Distance learning can be broadly defined as a form of education, where the teacher(s) and student(s) are separated geographically and connected through telecommunications. Yet, underneath the distance learning umbrella, there are a number of different delivery types or approaches. Two approaches that fall under distance learning are Synchronous and Asynchronous learning.

What is the difference between these two types of learning?

Is one type of learning better than the other? The short answer: it depends.

Keep reading for a complete breakdown on how each of these types of learning is defined, what are their advantages and disadvantages, and which type of learning is the right choice for you.

woman participating in synchronous distance learning

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Distance Learning

If you don’t yet have a clear idea on what distance learning is and why it’s important, this can be useful before diving into synchronous and asynchronous learning.

The definition for synchronous learning, as provided by the Glossary of Education Reform, is as follows: “a general term used to describe forms of education, instruction, and learning that occur at the same time, but not in the same place. Most commonly applied to various forms of televisual, digital, and online learning in which students learn from instructions, colleagues, or peers in real-time, but not in person.”

This definition outlines the “live” nature of synchronous learning, which is what distinguishes it from asynchronous distance learning. However, crucially, it also draws a clear distinction between synchronous learning and in-person education, where people are in the same location.

Alternatively, asynchronous learning is a type of learning in which the student and teacher are not directly communicating in real-time. In the world of online learning, this allows you to learn at your own pace regardless of time zone, location, or schedule. Sometimes referred to as being location independent, it means that the teacher and student are likely on different schedules and not communicating live.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Synchronous Learning

The Benefits of Synchronous Learning

Synchronous learning has a number of key benefits, outlined below, when compared to other distance learning delivery models:

  1. Structured Learning
    One of the main plus points associated with synchronous distance learning models is the level of structure that is provided in the process. As the learning group is required to participate simultaneously, these sessions provide clear guidance on how quickly work needs to be done and helps to control the pace of learning.This structure can be excellent for keeping the learning group on track, collectively, and can also help to avoid situations where certain members of the group fall behind or struggle to pace themselves appropriately.
  1. Increased Interaction
    Synchronous learning allows the entire learning group to interact in real-time, which offers a number of advantages. First, it can help to alleviate the sense of isolation that can come from distance learning models that do not offer this kind of interaction, and this can be beneficial for improving student engagement and maintaining interest levels.Moreover, synchronous learning allows for things like group activities and real-time collaboration to take place, which offers teachers some useful ways to vary lessons and ensures that people with different learning styles are catered for.
  1. Direct Instructions
    Finally, a major plus point of synchronous distance learning is the ability for the teacher to provide some degree of direct instruction to the learning group. This means that teachers can easily explain concepts to the group and then go into more detail if people are struggling to understand anything.By observing some of the student interactions, the teacher can potentially correct mistakes, while if students have any questions, they can have them answered there and then, in real-time, with the option for follow-up questions.

The Drawbacks of Synchronous Learning

Although synchronous learning has clear benefits, it is essential to have a rounded understanding and this means getting to grips with some of the negatives, drawbacks, or potential problems, including:

  1. Lack of Flexibility
    Perhaps the single biggest challenge associated with synchronous distance education is the inherent lack of flexibility it provides. The learning group all needs to be present, using whatever telecommunications technology has been agreed upon and this insistence on live sessions means the entire learning group has to engage at set times.This method of learning may not be ideal for those who prefer to learn at their own pace, or as and when free time presents itself. It also presents real challenges when it comes to having students in different time zones on a course.
  1. Students Being Held Back
    Another potential problem with synchronous distance learning is the fact that the learning pace is set by the teacher, rather than the student. Although this does provide structure, it also has the potential to hold certain students back, as the entire learning group must progress at roughly the same speed in order for the live lessons to make sense.This may not be ideal for students who have a lot of spare time to invest in their learning and who may, therefore, want to keep pushing forward at a faster pace than the teacher has decided upon.
  1. Reliance on Technology
    It is also worth noting that while modern digital technology has helped to facilitate synchronous distance education, over-reliance on this technology can also potentially be a disadvantage. After all, synchronous sessions will often rely on things like video conferencing, which is, in turn, hugely reliant on having enough bandwidth to support it.This means that if a member of the learning group experiences problems with their connection, or if they do not have access to high-speed internet for a period of time, they may miss out on important information.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Asynchronous Learning

The Advantages of Asynchronous Learning

One of the most useful aspects of learning asynchronously is the ability to move at your own pace. This is made possible with a wide variety of digital teaching tools, which use online modules that can be checked 24/7 via your home computer – meaning, if a teacher were to upload an assignment on Monday you could log in and complete the module at your convenience and at your own pace, provided it’s on par with the due date that is.

  1. Flexibility
    The ability to control the speed and pacing at which you complete a course gives you a greater sense of freedom and at the same time more responsibility. While asynchronous learning, students have a larger say in their class schedules as opposed to traditional classrooms. This allows for greater opportunities for students who may have other obligations and who might not be able to attend a traditional class.
  1. Practicality
    More than giving students greater agency over their own learning, asynchronous learning is simply more practical.  Imagine being able to keep your part-time job while you attend college or being able to take a certain program that would normally be too far away for you to consider.
  1. Affordability
    Furthermore, asynchronous learning can not only save you time but also money. Take for example the ability to save on basic travel expenses or school supplies because you are not required to travel. The same goes for teaching or learning supplies and even the physical teaching space. And institutional savings are often passed down to the digital learners.

Disadvantages of Asynchronous Learning

There are a few disadvantages when in an asynchronous learning environment. Depending on your personality and situation you may find success harder to find than normal:

  1. Isolation
    Isolation is a major hurdle for online learners. For those that enjoy learning alongside their peers or in social settings, asynchronous learning might take a bit of getting used to.
  1. Requires Self-discipline
    In general, a lot of responsibility falls upon the student to not wait until the last minute to turn in assignments, and this is especially true while learning asynchronously. So if you are someone who tends to procrastinate then it is important to remain mindful of your own habits and not let fall behind.
  1. Lack of Instant Feedback
    While asynchronous learning more often than not has built-in communication tools to communicate with teachers and fellow students, the fact of the matter is that this communication is not always instant.
  1. Limited Contact with an Instructor
    With everyone being in different time zones and on different schedules it is likely that you will be responding to emails and messages whenever you are available and not at the same time as your classmates.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning: Which Is More Effective?

As we’ve seen, there are advantages and disadvantages to both synchronous and asynchronous learning. But which is better very much depends on individual educators and students.

Synchronous learning is one of the key methods of delivery for distance education and focuses on involving the entire learning group in real-time educational activities. While this can boost engagement and offer a greater level of structure to courses, it is important that some basic steps are taken to ensure some of the potential disadvantages, such as the potential to hold students back, are avoided or minimized.

Similarly, whether you have personally tried asynchronous learning or not, it seems as though it’s here for the long haul. Asynchronous learning may not appeal to everyone, but it is becoming an increasingly important part of education in the digital age. While learning out of sync may not be able to replace synchronous learning, it can absolutely be used to augment both new and existing programs.

Here are a few ways that asynchronous learning could be implemented in the future:

  • adding recorded materials a blended learning program
  • storing lessons delivered live as review materials
  • improving accessibility for differently-abled students
  • lesson delivery during school cancellations or illnesses

Like many things in education, synchronous and asynchronous learning aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions, but understanding the advantages and drawbacks of each type of learning will help educators to customize their teaching approach to tailor to the specific needs and learning styles of their students.

(From the editor: This article is based on two articles, originally published on ViewSonic Library.)