Asynchronous and Synchronous Learning


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Asynchronous and Synchronous Learning

  1. 1. Asynchronous Synchronous E-Learning &A study of asynchronous and synchronous e-learningmethods discovered that each supports different purposesBy Stefan HrastinskiT oday’s workforce is expected to be and limitations of different e-learning Many organizations and educational highly educated and to continu- techniques and methods. Research institutions are interested in using and ally improve skills and acquire can support practitioners by study- developing both asynchronous and syn-new ones by engaging in lifelong learn- ing the impact of different factors on chronous e-learning, but have a limiteding. E-learning, here defined as learning e-learning’s effectiveness. Two basic understanding of the benefits and limi-and teaching online through network types of e-learning are commonly com- tations of the two. I began with a viewtechnologies, is arguably one of the most pared, asynchronous and synchronous. of learning as participation in the socialpowerful responses to the growing need Until recently, e-learning initiatives world,5 which implies that learning isfor education.1 Some researchers have mainly relied on asynchronous means a dialogue carried out through bothexpressed concern about the learning for teaching and learning.3 However, internal and social negotiation.6outcomes for e-learners, but a review recent improvements in technologyof 355 comparative studies reveals no and increasing bandwidth capabilities Defining Asynchronous andsignificant difference in learning out- have led to the growing popularity of Synchronous E-Learningcomes, commonly measured as grades synchronous e-learning.4 An ongoing debate addresses theor exam results, between traditional My work has focused on the benefits usefulness of asynchronous versusand e-learning modes of delivery.2 and limitations of asynchronous and synchronous e-learning. Asynchronous For e-learning initiatives to succeed, synchronous e-learning and addresses e-learning, commonly facilitated byorganizations and educational insti- questions such as when, why, and how media such as e-mail and discussiontutions must understand the benefits to use these two modes of delivery. boards, supports work relations among© 2008 Stefan Hrastinski Number 4 2008 • E D U C A U S E Q U A R T E R LY 51
  2. 2. learners and with teachers, even when Research Background participants cannot be online at the In my PhD thesis,13 I compared asyn- same time. It is thus a key component chronous and synchronous e-learning. of flexible e-learning. In fact, many In this article, I focus on the analysis of people take online courses because of asynchronous and synchronous online their asynchronous nature, combin- seminars held as part of two e-learning ing education with work, family, and classes. The first class included 3 females other commitments. Asynchronous e- and 5 males with a mean age of 38 years. learning makes it possible for learners The second class included 14 females to log on to an e-learning environment and 5 males with a mean age of 43 years. at any time and download documents Both classes studied knowledge man- or send messages to teachers or peers. agement at the master’s level. Potential Students may spend more time refining differences might arise because of the their contributions, which are generally different group sizes (8 versus 19), but considered more thoughtful compared only a few such differences were evident to synchronous communication.7 in the data from this study. Synchronous e-learning, commonly To understand student opinions of supported by media such as videocon- Three Types of asynchronous and synchronous e- ferencing and chat, has the potential Communication learning, I also conducted 12 half-hour to support e-learners in the develop- Haythornthwaite12 argues that three telephone interviews. Four of the inter- ment of learning communities. Learners types of communication in particular viewees were enrolled in the first class and and teachers experience synchronous are important for building and sustain- eight were enrolled in the second class. e-learning as more social and avoid ing e-learning communities: content- The interviews, which I recorded and frustration by asking and answering related communication, planning of transcribed, were conducted within one questions in real time.8 Synchronous tasks, and social support (see Table 1). month after the seminars concluded. sessions help e-learners feel like partici- Firstly, communication related to the In the online seminars, I suggested pants rather than isolates: course content is essential for learn- questions for the class to discuss and ing. Just as in traditional education, e- also asked learners to submit questions Isolation can be overcome by more learners need to be able to ask ques- about the course literature for discus- continued contact, particularly tions and share information and ideas. sion. The synchronous discussions were synchronously, and by becoming Secondly, support for planning tasks is conducted by chat and scheduled for aware of themselves as members of essential, especially when learners pro- three hours. The asynchronous discus- a community rather than as isolated duce some kind of product, such as an sions used a discussion board and were individuals communicating with assignment, in collaboration with peers. scheduled over a week. I chose two asyn- the computer.9 Finally, social support relations are desir- chronous and two synchronous discus- able for creating an atmosphere that sions from the middle of each course for The debate about the benefits and fosters collaborative learning. further analysis. The classes used the limitations of asynchronous and syn- chronous e-learning seems to have left Table 1 the initial stage, in which researchers Three Types of Communication* tried to determine the medium that works “better”—such studies generally Type of Exchange Examples yielded no significant differences. 