Synchronous Learning vs. Asynchronous Learning in Online Education

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What’s the difference between synchronous learning and asynchronous learning? The answer could have a huge impact on your online education experience.

Online education has grown in popularity and accessibility, attracting students with its schedule-friendly format options. These formats can be grouped broadly into two categories: synchronous and asynchronous.

Synchronous learning is online or distance education that happens in real time, often with a set class schedule and required login times. Asynchronous learning does not require real-time interaction; instead, content is available online for students to access when it best suits their schedules, and assignments are completed to deadlines. Programs can also use a hybrid learning model, which includes a blend of both formats.

When choosing on an online education format, it's important to ask yourself: What kind of learner are you? Are you a self-starter or a social butterfly? Does professorial oversight motivate you to be your best self or does it just cramp your style?

If you already know what you’re looking for, jump right to our list of the Best Online Colleges for 2020. Otherwise, read on to learn more about the various types of online learning formats.

What Is Synchronous Learning?

Synchronous learning happens in real time. This means that you, your classmates, and your instructor interact in a specific virtual place at a set time. In these courses, instructors commonly take attendance, same as they would in a lecture hall. Common methods of synchronous online learning include video conferencing, teleconferencing, live chatting, and live-streamed lectures that must be viewed in real time.

What are the advantages of synchronous learning?

Classroom Engagement

If you like active discussion, immediate feedback, and personal interactions with peers and instructors, you’ll probably prefer a synchronous learning experience. This format can be especially helpful if you’re just beginning the transition from a traditional classroom to an online setting. Live videoconferencing, lecture broadcasts, and chatting in real time in a messaging client can offer much of the personal engagement available in a classroom, while also allowing you the comforts of home and no commute time. Plus, you won't ever have to worry about germs during cold and flu season.

Dynamic Learning

For some learning styles, a synchronous online format is actually an improvement over classroom learning because it allows for a more dynamic exploration of topics, ideas, and concepts. There is a speed and immediacy to synchronous online learning; videoconferencing makes it possible to ask peers and TAs questions and receive answers mid-lesson, and not being in a lecture hall means you can do your own research on the side without disrupting class. If you thrive at a swift pace, surrounded by competing and complementary ideas, a synchronous format might suit you well.

Instructional Depth

With synchronous online learning, you interact regularly and frequently with your professors and can get to know them. This provides regular opportunities for face-to-face discussion, individual guidance, and mentorship without having to schedule independent appointments. If you do your best work when you have accessible and supportive instruction, you’re probably a synchronous learner.

What are the disadvantages of synchronous learning?

Rigid Schedule

If you’ve chosen online learning because of your hectic and unpredictable work schedule, synchronous learning may cause problems. 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 keeping up with the set schedule of a synchronous online course. If flexibility is the number one reason that you’ve chosen the online route, having to adapt to a synchronous learning schedule may defeat the purpose.

Technical Difficulties

If your work or life requires extensive travel and you often find yourself completing coursework in weird places like coffee shops, airport terminals, and hotel lobbies, synchronous learning might add to your stress. The constant search for a wireless signal becomes even more dire when you’re on the clock for a videoconference, lecture, or even an exam. For synchronous learners, technical difficulties like spotty internet, crashing hard drives, and dying batteries can become full-fledged, GPA-tanking disasters. Instead of logging in and sitting for your exam, you can end up sputtering profanities at your computer. And who has the time for that?

If synchronous learning presents you with scheduling challenges, check out our tips for effective time management in online college.

What is Asynchronous Learning?

Asynchronous learning happens on your schedule. While your course of study, instructor, or program will provide materials for reading, lectures for viewing, assignments for completing, and exams for evaluation, you can access and satisfy these requirements on your own schedule, so long as you meet the expected deadlines. Common methods of asynchronous online learning include self-guided lesson modules, pre-recorded video content, virtual libraries, lecture notes, and online discussion boards or social media platforms.

What are the advantages of asynchronous learning?

Flexibility

If you have a demanding schedule or keep weird hours, you’re probably an asynchronous learner. In these programs, materials are freely available — usually within a set period, like a week or two — so you can access them when it best suits your scheudle, even if it's in the middle of the night. Materials can include text-based lecture notes; self-guided, interactive learning modules; or pre-recorded lectures and podcasts. You can complete a module on the train ride to work; listen to a lecture on headphones while your baby naps; or work the graveyard shift, sleep until noon, and take a pop quiz over brunch. Asynchronous learning gives you the materials so that you can complete them at your convenience.

Pacing

One of the most empowering features of asynchronous learning is that you set the pace (usually within set deadlines). You can read and review materials as much as you need to, completing them based on your understanding rather than on when class time ends. If you’re a quick learner, you can power through materials and units that come easily to you. If it takes you longer to absorb new knowledge, you can review information, take notes, and practice retention without worrying about falling behind your classmates or missing key points in a lecture.

Affordability

If a major motivating factor for you in choosing online education is affordability, fully asynchronous programs are among your best options. Online learning options like massive online open courses (MOOCs) often carry a lower price tag because they don't require daily attention from instructors or administrators. Instead, students work through the content themselves, with only occasional interaction with instructors through email or social media. Self-guided modules, video tutorials, and virtual libraries all offer you the chance to pursue your education with minimal oversight and expense. While most of these programs don't lead to degrees, there are some that do, and they can also include certification opportunities.

For a look at other cost-effective online education options, check out the most affordable universities in each state.

What are the disadvantages of asynchronous learning?

Isolation

If you like the personal touch and do your best when you feel like people are actually listening, asynchronous learning can be a lonely experience. Social media and email simply aren’t a substitute for real-time interaction. Asynchronous learning is also far less collaborative that its counterparts: Opportunities to discuss, debate, and network with classmates and professors are scarce. Asynchronous learning is great when you want to pick up skills quickly, but if you’re looking for enrichment of discussion, feedback, and social interaction, asynchronous learning likely isn't for you.

Risk of Apathy

While working in a self-guided environment can be empowering, it’s important to be honest with yourself. Do you have the drive to not only keep yourself on track and committed to your goals, but also to remain enthusiastic about the subject matter without the constant support and evaluation of an instructor? The reality is that some learners do best with clearly stated expectations, immediate feedback, and a watchful eye. If you’re in the latter category, the free-form nature of asynchronous learning could be demotivating.

For strategies on how to overcome common challenges for first-time distance learners, check out Online College Gone Wrong…and How to Fix It.

The coolest thing about online learning is that you don’t have to choose just one way of doing it. Many online college courses use a mix of sychronous and asynchronous learning, combining real-time conferencing with self-paced assignments, or balancing pre-taped lectures with live discussion sessions. Every online education model is different, and the very best online colleges use the best of both models to produce enriching online education experiences.

To explore how leaders in online education are balancing synchronous and asynchronous learning models, check out the Best Online Colleges of 2020.

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