As you begin considering your online college options, you may come across unfamiliar words like synchronous and asynchronous. You may wonder what these terms mean and what to expect from a synchronous or asynchronous course. You might question which type of online class is the right choice for you.
The Importance of Time in Online Courses
Both synchronous and its antonym asynchronous refer to time. When you consider the advantages of online college, among the ones that quickly come to mind are the flexibility and convenience. Part of what makes online courses so convenient is that you don’t have to commute to a physical campus but can instead complete your coursework from anywhere. For some students, another major part of the convenience of online college is the ability to work on your own schedule. Whether or not the online college program you’re considering facilitates this scheduling convenience depends on whether the course is synchronous or asynchronous.
Research and Development
Just as the development of vaccines for the Covid-19 pandemic were speeded-up because of the urgency of the situation, it has prompted researchers and educators to a faster pace for online learning. Universities have offered this option since the technology to use it became readily available. Online course creation is a big part of educational design degree programs.
According to the website Education Rickshaw, one concept of educational design that impacts synchronous and asynchronous online learning is the “Transactional Distance Theory.” It states that “Distance during instruction is transactional, not spatial or temporal.” The distance they are referencing is the personal component of online learning. It is connection and collaboration. What the theory is saying, then, is that the connection that is so important during the learning process and many other places in life is not destroyed by separation in miles or in time.
Since humans are social animals, connection is as necessary to their lives as nutrition. Many articles online and in print today focus on the phenomenon of the rising suicide rate, especially among younger people, and the reported prevalence of depression. The recent pandemic has isolated people from one another, and that affects not only our perceptions of contentment, but our ability to retain information. So, that concept of Transactional Distance takes on increased importance, and educators speculate that if we can lessen the distance between participants and instructors, we can achieve a better educational outcome.
How Synchronous Online Courses Work
Synchronous courses resemble traditional on-campus college classes in that students must be (virtually) present at the same time. Though they are conducted over the Internet, synchronous courses unfold in real-time, which is why U.S. News & World Report also calls these classes “live.” Students must commit to scheduled class times and sign onto their virtual learning platform on schedule. During these courses, students will watch video lessons and slideshow presentations and even have virtual class discussions.
Can’t students have discussions through online forums? Yes, they can, but not with immediacy. In synchronous classes that use technology allowing students to interact vocally, a question can be posed and immediately responded to. Students can interrupt to ask instructors to explain a point of the lecture and even make comments that bring life to the class. Even when comments are texted into the class, everyone sees them in real time and can respond. Those things reinforce the learning and recall that is taking place. In order to reduce the psychological distance between participants, educational designers use two components.
This is the interaction between students and between students and the teacher. Much of the responsibility for the interaction in a synchronous course session rests on the teacher. The student also assumes some responsibility, but it is addressed later. Good platforms allow instructors to create personal spaces where they post pictures of themselves and even video welcomes to the class. They also provide ways for teachers to monitor student comments so that they can direct the class sessions either to slow pace or to increase it. This interpersonal communication in the real-time classroom is vital for an effective learning session.
This is the level of guidance utilized in the class. Obviously, the instructor controls the class pace and the depth of materials. They also tailor the aspects of the class to allow students to break down into small groups to collaborate on assignments and create urgency through deadlines. That structure identifies the teacher as the guide and creates a connection between teacher and student.
A lot of preparation goes into synchronous class sessions, and that indicates that all synchronous courses are not equal. While both synchronous and asynchronous courses depend upon online learning management systems (LMS), the requirements of a synchronous course are more complex, involving instructors, computer technicians, platform providers and others.
A Closer Look at Synchronous Learning
The class sessions are directed by the teacher. That means there is less opportunity for students to fall behind. The pace and the direction of the lectures as well as discussions are set. So, while students can “chime in” by voice or text comments, the instructor has the reins. Through the student input, the teacher can gauge which points need to be revisited and lead the class back to those issues.
Students listen to lectures or watch videos “together.” Then there is organic discussion. That is, there is discussion consisting of questions and the immediate response triggered by the query. There is an opportunity for digression to side points ( though the instructor controls the time spent) and students can explore some issues more in depth.
Platforms also allow students to withdraw into smaller groups to tackle collaborative projects, to prepare presentations using virtual whiteboards which can be accessed by all members of the group, and to make class presentations.
In asynchronous learning, the instructor doesn’t see the responses of the learner to the material. He or she has no idea if the students had difficulty with some concepts or if the pace of the class was too slow to keep their attention. That is not true of synchronous learning. Instructors can see their students and either revisit points or pick up the pace of the lesson. Additionally, if responses are made through texts, the instructor can use the data to gauge his or her effectiveness.
