The last year and a half have seen a substantial increase in the offer for online learning – from simple video sequences to complex, articulated learning journeys taking place 100% remotely, and on screen.
Synchronous learning, and its asynchronous counterpart, are two terms that suddenly gained fame, as more online training (and, generally, education) came with fewer constraints originally associated with face-to-face facilitation.
Flexibility is increasing, despite institutions and organizations having re-opened, for example regarding where employees are working from, or where students are attending classes from.
Especially for learning, said flexibility is gradually reaching beyond the scope of location: when students or employees are learning is also a question that is gaining momentum, as blended approaches and asynchronous learning develop.
However, can asynchronous learning replace synchronous learning? What are the benefits and disadvantages of either one?
Let’s start with a definition of both terms.
Definition of synchronous and asynchronous learning
Synchronous learning is a learning approach in which educators and learners are in the same point in time and space when learning is happening. In this approach, the learning journey allows students to get instant support from their educator while completing activities.
For example, live online classes and face-to-face trainings are synchronous – the educator and the learners are together, at the same moment, as described by Bryn Mawr College.
Asynchronous learning is when the learning happens at the pace chosen by the learner, without requiring educators and learners to be together in time and space. It is mostly used in online learning.
In this approach, the learning journey is configured by the educator, and each learner, or group of learners, goes through the predefined stages at their own rhythm.
Examples include watching a series of videos and answering quizzes, or making a decision in a business simulation by a certain date and time.
To help us understand why some institutions prefer synchronous learning, while some others opt for asynchronous, let us look at the pros and cons of each of them.
Synchronous learning: advantages and disadvantages
The advantages of synchronous learning
Improved feeling of togetherness and motivation
The first advantage of synchronous learning is that it is a great driver for bonding: when students are sitting next to one another in a classroom or on the same call, seeing, hearing, and feeling the presence of their co-learners and their educator, the experience becomes more immersive, and engaging.
For example, when teams are making their decisions in one of our business simulations, even if they are hundreds or thousands of kilometers apart, we can feel their excitement and their joint goal to win the game!
Improved communication between students and educators
One key advantage of being with their educator, is that students can ask questions when something is not clear and receive an immediate answer. In turns, this improves the capacity of students to progress in their activity and prevents misunderstandings from building up – or going unnoticed.
If learners receive immediate feedback and can adapt accordingly, the learning outcomes will be much better. The likelihood of dropouts is also lower, as the educator can spot who is feeling lost and coach them back into the learning process.
Online synchronous learning is cost-effective
Imagine not having to have trainers or business game facilitators fly over, and not having to spend a single cent on hotel, booking a venue, or worrying about catering.
While at MEGA Learning we do love face-to-face facilitation, synchronous learning in its online format allows for substantial cuts in training budget for our clients, without losing the quality of our trainings.
Besides, this additional budget can be invested into increasing the training offer for employees, for example.
By creating breakout rooms, plenary sessions, and other online collaborative spaces, we retain this “togetherness” feeling, at a lower cost for our clients.
Online synchronous learning can be scaled up
Moving training programs and courses online increases participant capacity, as there is no space constraint.
In a synchronous, online learning environment, it is very easy to scale up, and to have, for example, 50 learners instead of 25 participating in the program – the only additional cost being when an extra trainer is needed to co-facilitate.
The disadvantages of synchronous learning
Dependence on the organization’s technological readiness
Not all organizations are equal when it comes to providing the right technology to attend, or organize, a large-scale program. In the case of online synchronous learning, an illustration would be when employees cannot log in to ZOOM, because of the organization’s firewall. It can also be that sharing documents is made difficult by this same firewall.
If the organization has not promoted tech-savviness among employees, it could also be that some of them struggle feeling secure in this learning environment. This applies to both online and face-to-face synchronous learning environments, and can be an impairment in the learning process.
In that case, educators can circumvent the unequal tech-savviness by designing programs where little interaction with the computer itself is needed.
