If you design education or a training programme, you have the choice between asynchronous online learning (at a distance or on location), synchronous online learning, face-to-face learning and workplace learning. While making a choice, you need to look at the possibilities and limitations of these different forms, especially from a pedagogical-didactical perspective.
In this post, I would like to discuss the possibilities and limitations of asynchronous online learning, synchronous online learning and face-to-face learning. I take the perspective of the teacher.
Asynchronous online learning
Asynchronous online learning is learning that is independent of time and place, although educational institutions sometimes deliberately have learners learn online at school (more on that in a moment).
Learners generally make use of a digital learning environment where they find learning materials such as videos, sound files and instructional texts. In addition, they can, for example, make assignments, take quizzes and practice tests. They learn individually, but are also able to interact and work together with others online. Discussion forums are often used for this purpose, as are functionalities for providing peer feedback. Adaptive technology can also be used, whereby learners receive instructions and assignments based on the results of previous assignments.
Potential for asynchronous online learning
Asynchronous online learning is highly ‘scalable’. You can reach far more learners with it than with face-to-face learning. If instructors guide learners – which is usually necessary – there are, however, limits to scalability.
Asynchronous online learning is very flexible. Learners can study material as needed and different levels of learners can be taken into account. Because learners can learn at their own time and pace, there is room for broadening and deepening. Thanks to asynchronous online learning, learning material can be processed in greater depth.
Research also shows that using online video can lead to better results than attending a face-to-face instruction because learners can watch videos at their own pace and according to their needs, and thus have more control over their cognitive load (Noetel cs, 2021). According to this research, videos appear to be more effective for learning skills and being able to perform procedures than for transferring knowledge.
Furthermore, learners can reflect more deeply before, for example, responding to a statement. The quality of contributions is therefore often better than during live interactions.
As a teacher, you also have many opportunities to check whether learners have comprehended the content, and you are able to monitor whether learners are learning. Based on that information, you can then intervene. You can also automate and provide feedback immediately, for example after learners have submitted their assignments.
Limitations of asynchronous online learning
Asynchronous online learning also has its limitations. Learning does not always consist of extensive instruction with processing. It can also be a dynamic process of short instruction-dialogue-instruction-dialogue. Such a process is difficult to ‘capture’ in a video, for example.
If, as a learner, you have questions, you cannot ask and get answers immediately. This can lead to delays. Furthermore, unclear formulation in instructions or assignments can quickly lead to confusion. As a teacher, you must therefore be careful when formulating instructions for tasks that learners have to carry out.
Asynchronous online learning can also lead to a feeling of being isolated. You hardly ever see or speak with the other learners and the instructor. Asynchronous online learning also requires a great deal of ability to regulate one’s own learning. As a learner, you need to plan explicitly when you are going to carry out which learning activities and you need to be able to keep to those plans. Learning technology, such as an online calendar and notifications, can at best support you in this.
Technology can also be a distraction. Instagram and WhatsApp are only two clicks away from the digital learning environment. These social media are actually designed to distract users. While focus is important for effective learning.
Finding or developing content for asynchronous online learning is also a relatively labour-intensive process. As a teacher, you need to make your pedagogical approach much more explicit and build more structure and guidance into the learning content. Recording videos also requires the necessary preparation.
Teachers often have relatively little time to develop and prepare their teaching. What’s more, various types of education in the Netherlands require a certain minimum amount of contact time. Asynchronous online learning then takes place alongside this contact time. This implies that these meetings must also be prepared and filled in differently than in the case of full face-to-face education.
Finally, it is not possible or less easy to develop certain social and psychomotor skills and professional behaviour asynchronously online, even though a great deal is possible with the support of serious gaming. In a virtual reality environment, for example, you can assemble a machine with the help of controllers. However, these actions are very different from assembling a machine by hand.
Asynchronous online learning on location
You can also apply asynchronous online learning on location. Learners then come to school, for example, but study the learning material online there. An advantage of this approach, compared to remote asynchronous online learning, is that learners are better able to ask questions directly about the learning content. Teachers can immediately clarify any ambiguities and if necessary provide further explanation. They also have a better view of the learner. On the other hand, learners may wonder why they need to travel in order to study learning content online. In practice, instructors therefore often alternate plenary discussions with asynchronous online learning.
Synchronous online learning
With synchronous online learning, you learn independent of location, but at the same time. Synchronous online learning is less flexible than asynchronous online learning. After all, you have to learn online at the same time, with sessions lasting the same length for each learner.
Synchronous online learning is done in applications such as Vitero Inspire, Zoom or WebEx. These platforms have all kinds of functionalities for live interaction. A teacher can provide instructions or a demonstration, learners can respond to polls or present themselves, chat or speak to each other, confer in online break-out rooms, and so on.
Synchronous online learning is particularly relevant if it is not possible, or if it is complicated, to get together physically. This is not only the case with international contacts or large groups, but also when learners have to combine several sessions in one day with other work at different locations. You quickly save several hours of travel time that can now be spent in a different way. Moreover, you also reduce CO2 emissions because you don’t have to travel as much.
