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Using Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning to Boost Student Engagement

Coupled with specific engagement techniques, the time is now for a new wave of blended learning.

two students collaborating on laptop

The boost of asynchronous learning came with the development of internet-based technologies, only to be accelerated by the pandemic. The normal delivery of education at institutions changed worldwide, and from this experience has come an opportunity to embrace and apply what we learned to instructional design, resources and tools, and effective online course development processes.

This opportunity includes designing courses with a better mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning activities. Rather than characterizing asynchronous and synchronous online learning as a dichotomy, it will become more helpful to view these learning experiences as falling along a spectrum.

At the synchronous end of the spectrum lie activities, such as live-streaming lectures and participating in video-conference discussions. At the asynchronous end are activities, such as watching pre-recorded lectures, reading assigned materials, and participating in discussion boards. Somewhere in the middle fall hybrid activities that create continuity across these spheres — assigning students a defined task to do offline during a scheduled synchronous session before coming back online and sharing their reflections with the group.

Far too many programs consider asynchronous – synchronous as a binary choice based on instruction method, with the latter assuming lecture-based courses. And while most online learners prefer asynchronous class formats, synchronous sessions are not out of the question. In fact, in the Voice of the Online Learner — a survey of over 2,400 prospective, current, and recently graduated online college students — 79% of respondents reported they would like some form of synchronous online learning during online courses. This finding presents a major opportunity in online course and program design. We should increasingly view asynchronous – synchronous as a spectrum, with the latter focused on methods to increase student-faculty and student-student interactions, and therefore to increase engagement. Coupled with other engagement techniques, institutions can begin planning for a new wave of blended learning.

What is the Difference Between Asynchronous & Synchronous Online Learning?

Similarly, MindWires worked with a statewide college system and asked: “As you select a specific online course section, how important are the following attributes to you? – Availability of live online meetings with the instructor and/or other students.”

The results were remarkably similar to the Voice of Online Learners survey, with roughly 79% of students answering Very Important or Important. The opportunity for institutions is clear. Figure out how to combine asynchronous methods that preserve anywhere / anytime access with synchronous methods, increasingly with video, that meaningfully increase student engagement. So to begin, let’s talk about the difference between the two.

Asynchronous Online Learning

Asynchronous online learning, commonly facilitated by email and discussion boards, promotes relational awareness among learners and with instructors, even when participants cannot be online at the same time. It is a key component of more flexible online learning.

In fact, many people take asynchronous courses because of their flexibility, combining education with work, family, and other commitments. Asynchronous online learning allows students to learn on their own schedules, within a certain time frame. They can access and complete lectures, readings, homework, and other learning materials at any time, usually within a one- or two-week period.

Synchronous Online Learning

Synchronous online learning, commonly supported by video conferencing and text chat, has the ability to support students in the development of social learning communities. Although students may be learning from a distance, they virtually attend a class session each week, at the same time as the instructor and classmates. This may include collaborative group work or feedback sessions with the instructor. Students and instructors often experience synchronous learning as more social because communication is real-time — either instructor to students and/or among students. This helps online learners feel like a community of participants vs. the potential sense of isolation learners might experience during asynchronous learning. Some institutions are bridging that gap and building community online through the use of dynamic asynchronous tools that enable discussion, connection, and classroom community.

Here's a handy way to think about asynchronous & synchronous online learning. Source: Ohio State University Online Here's a handy way to think about asynchronous & synchronous online learning. Source: Ohio State University Online

Synchronous & Asynchronous Learning Improve Student Success

With more and more components of learning moving online, whether it be through flipped classroom models or fully online courses, designing highly engaging learning experiences is paramount for learning success.

Research shows that active and engaged learning leads to better outcomes in courses and reduces equity-related performance gaps. One of the most impactful ways to engage learners is by blending asynchronous and synchronous learning activities. Doing so fosters better inclusion among all learners, and that often translates into more engaged students.

