Online learning is not just synchronous learning. Why?

Murat Sümer, PhD, Department of Computer Education & Instructional Technologies, School of Education, Uşak University, Turkey

As you already know, due to the threat of COVID-19, schools and universities were forced to suspend all face-to-face classes and transition to online learning to continue their teaching and learning processes. However, even in the second year of the pandemic there is still a misunderstanding regarding online learning. Many online learning practices are occurring in environments like zoom, so it is a good idea to consider where all this is going.

Online learning is a process that gives learners autonomy, responsibility, flexibility and choice, rather than simply delivering learning resources to them and replacing lectures with synchronous learning tools. In other words, it is a learning process in which learners are separated from one another but continue to “interact”, “collaborate” and “learn” through information and communication technologies both synchronously and asynchronously.

However, the “new” normal required a rapid change in teaching and learning practices and institutions lacked both the time and the resources to make those changes. As learning went online quickly, online conferencing tools became a part of many students’ and teachers’ everyday lives. They were life savers at the beginning, but you can support your students and their learning in other ways too. Depending on your course goals, your students’ needs and your own needs as both a person and a teacher, synchronous tools might not be the best-suited technology.

When we look at the well-designed online courses such as those offered by open universities for decades or MOOCs offered by elite universities, we can see that they are almost always delivered asynchronously without using videoconference tools because of format’s flexibility and the technical challenges of synchronous videos. This shows us that we should integrate more asynchronous parts into our learning design, and maybe use dual or multiple tools at the same time. Asynchronous tools allow for reflection and story sharing, as well as multiple opportunities for learners to think, rearticulate, and edit their responses, whereas synchronous tools allow for collaborative problem-solving in the moment. So, synchronous tools may not be suitable for reflection. Using dual or multiple tools to address multiple learning needs, technological skills and comfort, and different demands on learners’ times might be the best solution.

Asynchronous learning can take many forms. Learners can watch pre-recorded lecture videos, read the resources, discuss with peers via discussions boards, blog about the course, join group projects and create, and complete the assignments such as quizzes, games, inquires. Those forms of asynchronous learning are good to add interaction to the course. If we continue to use synchronous videoconferencing tools, they should aim to expand the number of options available to teachers for designing their courses and make their course more interactive.

Integrating asynchronous tools is also a good solution for disadvantaged group of learners. Synchronous tools require a good internet connection, a computer and devices such as a microphone and an earphone. Even if learners have all of this equipment, there might be health problems, which is highly likely during the pandemic and time zone issues for international groups. As a teacher, it is terrible to see just a few of your students or full of black boxes in your live course.

Last but not least, if you have found yourself in Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting for the last few months, you might say the shorter and more focused the video conference, the better. Video conferencing can be exhausting. It is the same for learners and their parents.

Maybe it is time to think about hybrid learning; imagining a world in which institutions educate partly face-to-face and partly online. Lectures, student presentations and one-way communication activities can still remain online, while activities require interaction and involvement continue face to face in the schools.

To sum up, we will not go back to the way things were because we are seeing many different styles of online classes at both schools that have been offering online courses for decades and schools offering online classes for the first time. So, we all should look at the past two years and learn from the best and worst practices and think about both synchronous and asynchronous activities when planning our online activities. It is always a good idea to ask a peer/expert/learning designer for help.


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Tom Worthington
2 years ago

I don’t have to imagine a world of education blending face-to-face and online. I have been teaching, and learning, that way for a decade. In reality, Australian university students have not been turning up to lectures for many years, and lecturers have grudgingly provided materials online. Out of frustration I decided to give up this de-facto hybrid format ten years ago, and moved my teaching online. I then spent seven years as a student of online education, and in 2019 formalized this approach delivering a hybrid learning module at ANU (with the option of fully online if an emergency kept… Read more »