10 Content-related n Askor answer a content-related question Consequently, instead of trying to deter- n Share information mine the best medium, the e-learning n Express an idea or thought community needs an understanding of Planning of tasks n Plan work, allocate tasks, coordinate joint efforts, or when, why, and how to use different review drafts types of e-learning. Note also that the n Negotiate and resolve conflicts users decide how to use a medium. For example, in some instances e-mail is Social support n Express companionship, emotional support, or advice used near-synchronously when users n Use emoticons (such as J, L) remain logged in and monitor their n Provide support when problems arise (such as when e-mail continuously.11 Thus, the differ- having technical difficulties) ence between asynchronous and syn- n Talk about things other than class work chronous e-learning is often a matter * Adapted from Haythornthwaite. of degree.52 E D U C A U S E Q U A R T E R LY • Number 4 2008
  3. 3. same literature and the suggested ques- cess information. The receiver has moretions were of similar character, designed time to comprehend a message becauseto stimulate reflection and sharing of an immediate answer is not expected.personal experiences relating to the lit- My interviews support this argument, aserature in both the asynchronous and illustrated by the following quote:synchronous settings. After the onlinediscussions concluded, I classified every In the [asynchronous discussions]written sentence according to the three it is easier to find some more facts,types of exchanges described in Table 1. maybe have a look in a book andSome sentences included more than one do more thorough postings.type of exchange and were counted inmore than one category. In fact, according to Kock’s estimate,18 The studies reported here were con- an exchange of 600 words requires aboutducted in a specific context and with 6 minutes for complex group tasks ina small sample size. However, the key face-to-face settings, while exchangingarguments are also supported by theory, the same number of words over e-mailas will become evident. I did not use would take approximately one hour.learning outcome measures because onlytwo pass/no pass grades were given in Benefits and Limitations ofthe courses, making it difficult to iden- Synchronous e-Learningtify statistically significant differences When studying Table 2, it becomesgiven the small populations. Instead, apparent that synchronous e-learningthis article relies on measures and per- supports other types of communicationceptions of communication, which have more often than does asynchronousbeen shown to have a positive effect on e-learning. Almost 60 percent of the sen-perceived learning, grades, and quality tences related to content, while a thirdassessment of assignments.14 of the sentences related to planning of tasks. This can be explained by the factBenefits and Limitations of that these discussions were limited byAsynchronous E-Learning time—the participants had to make sure The classification of sentences from they did what was expected during thethe seminar discussions is presented scheduled three hours. In synchronousin Table 2. Almost every sentence in e-learning, students might feel isolated discussions, participants also discussedthe asynchronous discussions of the and not part of learning communities, things other than course work. This wassmaller group, and a vast majority of which is essential for collaboration and especially evident at the beginning andsentences in the larger group, were learning.15 When comparing the smaller end of each discussion. No apparentclassified as content-related. This is a to the larger class, it seems difficult to difference could be discerned in the syn-remarkable result—imagine if learners get asynchronous discussions going chronous discussions when comparingon campus spent more than 90 percent with few participants, a finding sup- the smaller and larger classes.of their time discussing issues related to ported by previous research.16 Kock’s media naturalness hypothesis19course content. These results can also be The cognitive model of media choice predicts that synchronous communi-interpreted as troublesome, however. If proposed by Robert and Dennis17 theo- cation increases psychological arousal.e-learners seldom meet face-to-face and rizes that asynchronous communica- Similarly, Robert and Dennis’s20 cogni-teachers mainly rely on asynchronous tion increases a person’s ability to pro- tive model of media choice predicts that Table 2 Sentences Categorized by Type of Communication and E-Learning Type of Communication Smaller Class (n=8) Larger Class (n=19) Synchronous Asynchronous Synchronous Asynchronous Content-related 876 (58%) 369 (99%) 1,816 (57%) 2,438 (93%) Planning of tasks 507 (34%) 5 (1%) 935 (29%) 131 (5%) Social support 198 (13%) 2 (1%) 572 (18%) 124 (2%) All sentences 1,507 (100%) 375 (100%) 3,173 (100%) 2,608 (100%) Number 4 2008 • E D U C A U S E Q U A R T E R LY 53
