Asynchronous learning comes with scalability, convenience and efficiency. This often causes us to overlook something that we don’t hear people saying much in the tech space: some things just can’t be simulated by technology.
It’s not that technology doesn’t have a place in education. In fact, it can enhance stale and outdated aspects of the learning environment. But we are naive if we think that asynchronous learning can replace good old-fashioned mentorship, comradery and practicality.
Synchronous versus asynchronous learning
Synchronous learning does exactly what it says on the tin: it synchronises all participants involved in the learning experience. A group of learners in a webinar or physical lesson are learning in synchronicity because they are all doing the same thing at the same time.
Asynchronous learning is becoming increasingly common. Predominantly based online on learning management systems (LMSs), asynchronous learning allows learners to engage with content remotely, at their own pace, in their own time.
In many cases, asynchronous learning is the most viable option. Scalability might be non-negotiable for an organisation, or perhaps all the learners are in different time zones. Perhaps the subject matter is completely straightforward and objective – like a how-to guide for using an app.
At Groundflr, we create both synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences, but at times for various reasons we choose to go the synchronous route. We acknowledge that sometimes it’s better to put aside the convenience of asynchronous learning to prioritise the benefits of learning through collaboration and doing.
Learning through collaboration
Synchronous learning is inherently learner-focussed. It embraces the learner as an essential part of a functional learning experience, rather than a passive recipient of learning content.
How does it do this? By fostering collaboration.
When subject matter is subjective rather than fact-based, there's a good chance that learners would need to engage in some sort of debate to process the information and form their own judgements.
For example, if you’re teaching learners about the philosophy of ethics, an asynchronous experience would be far from sufficient. If a group of learners can’t put their heads together and share their perspectives, they’d simply be passive recipients of somebody else’s opinion. This would defeat the purpose of the learning experience entirely.
Of course, we can use asynchronous online discussion forums to spark debate and collaboration. But some would argue that learners treat discussion forums more like an assignment rather than a debate, especially if participation is compulsory. It can certainly be effective in its own way, but it can never replicate the spontaneous insights that come out of a real-time discussion.
Cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT)
We can turn to the cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) when we talk about collaboration in the learning space. This theory was developed in response to the prior learning theories that didn’t account for sociocultural and historical contexts.
CHAT is a framework that considers the relationship between our minds and our actions. We can use it to examine how learners engage socially with the learning tools they are given. The framework specifies several factors that impact learning interventions, one of which is community.
CHAT emphasises community as an integral part of a learning experience. It helps learners make meaning of the world around them (Kaptelinin et al., 2006).
That’s not to say that individual learning experiences aren’t valuable, but if you want the learners to take ownership of the knowledge they have acquired, synchronous learning is probably the way to go.
Learning through doing
Synchronous learning can help create an impactful learning environment in several more ways. Experiential learning (learning through doing) is one of them. In fact, many would argue that experiential learning is the very best way to learn.
Change comes from gained experience, not acquired knowledge. In fact, David Kolb’s theory of experiential learning describes knowledge as something that is gained through experience and not the other way around (Kolb, 1984).
This is more relevant to some subjects than others. For example, a carpentry course will need to be predominantly practical. Videos and discussion forums will hardly make a competent carpenter.
Most carpenters would tell you that the real learning started when they picked up a saw and went all in. A real-life, real-time workshop would give learners a space to pick up a saw and learn not only from others, but also from themselves and their own actions.
Don’t get it twisted – we are by no means old-fashioned. There are creative ways of facilitating synchronous learning that are different from traditional classroom methods, especially online. Hint: It’s not as simple as delivering a lecture on Zoom.
From interactive online whiteboards like Miro, to collaborative gamified online activities, synchronous learning certainly has a place in the 21st century.
In fact, synchronous and asynchronous learning are not mutually exclusive. Some LMSs can do more than just host content intended for asynchronous consumption. For example, Canvas LMS offers instant messaging and live participation in events.
Another way to bring synchronous and asynchronous learning together is with the flipped classroom approach. This approach entails studying content independently and then applying the knowledge in a synchronous learning environment. It ensures that the classroom (or Zoom link) is reserved for collaborative problem-solving. Everything else can be done at home in the learner’s own time, making the experience slightly more flexible.
Both synchronous and asynchronous learning have their place in the world of education. But as technology advances, we shouldn’t abandon the community and solidarity that comes with good old-fashioned synchronous learning.
Kaptelinin, V. and Nardi, B.A., 2006. Acting with technology: Activity theory and interaction design. MIT press.
Kolb, D.A., 1984. Experience as the source of learning and development. Upper Sadle River: Prentice Hall.