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The Two Sides of Online Learning: Synchronous and Asynchronous

Recently, a friend and colleague sat me down and asked me about what her Education and Training team should be doing with online learning. There has been a lot of shifting in the past decade with how we deliver learning. Online tools that brings the creation and delivery of online learning to the less technical is abound everywhere. With so many options and so much access to powerful tools like the Canvas learning management system an Storyline authoring tool and free resources like Moodle, putting something out there has become much easier. But with the abundance of resources also comes a challenge. Just like many crowd-sourced communities have begun to encounter, more content is not always better content.

Content does not equal learning. Content is a starting point for learning, but consuming content is not the same as learning. Consuming content may not even involve an increase of knowledge. How many of you have been reading along in a book and realized that you missed the last page or two? Our minds can easily wander, yet we are so adept at decoding letters into words, that we can do it without even internalizing what we’ve read. And if the content is particularly confusing, you can even understand every individual word in a piece, but come away with no idea of what it’s talking about. Try reading a very technical paper in a field you are not familiar with. How much did you understand of it?

But, if we do get past our wandering minds and confusing passages, and are able to understand what we read, we still have not yet reached true learning. Yes, we have some new knowledge in our heads, but true learning is not about the ability to recite knowledge, but the ability to do something with it. Knowledge can be consumed, understood, and memorized, but truly long-lasting learning comes from action. From taking knowledge and doing something with it: applying it, analyzing it, evaluating it, or creating something from it. Knowing that the oils from poison ivy cause irritation in the skin does not help us if we cannot identify poison ivy or recognize the signs and symptoms of exposure to it.

So for those of us who offer an online learning program, the question becomes, what do we offer and where is the balance between content and quality? To justify the cost of developing and maintaining an online learning platform, we must continually ensure that the content we are creating is worth sharing. To that effect, I am going to outline the two major sides of online learning, and how to ensure each is giving you the returns you need.

1. Synchronous Online Learning

In the most general sense, synchronous learning involves a cohort of learners working through content together. This doesn’t mean that everyone is doing everything together at the same time. It also doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be working at the same pace; differentiated instruction has shown us a classroom of learners can be learning together at different paces and all be successful. What synchronous learning does mean is that there is learner to learner and teacher to learner interactions in real time.

So, what does this look like? Here are some examples of synchronous learning tools:

  • Webinars
  • Instant Messaging / Chat
  • Conference calls

The power of synchronous online learning comes in the interaction between learners and instructors. As such, it’s critical to not fall into “traditional” methods of instruction (i.e. lecturing). It is easy to allow webinars to become stand and deliver: a subject matter expert gets up in front of the webcam and talks through a series of PowerPoint slides, taking questions at the end or perhaps throughout. This is a great way of delivering information, but a poor way of activating learning pathways.

The most successful webinars I’ve lead and have participated in involved a variety of audience engagement strategies. Employing as many of these as you can in each webinar is critical to activating learning pathways and delivering a quality learning experience. I will walk you through some of the synchronous learning tools I’ve used both as a teacher and as a learner.

Break Out Rooms are available in some webinar platforms. This allows for a larger webinar audience to break into smaller groups to discuss a topic or scenario and then report back to the larger group. If you had, for instance, a webinar with 12 participants, you could break them into four groups of three each. Each group of three could then discuss a particular scenario, analyze it using knowledge they have just been given, and then report back to the whole class. This activates learning pathways and solidifies knowledge into true learning.

Polls are a simple tool that are perhaps the most commonly employed in webinars. A poll is any question where learners are asked to respond individually. There are many polling tools out there with varied degrees of sophistication. And most webinar tools come with their own simple polling mechanism. Polls can be a great way to get instant feedback from a group of students, but be sure to tune them to your audience. Questions with a single correct answer tend not to play as well with adult learners. Rather, questions that get a sense of the range of opinions in a group or experience, can be very powerful.

Open Ended Questions are ones where learners can share their response to a question or topic via text, audio, or video chat. Open ended questions can be a great way to get input from the group, figure out where learners are at, and to share peer-to-peer knowledge and experience.

White Boarding is where learners can add their thoughts directly to the screen through images and text. Examples can include participants of a webinar filling out a chart or table together. Or participants placing dots near ideas that resonate with them. It can also be used to have the group create a shared image of a process or concept they are learning about. White boarding is a great, often anonymous, way to get input from many users in a short timeframe.

2. Asynchronous Online Learning

Where synchronous learning happens in real time, asynchronous learning happens in delay. The difference can be compared to a internet turn-by-turn versus live game (e.g. Words with Friends versus online Scrabble). In asynchronous learning, learners are working on their own. Asynchronous learning is often (though not always), self-directed learning. That is to say, the individual learner motivates forward movement through the curriculum, rather than an instructor or a group of peers working through it together.

Asynchronous learning can come in two flavors: active and passive. Passive learning all falls into the category of “inputs” (i.e. things you are digesting into your conscious mind). Active learning brings in the action and cements that learning. So, for each passive learning task, it’s important to balance with an active learning task.

Passive learning includes:

  • Reading assignments
  • Podcasts
  • Screencasts
  • Recorded lectures

Active learning includes:

  • Discussion boards
  • Self-paced interactive exercises
  • Quizzes and knowledge checks
  • Activities or tasks

Asynchronous and synchronous learning are not self-exclusive. Both can be incorporated into a single learning experience with quite effective results. In fact, webinars alone are often lacking. Just as in school, we had synchronous learning experiences in class and asynchronous experiences with our homework, so too does asynchronous work outside the webinar help add to the learning experience.

The key to effective asynchronous learning is the same as with synchronous learning. Don’t just give them content, but allow them to do something with it. Strong asynchronous learning activities do not just test knowledge, but allow learners to do something with it, activating learning pathways and transforming knowledge into behavior.

Bringing it Together

So, whether you are planning your next online learning course or beginning to develop a distance learning program, think about how you will incorporate these two sides to online learning and bring action into both. Knowledge may be power, but learning is the key to becoming powerful. Powerful enough to own our own destiny. In an age where information is changing too fast for any single person to keep up, the ability to offer continual training to our workforce is critical in keeping them capable of adapting to an ever changing environment.

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