  4. 4. Figure 1 conversation. A downside revealed in the interviews is that the focus is often Cognitive and Personal Dimensions of E-Learning on quantity rather than quality—that Asynchronous E-Learning Synchronous E-Learning is, trying to write something quickly because “someone else will say what I was going to say.” Cognitive Participation Personal Participation Cognitive and Personal increased reflection and ability Increased arousal, motivation Dimensions of E-Learning to process information and convergence on meaning In the previous section, I suggested that synchronous communication makes it possible to monitor the synchronous communication increases bles face-to-face communication. This receiver’s reaction to a message, mak- motivation. Kock argues that each ele- finding was especially evident in the ing the receiver feel more committed ment that characterizes “natural” media smaller class. and motivated to read it. When commu- (for example, the ability to convey and Synchronous communication enables nicating asynchronously, however, the observe facial expressions and body monitoring the receiver’s reaction to a receiver has more time to comprehend language) contributes to psychological message, which makes the receiver more the message, since the sender does not arousal. If these elements are suppressed, committed and motivated to read and expect an immediate answer. Thus, syn- however, a decrease in psychological answer the message.21 The interviews chronous e-learning increases arousal arousal can be expected. conducted as part of my empirical stud- and motivation, while asynchronous The interviews revealed that many ies supported this argument: e-learning increases the ability to pro- e-learners felt that synchronous com- cess information. munication was “more like talking” Even if I cannot see the person, The concepts of personal participa- compared with asynchronous commu- I write so to speak to the person tion and cognitive participation describe nication. It seemed more acceptable to directly and get an immediate the dimensions of learning supported exchange social support and discuss answer. by asynchronous and synchronous less “complex” issues. Consequently, e-learning (see Figure 1). Personal partici- the higher sentence counts when com- It can also be expected that the sender pation describes a more arousing type of municating synchronously (see Table becomes more psychologically aroused participation appropriate for less com- 2) can be explained by the fact that and motivated because he or she knows plex information exchanges, including the e-learners felt more psychologically a response is likely. In synchronous the planning of tasks and social support. aroused and motivated, since this type e-learning, learners respond quickly Cognitive participation describes a more of communication more closely resem- because they do not want to disrupt the reflective type of participation appropri- Table 3 When, Why, and How to Use Asynchronous vs. Synchronous E-Learning Asynchronous E-Learning Synchronous E-Learning When? n Reflecting on complex issues n Discussing less complex issues n When synchronous meetings cannot be scheduled n Getting acquainted because of work, family, and other commitments n Planning tasks Why? n Students have more time to reflect because the n Studentsbecome more committed and motivated sender does not expect an immediate answer. because a quick response is expected. How? n Use asynchronous means such as e-mail, discussion n Use synchronous means such as videoconferencing, boards, and blogs. instant messaging and chat, and complement with face-to-face meetings. Examples n Students expected to reflect individually on course n Students expected to work in groups may be advised topics may be asked to maintain a blog. to use instant messaging as support for getting to n Students expected to share reflections regarding know each other, exchanging ideas, and planning course topics and critically assess their peers’ ideas tasks. may be asked to participate in online discussions on n A teacher who wants to present concepts from the a discussion board. literature in a simplified way might give an online lecture by videoconferencing.54 E D U C A U S E Q U A R T E R LY • Number 4 2008
  5. 5. ate for discussions of complex issues. I chronous, and hybrid e-learning. This 11. M. Lynne Markus, “Electronic Mail as thesuggest that, other things being equal, will facilitate understanding of the com- Medium of Managerial Choice,” Orga- nization Science, vol. 5, no. 4 (1994), pp.synchronous e-learning better supports plex task ahead—taking advantage of 502–527.personal participation and asynchro- emerging media in ways that benefit 12. Caroline Haythornthwaite, “Buildingnous e-learning better supports cogni- learning. e Social Networks via Computer Net-tive participation. works: Creating and Sustaining Distrib- The research discussed here demon- uted Learning Communities,” in Build-strates that asynchronous and synchro- Endnotes ing Virtual Communities: Learning andnous e-learning complement each other. 1. Dongsong Zhang, J. Leon Zhao, Lina Change in Cyberspace, K. Ann Renninger Zhou, and Jay F. Nunamaker Jr., “Can and Wesley Schumar, eds. (Cambridge:An implication for instructors is to pro- E-Learning Replace Classroom Learn- Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp.vide several types of asynchronous and ing?” Communications of the ACM, vol. 159–190.synchronous communication so that 47, no. 5 (May 2004), pp. 75–79. 