Synchronous and/or Asynchronous Teaching and Learning


As online education grows, a debate develops about the pros and cons for either synchronous or asynchronous teaching and learning practices.

In online education “synchronous teaching and learning” is online or distance education that happens in real time, i.e. instructors and their students engage without a time lag like they would in a traditional class, but geographically separated. Today, this will usually happen via the internet, but e.g. also classes by traditional telephone landlines may fall under this category.

“Asynchronous teaching and learning” occurs through without real time interaction, like e.g. with traditional homework. Instructors prepare resources and assignments, hand them over to students to work on, who’ll then submit their results for subsequent grading. At no point in this process do teachers and students necessarily engage in real time.

advantages of synchronous Teaching & learning

Classroom Interaction. As in traditional classes, real time interaction in the classroom allows for active discussion, immediate feedback, and personal familiarity with instructors and students. It’s an important building block to develop a sense of class/course/programme community, and hugely important to establish a sense of trust and mutual respect, which is the basis for any interpersonal communication and collaboration. Synchronous teaching is therefore especially important at the beginning of a class/programme and/or during the transition from the traditional classroom to an online setting.

Dynamic Learning. Synchronous teaching and learning is conducive to more dynamic exploration of topics, ideas and concepts than is possible in a medium with time lag. A class may take unexpected twists or new turns, set focuses or abandon elements at a speed and immediacy that evokes a similar level of accountability and engagement as classroom attendance.

Depth of Instructional Engagement. (Regular) opportunity for face-to-face exchange and discussion, individual guidance, and perhaps even the chance to establish a mentorship are more likely to happen in synchronous settings than with a time lag.

disadvantages of synchronous Teaching & learning

Rigid Schedule. Like traditional classes, synchronous teaching and learning requires adherence to a set schedule; classes and activities will take place at established meeting times and (virtual) places. If a student – or staff, for that matter – cannot make it for this time slot, they’ll lose out and need to find other ways to make up for the missed opportunity… like in traditional classes.

Technical Difficulties. Synchronous classes require a more sophisticated technical setup than asynchronous offers. E.g. participants must have available a stable internet connection for the entire class time to be able to fully participate and benefit. Despite online connectivity seems commonplace to many, it remains a problem to many more.

advantages of asynchronous Teaching & learning

– Accessibility. Possibly the greatest advantage of asynchronous education is its significantly broader accessibility as it sets a lower technical threshold (e.g. no stable broadband connection needed for hours at a time), is socio-culturally more open to different lifestyles and personal background and even isn’t affected by geographical proximity (e.g. no issues with time zones).

Flexibility. Especially for people on a continuously developing schedule, asynchronous courses allow greater flexibility as engagement with materials (e.g. text-based notes pre-recorded lectures, self-guided interactive learning modules etc.) will typically happen whenever time is available – though usually within a larger timeframe of one or two weeks.

Pacing. If there’s no need to keep up with a class happening real time, the learning experience may unfolded largely self-guided based on personal learning needs as opposed to the tempo of the classroom.

Affordability is generally one of the leading motives behind online education and asynchronicity is a key feature to lower costs as teaching may be delivered without day to day instruction. While commonly a minimum level of engagement with particular instructors is expected (often by communication with high time latency like email or social media), large parts of the curriculum may be delivered as self-guided modules, video tutorials, and virtual libraries that require minimal oversight, and therefore, come at minimal costs.

disadvantages of asynchronous Teaching & learning

Isolation. Asynchronous learning can be a lonely experience. Electronic communication via social media and/or email can’t deliver the kind of intellectual energy that real time interaction does. As a result asynchronous teaching and learning tends to be less collaborative, with less enrichment from discussions, feedback, and/or other social interaction in (online) class.

Loss of Dedication. Working largely at one’s own time and rhythm requires strict commitment to personal goals, time and general self-management and ultimately self-renewing motivation to stay committed. Without real time interactions, without the examples of others working in parallel, without support in crucial moments, it’s difficult to stay on top of the course.

As shown, synchronous or asynchronous approaches both have their advantages and disadvantages, and probably insistance on only one of the two approaches expectably won’t serve the purpose of online teaching and learning. Obviously, many hybrid teaching and learning setups are possible that will all include weighted blend of both asynchronous and synchronous elements – based on the course in question and its content, based on instructors’ approach and experience, and – most importantly – based on the needs of the students.

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Peter Benz

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