The internet has revolutionized traditional learning in a big way. Conventional methods are giving way to more dynamic and flexible paradigms in the educational experience. Synchronous and asynchronous learning is a direct result of these developments.
Synchronous learning refers to an educational setting with simultaneous collaboration across channels of communication which may be in person or online. Classroom lectures, live online lectures, live forum discussions or video conferences are synchronous in nature. While this does nurture a sense of commitment to the curriculum and enhance absorption of knowledge, it is very restrictive – getting a bigger number of people together at the same time is often not feasible.
Asynchronous learning is self-paced and does not require simultaneous collaboration. The learner is free to catch up as per their convenience, encouraging more and more professionals to acquire new skills on demand, when they are free from other commitments. Open-ended courses, message boards, and discussion groups are some asynchronous learning elements. Asynchronous learning is highly time efficient and minimally wasteful but limited real-time participation with co-learners can adversely affect motivation.
William Horton developed the Absorb, Do, Connect framework to measure learning efficacy. The framework advocates that true learning consists of absorption of information followed by ‘do’ activities to apply that knowledge, e.g. with the help of case studies. ‘Connect’ activities encourage the learner to apply his or her learnings to their personal lives and thereby contribute to their holistic growth. While in this model synchronous learning is recommended for absorbing activities, both ‘do’ and ‘connect’ could be achieved best through asynchronous learning. But the increasing demand for user convenience, as well as the need to reach more adult learners, have made asynchronous learning a method of choice across the entire spectrum of learning activity.
The major challenge for asynchronous learning is a low course completion rate. Platforms like Coursera show high numbers enrolling in courses but engagement rapidly declines as the course progresses. Sequentially presented content shows falling participation and is a problem across all media of communication. Michael Kinsley, the famous American journalist, asked his assistant to place his contact information on a card more than halfway through the pages of several books at the local store – with the promise of a reward. He received no calls for the money! So with limited commitment, asynchronous learning faces the risk of high dropout rates.
But the growing demand for learning on the go is forcing educators and platform developers to address these shortcomings and experiment with new ways to drive engagement and course completion such as
- Learning in cohorts where a course has a start and end date with regular submission deadlines in between. Learners can still learn when it suits them – in fixed time windows
- Gamification such as point collection and leaderboards
Coupled with content that is relevant for the individual learner and well designed, the asynchronous method can be enhanced a long way. Last but not least, if combined with some synchronous learning elements, such as an occasional webinar, live chat or live event, a learning experience that is dominated by asynchronous learning has a much better chance of achieving completion rates that are in line with what traditional learning institutes consider acceptable.
Asynchronous learning has fast evolved and will continue to grow on the back of new technology and tools. It maximizes productivity and guarantees efficient use of time and effort. The internet has changed the way we live our lives – and for sure it will continue to challenge and disrupt how we develop and train people, how we think and how we learn.