What is the Difference Between Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning?

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When it comes to learning and education styles, there is a wide range of models and approaches that an educator can choose from. It can be a little daunting if you’ve not heard of them before, and even more so if you’re looking at them for the first time. You might be tempted to just go with something that is “tried and tested”, looking only for either the highly popular systems with decades of usage that have the longest track record.

Or perhaps you’re interested in investing in something newer and experimental. However many of you probably sit somewhere in between, in the realm of uncertainty. If so then this article is for you. Here we’ll take a brief look at the theory of Synchronous and Asynchronous education, beginning with a bit of context, the history of education and learning styles.

A Short History of Education Styles

Over the years many theories have been developed both on the most efficient form of education and the variety of models through which people learn. You’ve probably heard of a few of them, such as David Kolb’s experiential learning model, the NASSP Learning Style Profile, and the Grasha-Reichmann Learning Style Scale. However, recently more attention has come under question in modern scholarship.

Since the 2009 APS Critique, criticism of many older learning models has been significant, with a follow-up study in 2015 confirming those criticisms. The criticism had this to say “At present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there is an increasing number”. In fact, in the follow-up study, the dominant conclusion was that theories of learning styles had no effect on student retention whatsoever, however, theories grounded in dual coding.

So, what does that mean? Well, to start with, it doesn’t mean “throw out every system of education so far”, because the majority of academics still agree that students do learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style. But it also means precisely that, students receive information in their preferred learning style, and as every student is different, one approach or style cannot suit every student. For this reason, there has been a shift to analysing the mechanisms of education, and in this context, the theory of Synchronous and Asynchronous learning styles has begun gaining traction.

Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning, a Fundamentally Dualistic Approach

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Beginning as early as 2006, Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning is a theory of education style that was born out of the analysis of the mechanisms and situation of education rather than the form of education. They are defined as follows:

Synchronous learning is defined as any situation in which instructors and students gather at the same time and place (whether virtual or physical) and interact in a “real-time” setting. Students may be passive recipients, listening to a lecture, or active participants, engaging in question-and-answer scenarios, group projects or similar. At its most basic level, synchronous learning simply means that all students share a time and place for their education.

Asynchronous learning is defined as any situation where students are expected or intended to learn at their own pace and in their own time. Student experience could range from long, drawn-out processes, or creative, educational bursts of activity. Students may have less direct interaction with each other, with interaction taking place over long periods. An example of this might be a student who interacts with their supervisor primarily through email, or one who watches a lecture recording, then posts a question to a group chat in their own time, expecting a response to occur sometime over the next few hours, days or even weeks depending on the circumstances. 

At a surface reading, this sounds fairly straightforward, but think about it for a moment, can you think of any time in your life when you have had a completely synchronous or completely asynchronous educational experience? Standard schooling education makes prolific use of synchronous education within classroom environments, but also asynchronous learning with homework and textbooks.

Online education often makes use of asynchronous techniques such as chat groups, forum posts and email correspondence, but is often paired with scheduled meetings or team exercises that require some level of synchronised engagement. As such, it becomes apparent that most models of education have functionally made use of a hybrid model of education, where some content is delivered synchronously and some content delivered asynchronously – although which is more effective may differ from student to student.

Because of this, many institutions recommend viewing synchronous and asynchronous education as a spectrum rather than a sliding scale, and many asynchronous learning networks have been designed to ensure a certain degree of flexibility in their setups in order to accommodate the maximum range of learning potentials.

Synchronous, Asynchronous and Hybrid, Which is Optimal?

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Having established that most educational styles have made some use of both synchronous and asynchronous learning styles, it is now time to ask the question, which approach has yielded the best results? And the answer is… it depends. Ultimately what is optimal will depend greatly on two factors, what is being taught, and who it is being taught to. Think of it this way, if the thing you are learning requires a considerable amount of research, writing, submission and feedback, it might be the case that asynchronous learning is optimal. However, if the thing you are learning actively requires physical performance or oral presentation, group projects and team exercises, or requires practical and real-time supervision, then it will often be the case that the only functional methodology will involve a high degree of synchronous education.

Access is also an issue. When people think about the “who”, this is often equated to theories about the style of learning, or limitations in learning, such as those that come from disabilities or other impairments. But access can be a large factor as well. Perhaps the tools are limited or require a very specific environment – such as a workshop or laboratory – or there might be economic limitations – such as the quality of technology, access to resources or even access to quiet space that a person may or may not have in their home environment. All of these factors can have just as large an impact as any preference toward learning style.

When we take all of this into account, however, the best option should always be to cater to both. While some students may learn better in one way than another, restrictions on their home life or ability to attend may force them into choosing one approach over the other – even if it goes against their preferences. For courses with high synchronous or asynchronous demands, new technologies and the use of standardised testing can be used to alleviate the pressure and open up more flexible arrangements. The simplest solution is thus to allow for both avenues as much as possible and encourage the student to engage with what will produce the greatest outcomes for them.

Although there still remains some debate on what the best, evidence-based educational styles are, understanding these systemic matters will be essential in creating a positive and educationally rich context within which education can flourish.


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Written by Allan J.C. Smith

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