lot of ways, asynchronous learning is best for you if your plan is simply to get in, get some skills, and get out. (Nothing wrong with that plan, by the way). But if you’re looking for the kind of enrichment that comes from discussion, feedback, and just a little bit of social interaction, you might be disappointed by your asynchronous learning experience.
- Risk of Apathy -
While working in a self-guided environment sounds really great and empowering, it’s important to be honest with yourself. Are you truly the kind of learner with the drive, not just to pace yourself and commit to a set of personal goals, but to remain passionate and enthusiastic about the subject matter without the support and evaluation of an instructor? The reality is that some learners benefit best from access to clearly stated expectations, immediate feedback, and, to an extent, a watchful eye. If you’re this type of learner, the free-form nature of asynchronous learning could be demotivating. Beware of complacency.
Time Out of Mind
The cool thing about online learning—learning in general really—is that you don’t have to choose just one way of doing it. With a clear sense of the advantages and disadvantages of each, you can not only choose between synchronous and asynchronous learning, but you can find optimal ways to combine them.
Many online colleges offer a little of both. In fact, there’s a good chance that even your synchronous online course uses some asynchronous instructional strategies as well. Perhaps your course will require you to attend two videoconference lectures a week while otherwise completing reading assignments, modules or social media discussions as your schedule allows.
And as online learning continues to evolve in exciting and unpredictable new directions, the prospects are fairly limitless for merging and reimagining either of these approaches to education. Now that you know what differentiates them, you should be better prepared to find the opportunity that makes the most sense for you.
Start by checking out 100 Best Online Colleges for 2018–2019.