The Flexibility of Asynchronous Online Courses
Asynchronous online courses, on the other hand, don’t require you to log in to your virtual classroom at a specified time. Students can complete their coursework first thing in the morning, before heading into the office; in the evening, while dinner is cooking; or even late at night, after the kids are already in bed. They don’t have to stick to a strict schedule to engage in live classes or discussions, and the only requirement regarding when they turn in their work is the assignment deadline, not an arbitrary timeline. Asynchronous courses are also referred to as “self-paced,” according to U.S. News & World Report, because students must work more independently.
The Pros and Cons of Synchronous and Asynchronous Courses
As a student concerned with flexibility, you may wonder why all online classes aren’t asynchronous. There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of online course, according to U.S. News & World Report. For example, though synchronous courses might not allow for as flexible a schedule as asynchronous courses, they are more similar to traditional college courses. Students may feel that they have more interaction with their instructors and fellow students, so they feel more engaged. Unlike asynchronous courses, which require students to work independently for the duration of the class, synchronous courses mean that students aren’t on their own.
Additionally, one of the advantages to synchronous learning is that students develop a bond. That is especially true of those who work together often in collaborative projects. It creates an environment not unlike a cohort model in traditional classes that is both energizing and motivating. Students who “ go it alone” in asynchronous courses may become isolated and discouraged with the courses.
The lack of flexibility in synchronous courses can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. It can create problems for students in other time zones because they may not be able to attend the virtual class at the time it is held. For the class to function well, all students must participate. Still, students who are prone to procrastination and have trouble disciplining themselves to stick to a specific study time may find the required attendance an asset.
Both types of online learning rely upon computer technology. There is a much greater reliance in synchronous courses, however. There are “people” problems with video conferencing platforms such as etiquette and simple considerations like silencing a microphone when they are not talking. Students who have trouble logging onto a site may miss much of the class. Additionally, network problems can delay or even prohibit a class from taking place. There are so many components such as the chat, small group rooms, whiteboards and other things that can go wrong and, when they do, that affects the entire class. Synchronous courses require more bandwidth to allow the creation of the class and to permit the creation of small groups and the utilization of other tools. In short, to quote the old adage, “ technology is great…when it works.”
Whether a synchronous or asynchronous program is right for you depends on how much you value a flexible schedule and whether or not you’re an independent learner.
Tips for Synchronous Course Learners
Of course, all online students must have at least minimal organizational skills and some computer knowledge. All online learning requires students to commit to a considerable workload and to take the responsibility for their own progress. The responsibility of the learners to the class and to their own success was mentioned earlier. Synchronous courses have additional requisites. Here are a few tips to succeed.
Dedicated Study Place
Have a place that is kept ready for online study. This goes to your mindset and motivation. When you sit at your desk, your mind should be ready to study. If you use a different place each day, you have to get yourself in the “mood” to study. That means you should never study from the sofa or your bed.
Many people working from home say they feel more relaxed wearing office attire from the waist up if they are attending virtual meetings, but some studies debate whether they are as productive. Students in synchronous courses should get dressed in whatever they would wear to a traditional class, fix their hair, apply makeup and “show up.” Being inattentive and uninterested during a virtual class not only makes it harder for you to learn, but affects other students.
Rid Yourself of Distractions
This is also true for asynchronous classes, but especially true when a phone ringing, music playing or others talking distracts others as well.
Beef Up Tech Skills
Again, this also applies to asynchronous courses, but is even more important for students who must be able to join other students in virtual labs, collaborate on projects and access tools like whiteboards to create presentations.
Neither synchronous nor asynchronous learning can address the best presentation of all courses. For some, a combination works best. This type of course has a set meeting time and set assignment deadlines, but students also meet at other times to study, complete assignments and discuss concepts. This method works well in nursing classes and other disciplines where hands-on learning is important, for instance in guided lab times, but students also must have the opportunity to meet away from the “classroom.”
Much research has been done about the effectiveness of online versus traditional and blended formats, but little has been performed on the blending of two forms of online delivery. The website Educause says student outcomes are better when some synchronous elements are incorporated into online programs. Additionally, more than half of students surveyed were in favor of the blended formats.
The bottom line in whether one type or the other, or a blend, is right for you is that you must make the final decision based upon your personality and your emotional and physical resources. In all types of online learning, as in traditional classrooms, the main task is to “show up.”