Synchronous learning describes real-time learning that takes place at the same time but not in the same place. Television is an early tool for synchronous learning.
In the 21st century—and right now during the COVID-19 pandemic—synchronous learning has seen a seismic shift. Synchronous learning used to mean real-time learning in a face-to-face environment, such as in a classroom or lecture hall, allowing for interplay between student and teacher. With school closures and employees working remotely due to the pandemic, the face-to-face element in synchronous learning has taken a hiatus: learners are interacting with their instructors and peers in real time through technology including video conferences via applications such as Zoom, online webinars, and podcasts.
Before we get into the impact of COVID-19 on workplace learning, let’s review the differences between synchronous and asynchronous learning, and their respective advantages and disadvantages.
In asynchronous learning, learners and instructors are not face-to-face, or in real time. An example of asynchronous learning is a class or degree program that students can complete in their own time, without direct interactions with peers and teachers. Interactions take place via e-mail, discussion boards, and social media groups, for example. The advantage of this type of learning is that learners aren’t limited to a specific timeframe or schedule for learning, allowing for flexibility and the ability to balance work, school and family life—which, for many people, are all out of balance at the moment. Another advantage is that learners can work at their own pace.
Disadvantages of asynchronous learning include the lack of immediacy in getting answers to questions, the lack of collaboration, and the self-motivation required to get the work done. Asynchronous learning also requires a lot of planning on the part of the instructor, with collaborative tools such as discussion boards and interactive activities.
Like asynchronous learning, synchronous learning has its advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage is that learners can interact with the presenter and get questions answered in real time; another is that the instructor can gauge whether or not students are grasping the material, and make adjustments as needed. With online synchronous learning, learners don’t have to travel to get training on the latest product release or company initiative (and business travel has been severely curtailed during the pandemic, anyway). A major disadvantage of synchronous learning is that delivery is everything. Think about that college professor droning on about the numerous conquests during the Roman Empire, or a presenter getting addled by PowerPoint issues, or a Zoom meeting leader fiddling with the screen share feature.
Now let’s return to the COVID-19 pandemic, where elementary and secondary teachers and professors have suddenly been thrown into online synchronous learning (or “distance learning”) through Zoom or other video conferencing software, creating a virtual classroom from their kitchen tables using instructional materials made for traditional, in-person synchronous learning. In the business world, with many employees working from home, companies have also had to adapt their traditional synchronous training to online synchronous models. While asynchronous learning could fit the bill for stressed out employees who are also caregivers and teachers themselves, asynchronous training requires a lot of planning, investment, and time – three things in short supply when teachers and instructors are being called to pivot on a dime.
In a virus-free world, educators and instructors will have more time to weigh the benefits of synchronous and asynchronous learning—and there is mounting evidence that learning models will be forever changed moving forward—with interactive apps, a mix of asynchronous online learning tools and face-to-face video instruction, live broadcasts, virtual reality experiences and webcasts (World Economic Forum, “3 ways the coronavirus pandemic could reshape education,” accessed August 12, 2020).