13. Stefan Hrastinski, “Participating in Syn-appropriate means are available for dif- 2. Thomas L. Russell, The No Significant Dif- chronous Online Education,” PhD dis-ferent learning activities. The combina- ference Phenomenon, 5th ed. (Montgom- sertation, Lund University, 2007, avail-tion of these two types of e-learning ery, AL: International Distance Educa- able from tion Certification Center, 2001). 12588&postid=599311.supports several ways for learners and 3. Alexander Romiszowski and Robin 14. Eric Fredericksen, Alexandra Picket, Peterteachers to exchange information, col- Mason, “Computer-Mediated Commu- Shea, William Pelz, and Karen Swan, “Stu-laborate on work, and get to know each nication,” in Handbook of Research for dent Satisfaction and Perceived Learn-other.22 As stated earlier, many learners Educational Communications and Technol- ing with On-line Courses: Principles andenroll in online courses because of their ogy, ed. David H. Jonassen (Mahwah, Examples from the SUNY Learning Net-asynchronous nature, which needs to be NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004), pp. 397– work,” Journal of Asynchronous Learning 431; and Stefan Hrastinski and Christina Networks, vol. 4, no. 2 (September 2000),taken into account. For the discussion of Keller, “Computer-Mediated Communi- pp. 7–41; and Starr Roxanne Hiltz, Nancycomplex issues, synchronous e-learning, cation in Education: A Review of Recent Coppola, Naomi Rotter, Murray Turoff,by media such as videoconferencing, Research,” Educational Media Interna- and Raquel Benbunan-Fich, “Measuringinstant messaging and chat, and arrang- tional, vol. 4, no. 1 (March 2007), pp. the Importance of Collaborative Learn-ing face-to-face meetings as a comple- 61–77. ing for the Effectiveness of ALN: A Multi- 4. Kinshuk and Nian-Shing Chen, “Syn- Measure, Multi-Method Approach,” Jour-ment, may be essential as support for chronous Methods and Applications in nal of Asynchronous Learning Networks,students to get to know each other and E-Learning,” Campus-Wide Information vol. 4, no. 2 (2000), pp. 103–25.for planning the tasks at hand. How- Systems, vol. 23, no. 3 (2006). 15. Haythornthwaite and Kazmer, “Bring-ever, when discussing complex issues, 5. Etienne Wenger, Communities of Prac- ing the Internet Home”; and Haythorn-in which time for reflection is needed, tice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Cam- thwaite, “Building Social Networks.”it seems preferable to switch to asyn- bridge: Cambridge University Press, 16. Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt, Buildingchronous e-learning and use media such 1998). Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effec- 6. David H. Jonassen and Susan M. Land, tive Strategies for the Online Classroom (Sanas e-mail, discussion boards, and blogs. preface to Theoretical Foundations of Learn- Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999).Table 3 summarizes when, why, and ing Environments, ed. David H. Jonassen 17. Lionel P. Robert and Alan R. Dennis, “Par-how to use asynchronous versus syn- and Susan M. Land (Mahwah, NJ: Law- adox of Richness: A Cognitive Model ofchronous e-learning. rence Erlbaum, 2000), pp. iii–ix. Media Choice,” IEEE Transactions on Pro- 7. Stefan Hrastinski, “The Potential of Syn- fessional Communication, vol. 48, no. 1Conclusion chronous Communication to Enhance (March 2005), pp. 10–21. Participation in Online Discussions,” 18. Ned Kock, “Media Richness or Media The media investigated in this article paper presented at the 28th Interna- Naturalness? The Evolution of Our Bio-have been key in transforming the focus tional Conference on Information Sys- logical Communication Apparatus andon e-learners as individuals to e-learners tems, Montreal, Canada, December 9–12, Its Influence on Our Behavior Towardas social participants. A parallel move 2007. E-Communication Tools,” IEEE Transac-has occurred toward Web 2.0, which 8. Ibid. tions on Professional Communication, vol.emphasizes the increasing use of the 9. Caroline Haythornthwaite and Michelle 48, no. 2 (June 2005), pp. 117–30.web to support social relations. This M. Kazmer, “Bringing the Internet Home: 19. Ibid.shift will surely lead to new ways of col- Adult Distance Learners and Their Inter- 20. Robert and Dennis, “Paradox of net, Home, and Work Worlds,” in The Richness.”laborating in online education. Initial Internet in Everyday Life, ed. Barry Well- 21. Ibid.efforts include the adoption in educa- man and Caroline Haythornthwaitetional settings of emerging media such 22. Haythornthwaite and Kazmer, “Bringing (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), pp. 431–463 [quote p. 459]. the Internet Home.”as virtual worlds, blogs, wikis, and videosharing, and synchronous software that 10. Charlotte Nirmalani Gunawardena andsupports audio and video. Marina Stock McIsaac, “Distance Educa- Stefan Hrastinski (stefan.hrastinski@dis tion,” in Handbook of Research on Educa- An essential challenge is to critically tional Communications and Technology, ed. is a Research Fellow and Director ofstudy the benefits and limitations of David H. Jonassen, (Mahwah, NJ: Law- Master Studies in Computer and Systems Sci-emerging types of asynchronous, syn- rence Erlbaum, 2004), pp. 355–395. ence at Uppsala University in Sweden. Number 4 2008 • E D U C A U S E Q U A R T E R LY 55