  • Students who are highly engaged are 1.5 times more likely to complete a degree.   (Svanum and Bigatti, 2009)
  • Engaged students, on average, require one fewer semester to complete their degree. (Svanum and Bigatti, 2009)
  • Students who actively participate are more motivated (Frisby & Myers, 2008; Junn, 1994), engage in more critical thinking (Garside, 1996), and show improvement in communication skills. (Dancer & Kamvounias, 2005)

To achieve this, instructional designers and instructors have turned to online discussion and collaboration tools — often used as asynchronous tools for learning. Research shows that student participation in online collaboration and discussion are related to better course outcomes in traditional courses. In fact, in a pilot study conducted by WGU Labs, the College Innovation Network (CIN) found strong promise for increased course engagement and improved learning outcomes at Piedmont Community College, when online discussion forums were used both in the classroom and asynchronously outside the classroom.

Further research from Educause suggests that synchronous online learning better supports personal participation, and asynchronous online learning better supports cognitive participation. Personal participation describes a more arousing type of participation appropriate for less complex information exchanges, including the planning of tasks and social support. Cognitive participation describes a more reflective type of participation appropriate for discussions of complex issues.

The research indicates that synchronous and asynchronous learning complement each other. Instructors might incorporate several types of synchronous and asynchronous communication in a course to encourage critical thinking and active participation for all types of learners. The combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning within a course lets learners and instructors exchange information, collaborate on work, and get to know each other.

Because students learn in many different ways, incorporating an effective mix of synchronous and asynchronous online learning activities into courses provides increased and varied opportunities to engage — leading to higher likelihood of student retention and success.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Asynchronous & Synchronous Learning

Doing it effectively is no simple feat, but with the right tools, resources, and professional development, we can build the bridge between what’s traditionally thought of as more in-person, classroom-based modes of instruction and newer, digital modes of asynchronous learning activity.

Certainly each approach has its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to both teaching and learning but the benefits of asynchronous learning far outweigh its cons.

Advantages of Synchronous Teaching & Learning

  • Immediate personal engagement between students and instructors can foster greater feelings of community and lessen feelings of isolation.
  • More responsive exchanges between students and instructors make it easy to quickly correct miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Disadvantages of Synchronous Teaching & Learning

  • More challenging to schedule shared times for all students and instructors, leaving less flexibility for a potentially large portion of online learners.
  • Some students face technical challenges if they do not have access to fast or powerful Wi-Fi networks.

Advantages of Asynchronous Teaching & Learning

  • Higher levels of temporal flexibility, which may simultaneously make the learning experiences more accessible to different students and increase opportunities for diverse and nontraditional learners.
  • Increased cognitive engagement and deeper conversation since students have more time to engage with and explore the course material.

Disadvantages of Asynchronous Teaching & Learning

  • Participation and frequent engagement from students are needed to build a sense of connection and community, and for students on the go, this could be challenging.
  • There is a learning curve for students new to asynchronous online learning. They may need to become more comfortable with asking for clarification, while instructors may need to actively reach out to students who are not participating.

Rather than debate or attempt to determine the best approach, bridging the two more intentionally would translate into a more inclusive approach to online learning and increase the level of student engagement in your courses.

Architecting the Synchronous & Asynchronous Learning Bridge

The key here is twofold. We must envision, adapt and then apply teaching strategies that mirror the goals of classroom instruction to an online learning environment, AND we must navigate the course development process in a way that leverages resources and asynchronous tools designed to facilitate that blend of face-to-face and online instruction.

Let’s first talk about instructional strategies for bridging synchronous and asynchronous learning sessions.

Create collaborative community spaces.

As more and more of the college experience moves (at least partially) into online spaces, so too must the social interactions among peers. Virtual communities are a great way for colleges to create new spaces for students to connect, ask questions, and offer support. Virtual social communities can be a highly valuable way for students to feel connected to their peers and foster a sense of belonging within the learning community. Instructional designers and instructors can use shared, collaborative spaces, like discussion boards, to help reinforce the continuity between the asynchronous course materials and synchronous discussions. Students and instructors may share articles, videos, and podcasts that help deepen the conversation and enhance learning.