Potential of synchronised online learning
Synchronous online learning is rather scalable, although several synchronous online learning applications have difficulty dealing with hundreds of concurrent learners. Moreover, it is more difficult to have meaningful interaction with very large groups of learners.
Important advantages of synchronous online learning, compared to asynchronous online learning have to do with ‘immediacy’ and the possibilities to interact. You can immediately ask questions, check whether learners have understood instructions and answer questions. You can clarify ambiguities immediately and also give immediate feedback to learners. You can also provide feedback efficiently, for example by having learners provide peer feedback within the digital learning environment, after which you focus on the most common mistakes during a live online session. You can also improvise more effectively if you notice that learners do not understand certain instructions.
Many people also find oral communication easier and more enjoyable than communicating via a discussion forum. In addition, during live online sessions, learners can interact with each other via break-out rooms and online whiteboards, for example. This comes across as more ‘natural’ than asynchronous online collaboration, partly because you don’t have to wait for contributions from others.
It is also possible to record sessions, whereupon learners can watch the recordings as needed.
Finally, synchronous, live, online sessions also provide structure for asynchronous online learning. By scheduling regular live online sessions in which you discuss questions and completed assignments, you create benchmarks in a process that learners would normally have to plan for themselves.
Limitations of synchronous online learning
As previously mentioned, it is possible to provide instruction via synchronous online learning. However, asynchronous online learning is more appropriate, partly because of its greater flexibility. With synchronous online learning, as with asynchronous online learning, learners are exposed to the risk of being distracted relatively quickly, partly because numerous applications – such as e-mail – are within easy reach. In the case of asynchronous online learning, these distractions mainly have a negative effect on efficiency, as they take relatively longer to complete a task. With synchronous online learning, this distraction is at the expense of effectiveness because learners miss part of the session completely.
Teachers also have less insight into learner participation with synchronous online learning than with face-to-face learning. In addition, synchronous online communication is probably more exhausting and cognitively demanding than face-to-face communication. Among other things, users have to work harder to send and receive non-verbal signals (Bailenson, 2021).
Finally, users still relatively often experience technical problems with synchronous online learning, which also impede smooth interaction, for example.
In face-to-face learning, you learn on location, with technology playing at most a supporting role (think of a search engine for carrying out research). You therefore have fewer technical problems that impede communication between learners and the instructor.
Moreover, interaction takes place more naturally because people can actually see each other and talk to each other directly. You can respond directly to the other person, and as a teacher you can give immediate feedback or clarification to learners.
You have a better overview of the learners, even though in face-to-face teaching the learners may be busy with other things than you as a teacher might think.
Of course, unlike in online learning, it is also possible to practice and develop psychomotor skills. You can also work more effectively and more authentically on certain social skills and professional acts.
Limitations of face-to-face learning
Compared to asynchronous and synchronous online learning, face-to-face learning also has limitations. Face-to-face learning is less flexible because learners have to come to a location. This can impede participation because learners have to combine work, private life and learning, for example, or because they cannot come to the institution due to illness.
In addition, the teacher mainly determines the pace of learning, while particularly asynchronous online learning allows learners to decide for themselves at what pace and when they want to learn. Learners therefore have less control over their own learning than with synchronous and particularly asynchronous online learning.
Blended learning attempts to combine the best of the three worlds. Instruction then takes place online, for example, asynchronously, mainly via instructional videos (which does require the necessary development time). Synchronous online learning is then used, for example, for asking questions and giving feedback. Face-to-face, you come together for meetings, for in-depth explanations and for practising psychomotor skills.
Questions to ask
Finally, the following questions, in combination with the above, can also help in making decisions when putting together a blend:
- Does your target group find it difficult to come to your location often to learn?
- Are you dealing with learners who are very different in terms of prior knowledge, ability level, learning questions, learning goals, etc?
- Does your target group have a powerful internet connection?
- Do you have enough time and resources to develop quality online content?
- Can you make use of online content that has already been developed?
- Is your target group able to regulate their own learning and avoid distractions? Are you able to support them in this?
- Do you have powerful monitoring tools?
- Do you have the time and skills to guide learners online?
- Can you apply an active teaching method online?
- Are you able to promote online involvement?
- Can you, for example, use serious gaming to work with learners on social skills?
- Do learners need to develop a great deal of psychomotor skills?
Connect with the author of this article, Wilfred Rubens (Consultant, Edublogger, Lecturer at the Open University in the Netherlands, member of OEB’s Advisory Board) and dive deeper into the topics discussed at OEB21.
Bailenson, J. N. (2021). Nonverbal overload: A theoretical argument for the causes of Zoom fatigue. Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.1037/tmb0000030
Noetel, M., Griffith, S., Delaney, O., Sanders, T., Parker, P., Del Pozo Cruz, B & Londsdale, C. (2021). Video Improves Learning in Higher Education: A Systematic Review. In: Review of Educational Research, 91, 2, 204-236. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654321990713