Another issue is the internet connection quality and speed of participants, if they are at home, or at the company’s venue, if the training is taking place face-to-face! Especially in our case, as business simulations are web-based, an instable internet connection can be a source of stress for participants, and for us!
Dependence on the location of learners
With synchronous learning, it is difficult to have employees from Honolulu, Milan and Moscow sit together – unless some of them fly over – even on a conference call. The reason being time zone differences!
Synchronous learning can therefore remain a cost-effective solution only when the program does not require geographically dispersed employees or students to learn together.
Dependence on the individual schedule of employees
If you are an HR professional, we do not need to describe the nightmare of getting many people at the same place and time.
Having to coordinate dozens of people’s availability for a training requires preparation sometimes months in advance. This impacts synchronous learning deployment negatively, because you cannot just roll out a program from one week to the other and expect enough people to be immediately available.
Asynchronous learning: advantages and disadvantages
The advantages of asynchronous learning
More flexible than synchronous learning
Asynchronous learning’s main benefit is that there is no need to have all learners gather at the same time and place. Usually, learners will be onboarded onto an LMS (Learning Management System) or into a learning sequence, and from there, they will be able to move forward at their own pace.
For educators, asynchronous learning also means that they can easily add documents, videos, adapt content based on participants’ feedback, etc. without having to do a live facilitation or having to worry about the organization’s firewall.
You can tap into existing content
With asynchronous learning, participants have less time pressure. This gives educators more room to provide reading or video suggestions, or even to invite participants to reflect on their own professional activity and reality.
For example, you could ask employees to read their company’s manifesto or mission between two activities, so their learning is more anchored in the reality they work in.
Increased engagement with content
Synchronous learning increases engagement with other learners, whereas asynchronous learning allows learners to spend more time, and to reflect on the content they are being provided.
As mentioned in the Theory U, change comes from within, and if the program is meant to instill change among employees, they need to be given enough time to reflect.
Thanks to this enhanced “learning control”, learners can dedicate as much time as they want to learning, and choose an environment where they feel confident learning. This is a real opportunity to broaden employees’ perspective and to have them think thoroughly about a theme, without feeling peer or time pressure.
You can measure the efficiency of the learning journey
A shortcoming of training programs is often the lack of metrics on the medium to long run, to assess its efficiency: with asynchronous learning, LMS platforms can help circumvent that challenge.
For example, it is much easier to retrieve feedback from participants at different points in time, to gain insights into whether what they learn helps them on the job (or at all), how they apply it, and what content it is they could need that is missing.
The disadvantages of asynchronous learning
Asynchronous learning can be isolating
Asynchronous learning does not require learners and instructors to be together in time nor space, and for those who like to learn as a group, this can be a drawback.
Although there might be some group activities in asynchronous learning, the “togetherness” just does not feel the same when there is no plenary.
Asynchronous leaves more room for misunderstanding
Correlated with the isolation feeling, is the risk that program participants misunderstand the course material or the activities they engage in, and even that they fall out of interest.
Disengaged participants are much more difficult to spot and to re-engage in an asynchronous setup.
Finally, if the learning journey is not well built and there is no efficient feedback gathering, both the educator and the HR team will fail to assess what worked well and what did not, at the very moment an activity was ongoing for example.
Asynchronous learning: advantages and disadvantages
On the one hand, synchronous learning improves participant engagement with one another, fosters a feeling of togetherness, reduces the risk of misunderstanding and can be cost-effective.
On the other hand, asynchronous learning enables participants to engage better with the content, reduces time and peer pressure to foster deeper behavior change, and its efficiency can be better measured.
However, synchronous learning is dependent on the organization’s tech-readiness and participants’ location, while asynchronous learning can feel isolating and leaves more room for misunderstanding.
A mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning is what appears to be optimal:
1) tapping into asynchronous learning for the more reflective elements of the training, such as the decision-making in the business simulation,
2) while offering live, synchronous moments when participants need to listen, for example when we analyze decision results at the group level. Adding synchronous coaching slots will also give the opportunity to participants to connect with their educator to ask questions.