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1 Synchronous and asynchronous

One of the most common ways to think about online education is to consider whether it might be synchronous, asynchronous or a mixture of both.

Synchronous learning

Synchronous learning takes place when the educator is present at the same time as the learner(s). This is almost always the case in a face-to-face environment. Synchronous learning can also take place in an online setting, using video conferencing and live chat or instant messaging. As in a face-to-face environment, learners in synchronous online sessions can ask questions and receive immediate responses.

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Figure 1 Synchronous teaching requires learners and the educator to be present at the same time.

Delivering courses synchronously, whether face to face or online, limits flexibility for learners. Because everyone has to be present at the same time, all learners must work through the course at a similar pace, with few opportunities to vary the pace to fit individual needs. If learners are not able to engage when the lesson is running, for example because they are ill or have other commitments, they miss it (although some institutions will record lessons for learners to view later).

Educators’ roles in online synchronous education are similar to their roles in face-to-face settings. Synchronous learning may feature webinars (live online lessons), group chats, or drop-in sessions where educators are available to help at a particular time. However, teaching synchronously online also requires some new skills, including ways of managing the faster pace of this form of teaching.

Asynchronous online learning

Asynchronous online learning does not require learners and educators to engage at the same time. Learning materials are posted online, and learners work through them in their own time and at their own pace, communicating with each other and the educator via discussion boards or forums, or perhaps by email or social media such as WhatsApp. Good asynchronous teaching makes use of a variety of media, including (but not limited to) audio and video clips.

When courses are asynchronous, learners can work at their own pace and at times of day that are convenient for them. The pattern of their input will be very different to that in synchronous lessons. They are likely to make many short visits to the discussion boards or forums. Although timing is flexible, there may still be deadlines for work to be submitted for feedback, and there is likely to be a recommended schedule for learners to follow so that they have some idea of what they should be doing and when.

As you will discover later in this week, a ‘blended’ approach can be used to bring together the advantages of synchronous and asynchronous learning, and of online and face-to-face learning in a single experience.