Thinking About The Difference Between Synchronous And Asynchronous Learning

While it’s true that a significant difference between Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning is, as the name (sync) suggests, a matter of timing, that misses thinking about the student and content more than the timing and format of the classes (an important shift).

Let’s zoom back a bit and look broadly at the spirit of difference between Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning.

Increasingly, through the growth of digital technology, the distinction is also a matter of place, pace, space, and pathway. But maybe more critical to understand than the concept of time is that of independence. Asynchronous learners are, largely, either learning independent or are completing significant amounts of learning independently while synchronous learners work at about the same time on about the same thing (digitally or physically)–ideally in a way that benefits from being together.

Accordingly, asynchronous learners benefit from unique skills compared to synchronous learners. The former often have to be self-motivated, self-reliant, resourceful, and confident while synchronous learners are interdependent and while benefiting from learning together, also have to use unique skills to navigate those social interactions that can, well-designed, improve the learning experience.

A Few Additional Thoughts About Synchronous And Asynchronous Learning

An underlying assumption about all of this is that students are simply learning the same content area (e.g. ‘Science’) rather than exactly the same activities and lessons and units and assessments. If we were to limit these examples of each to only when students are doing the exact same thing just at different times–well, that’s a lot less interesting and far too limiting.

Note, there are exceptions to any of these. Sometimes students might gather in the same place at the same time to learn the same content but in a way that is not necessarily ‘sync’d.’ Think competency/mastery-based learning, for example, where students might move through the same content at a different pace.

Compare that to almost the same situation– that same student this time using a platform with adaptive learning mechanics that scaled to their ability. While any student using this approach would indeed be studying ‘Math,’ it would be rare that two students would end up at the same place whenever that class, semester, or school year ended. Would this be ‘Asynchronous’ or ‘Synchronous’?

The truth is, it depends on your terms–and it really doesn’t matter. In 20 years (if not sooner), these kinds of distinctions will look and feel completely different (if they’re not entirely obsolete).

It might be informative to push the definition a little further and it also could be argued that some of these examples in the attached Venn Diagram are in the ‘wrong category’–that Khan Academy isn’t necessarily ‘asynchronous’ because there is no perceived collective group unified by some characteristic (a class, club, or cohort, for example) studying the exact same material.

While students do indeed access the Khan Academy curriculum at different times from different places, the argument could be made that it’s simply a learning platform rather than an example of Asynchronous Learning (whereas if a class of middle school math students used the platform on their own accord at their own times to learn the curriculum, that would then qualify as Asynchronous Learning).

Confusing enough? Well, don’t let it be. A lot of this is semantics while other confusion is due to the changing nature of each type of learning. As technology improves, Asynchronous Learning improves and often overlaps with Synchronous Learning. And in other lessons, you may learn that there is often a mix of each.

This is definitely not a ‘which is better’ but rather:

How are they the same?

How are they different?

How is each changing and why?

What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of each?

What’s possible with each form? That is, how can I use one or the other to supplement what I already teach?