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Considerations Regarding Synchronous versus Asynchronous Delivery (or Both)

When teaching online, you have the option of using an asynchronous delivery method, a synchronous method of delivery, or both.  Making decisions on how you deliver instruction impacts your design, as well as your teaching practice.

Asynchronous discussions are those that take place without participants being together physically or virtually at the same time.   Synchronous discussions require all participants to be connected at the same time, either physically or via a communication channel.  Research has shown that while both synchronous and asynchronous communications have their places in the online classroom, adult learners prefer asynchronous communication for its flexibility and the perception that asynchronous communication allows more time for reflective thinking.

However, do not discount synchronous discussions using web conferencing.  Research has found that students indicated a preference for instructor-led discussion (over asynchronous peer discussions) because:

  • Students would stay on task better
  • Faculty would have deeper insights and more knowledge about the cases
  • Faculty were more experienced at facilitating discussions.

In an online class, you will have one issue that never crops up in physical classes - time zones!  It is common for online students to be spread across multiple time zones, so this has to be considered when establishing schedules for synchronous classes.

The beauty of synchronous communications is that it is somewhat easier to build community with the participants.  The establishment of an asynchronous community takes time and effort and tends to follow a projected course of five stages, as described by Waltonen-Moore et al.:

  1. Introductions- This might include a full biography or a short "getting-to-know-you" series of questions. Through this step, community members begin to see one another as human beings and begin to make a preliminary, emotive connection with the other members of the community. This step is often characterized by emotive or extravagant language and represents group members' attempts to make themselves known as living individuals behind the emotionless technology medium.
  2. Identify with the group- Members begin to communicate with one another by reference to their commonalities as group members and seek to either establish or make known norms for successful membership. If this sense of group identity is not established, the likelihood of poor participation or attrition increases.
  3. Interact- Members will start interacting with one another in reference to the community's established focus and begin to share information with one another.  This is where students really begin to discuss course content.
  4. Group cohesion and individual reflection- members of the group will begin to validate one another's ideas and opinions while, at the same time, being reflective of their own.
  5. Expansive questioning- Now feeling completely comfortable within the environment, focused upon the content, and respectful of other group members' thoughts and experiences, members will begin to not only post facts and deeply-held beliefs, but will actually start to 'think out loud,' allowing other group members to take part in their personal meaning-making and self-directed inquiry.

Asynchronous communities that progress efficiently through these stages tend to share at least three common attributes:

  1. First, the community has an active facilitator who monitors, guides, and nurtures the discourse.  Unguided communities tend to have difficulty progressing beyond the second stage of development, because group members can become distracted from the community's intended purpose.
  2. Second, rather than seeking to take on the role of an instructor or disseminator of knowledge, the facilitator recognizes that knowledge is an individual construct that is developed through interaction with other group members.  Thus, facilitators within successful communities tend not to be pedantic, but supportive.
  3. And third, successful asynchronous communities permit a certain amount of leniency for play within their discourse.  That is, communities that insist upon being overly stringent on etiquette and make no room for the social development that comes from play seem to drive away participants. Rather than enriching discourse on the targeted topic, such attitudes have a negative impact on group identity development and individual comfort levels which will, in turn, decrease overall involvement

In an Educause article entitled “Asynchronous & Synchronous E-Learning”, Stefan Hrastinski (2008) suggests that asynchronous learning improves cognitive participation (increased ability to reflect and process information) while synchronous learning increases personal participation (increased arousal, motivation, and convergence on meaning).  He summarizes in the table above when, why and how to use each communication method.
A case can therefore be made that both methods have a place in online classes.  The specific learning objectives will drive particular usage.

Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 09/22/2009
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