If you work in education in 2020, you are making tough decisions about how to best reach and teach your learners in the midst of a global pandemic. There is a dearth of evidence to help teachers make informed choices on how to allocate time to asynchronous vs. synchronous online learning. By looking at research into online learning and human development, we can begin to grapple with the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.
Let’s start with the basics. “Synchronous online learning” generally refers to live learning activities that must happen at a set time (often over Zoom or a similar platform), while “asynchronous online learning” refers to almost everything else (completing assignments, doing readings, watching videos, etc.). Research studies don’t provide strong evidence that synchronous learning universally leads to better student engagement and learning outcomes than asynchronous learning or vice versa. Each approach is best suited to different contexts. In particular, the age and cognitive development of your students has a profound impact on their ability to succeed in different online learning environments.
All online learning requires executive function skills, which allow us to plan, work toward goals, solve problems and be creative. Crucially, executive function skills continue to develop throughout childhood and adolescence. Young children who are still developing these skills need more support and supervision to complete tasks and structure their learning. Conversely, as executive function develops, children become more autonomous and they require less supervision. There is a direct relationship between executive function development and the effectiveness of different types of learning activities. For example, completing homework requires executive function skills, and the benefits of homework increase as students move into middle school and high school.
Asynchronous Online Learning
One of the principal advantages of asynchronous online learning is that it offers more flexibility, allowing learners to set their own schedule and work at their own pace. In many ways, asynchronous online learning is similar to homework. Younger students, and students with disabilities that impact executive function, struggle more in fully asynchronous learning environments, and may require adult supervision to work through asynchronous assignments. By contrast, children who have the most support at home can make more progress in asynchronous online learning environments, which adds new dimensions to existing educational inequities.
Here’s how one special education teacher, Stephanie Landrum, who teaches at Horizon K-8 Charter School in Boulder, Co., explains it:
“Asynchronous learning is inaccessible for the special education population I work with. The current remote learning situation means I am not only supporting academic and social-emotional learning but on top of that, I am scaffolding student’s use of technology. At least with synchronous learning, I can “be there” to help prompt them. I use our sessions together to build community. It’s challenging but I try to design my online (synchronous) learning to incorporate movement, manipulatives and sensory learning, just like my in-person classes.”
To increase equity, you should set up your asynchronous learning environments to maximize accessibility. Be sure the material is organized, with concise and consistent instructions and resources that are easy to find. Using headings and image captions can aid student comprehension and break up long text. Online environments can be set up to support assistive technologies such as closed captions on videos and text to speech. Using multimodal resources that incorporate text, video, audio and images to cover the same material helps appeal to different learning preferences and support learners with disabilities.
Fully asynchronous online learning is probably best suited to adult learners who are motivated to apply what they learn to their work. For example, most of the enrolled students in fully asynchronous MOOCs are adults, and even in this context, completion can be challenging.
Synchronous Online Learning
Synchronous activities are the most effective way to incorporate interpersonal interactions into your online learning; educators know that investing heavily in student relationships yields strong academic returns and sets the stage for effective classroom management. This social-emotional investment is even more important now to support students coping with the emotional toll of the pandemic.
Synchronous online learning allows you to build a community, discuss and interact over content, and helps your learners to maintain a regular schedule. Synchronous interaction also gives teachers the opportunity to model and explain how to use technology, to coach students on asynchronous assignments, and to provide guidance or “course corrections” in real-time. Some students are hesitant to participate in discussions and activities, so be deliberate about using synchronous time to foster participation by all learners. In the long run, this will help you maintain engagement and build a learning community.
Extensive lecturing is not a good use of your time, or learners’ time, in synchronous online learning. At a minimum, you should break up lectures with polls or discussion prompts. Students remember more and experience less mind-wandering when lectures are interpolated with other learning activities, such as short quizzes. Better yet, by pre-recording your lectures, or assigning existing videos that cover the same content, you can turn lectures into asynchronous learning assignments and free up synchronous class time to focus on higher-yield activities.
The size of synchronous learning groups is also an important consideration because smaller groups allow for more discussion. The instructional technology coordinator Melanie Kitchen proposes using “campfire groups,” or consistent groups of four students and an educator that gather to analyze, debate and discuss material. She argues that smaller synchronous groups can be used to practice the higher order skills (create, evaluate and analyze) and that the skills of understanding and remembering are best suited for asynchronous learning. If you’re not able to run many separate small-group discussions, you can use breakout rooms within larger synchronous class meetings to create similar conditions.
The ratio of synchronous and asynchronous activities, and the frequency of each, can be adjusted to meet the needs of your students. If you work with young learners (particularly learners in grades K-5), or learners who have disabilities that impact their ability to focus and work autonomously, short cycles of synchronous learning interspersed with supervised activities may be the most effective for maintaining engagement. By contrast, many secondary school students are capable of completing well-scaffolded asynchronous activities. You may find that the flipped classroom model provides a useful framework for balancing asynchronous activities with more interactive synchronous activities.
The success of each environment—synchronous and asynchronous—is interwoven. Group discussions will work well when your students have the background knowledge gleaned from independent work. Likewise, the community developed in the synchronous environment can help students feel more motivated when they work on their own; for example, creating a presentation they will share with peers.SynchronousAsynchronousWorks well for:
- establishing community and personal connections
- lateral exchange of ideas (live discussions)
- group work (projects, breakouts)
- 1:1 and small-group coaching
- establishing and maintaining a regular schedule
- real-time feedback and guidance- teaching “factual” content at scale
- learners with high motivation and autonomy
- assigning pre-work for “flipped classes”self-paced and mastery-based learning
- improving accessibility by providing multiple modalities of learning
- providing all students with an opportunity to participateWatch out for:
- lecturing for >15 minutes at a time
- connectivity and scheduling challenges
- video call fatigue
- young learners who lack support and supervision in the home environment
- learners with deficits in executive function
- confusing or unnecessarily complex learning environments
Though more research is needed, available evidence suggests it is unlikely that fully asynchronous or fully synchronous online learning is a good solution for K-12 schools and students. Instead, a mix of these activities, with more supervision and frequent check-ins for younger learners, probably leads to the best outcomes. Regardless of the age of your students, thoughtful design of online learning leads to better outcomes. Rather than worry about the exact ratio of time spent on each activity, focus on implementing effective teaching practices, such as promoting interpersonal interactions, creating organized and well-scaffolded learning activities, challenging learners, connecting learning to the real world and fostering learners’ engagement.