Leverage the asynchronous time as a flipped space.

Many of us are familiar with the flipped classroom model. You can use that same framework for your asynchronous and synchronous sessions. Your asynchronous materials can help prepare students for the synchronous sessions and also serve as a debriefing space afterward. You can post your course materials online (readings, videos, links, images) and then use a tool like the discussion board to clarify, dive deeper, and explore other perspectives as students continue to reflect after the synchronous session.

Use active learning techniques.

Another way to reinforce continuity is by using active learning techniques. Assign activities during an asynchronous session and have the responses create the agenda or your talking points for the synchronous session. This approach provides ample opportunities for students to process course material through thinking, writing, talking, and problem solving — giving students multiple avenues for learning. It also allows the instructors to provide timely feedback and gives other students an opportunity to practice giving and receiving feedback.

Refer to asynchronous materials during synchronous sessions and vice versa.

This is one of the easiest, no-tech ways to encourage continuity between asynchronous and synchronous sessions. During asynchronous learning, be sure to incorporate how students should interact with these materials, where they’ll see them again in the course, and how you’ll use them in your discussion. During synchronous discussions, refer back to specific materials you shared in asynchronous activities. If students comment on a discussion board or prepare an activity for the class, make that a part of your synchronous session so you can respond to specific points or reinforce learning objectives.

Build in simple interactions.

During live instruction or in offline time, be sure to take temperature checks throughout the class. This could be a simple thumbs up/down or a yes/no poll. These will help you to make sure everyone is engaged and interacting. When teaching live, consciously design pauses into the lesson — using polls — that allow students moments to work with the information being presented and provide feedback.

Creating a Potent Learning Mix

Now, let’s explore course design considerations that support an effective mix of synchronous and asynchronous activities. With each strategy, we can focus attention on the activities that drive engagement, including:

  1. Powering collaboration during course prep with instructors and among students.
  2. Creating multi-directional synchronous and asynchronous communication pathways during coursework to build community.
  3. Fostering inclusive opportunities by removing barriers, enabling flexibility, and expanding access both in teaching and learning.

Enable faculty to play to their strengths as instructors and create greater variety in courses.

How To: Identify potential collaborations, opportunities for development, and strengths that may include dynamic live speaking, facilitated discussion, guided reflection, and embodied learning activities.

Choose the course activities and modes that enable those strengths and support a broader range of student learning styles.

How To: Incorporate live speaking and panel sessions, live Q&A forums, conversations spanning live and asynchronous discussions, student coaching, and powering blended courses with prompts to do activities synchronously and asynchronously.

Determine the tools and resources required to support the varied, flexible approaches of your faculty.

How To: Strategically view instructor needs and choose tools and asynchronous learning platforms that can support as many needs as possible. For example, adding rich multimedia into discussions or leveraging auto-captioning can support more inclusive and varied approaches.

Collaborate with IT on infrastructure support to be as inclusive and accessible as possible in providing an equitable learning experience.

How To: Assess alternatives for students in areas with low or no internet connection, without sufficiently powerful computers, or without quiet/private spaces

How To: Keep integration top of mind but still support instructor needs to choose tools and platforms that can support as many needs as possible

What do these strategies look like in practice?

The following case studies showcase how courses across disciplines – from physics, the social sciences, gender studies, and the arts to English, criminal justice, and math – use asynchronous and synchronous learning activities to improve teaching effectiveness and student engagement.

When you take advantage of both synchronous and asynchronous learning activities in your course as well as emerging media and the kind of technology built to facilitate both in-person and online learning, you’re able to increase the quality and quantity of student-to-student, student-to-content, and student-to-instructor interactions.

This, in turn, boosts engagement and can power a new wave of blended learning — one that puts better equity, inclusion, and student engagement front and center. Harmonize is a digital discussion and collaboration tool that integrates with your LMS to facilitate synchronous and asynchronous learning activities.

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