When a company decides to embark on an eLearning project, there are many decisions to make. One of these decisions is about making the choice between synchronous and asynchronous learning. In synchronous learning, the instructor and the students are present at the same time and place (whether a physical location or virtual). Asynchronous learning is independent learning, and students can proceed at any time and at their own pace, whether the instructor and the other students are present or not. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each of these approaches?

Synchronous learning

Synchronous learning often employs classroom style elements, such as group discussions, team activities, and other elements that an instructor supervises. The learning blocks are completed on a schedule, like a regular classroom, and there is plenty of interaction between the students and the instructor. Synchronous learning can take place either in a classroom setting, in an online chat room, a video conference, or using a web-conferencing application, and there is near constant interaction between those in attendance.

Main advantages of synchronous learning

  • Instructors interact with multiple students in real-time, making group activities possible
  • Instructors can explain certain concepts when students are struggling
  • Students can get immediate answers about any aspect of the learning process

Main disadvantages of synchronous learning:

  • Both the student and the instructor have to adhere to time schedules
  • Much of the training depends on the quality of the instructor
  • Students may not receive individual attention if other students are also in need
  • The learning pace is set by the instructor, not the students

Asynchronous learning

Asynchronous learning is a stand-alone approach, designed specifically for self-study. Students will gain knowledge from interacting with, reading, watching, and listening to different types of content. In most cases, the students are free to complete the coursework at their own pace, and are free to take tests at any time as well. Asynchronous is a great method for students who are juggling training as well as their normal workload and personal life.

Main advantages

  • Learners can study at any time and any pace, according to their own needs
  • Students have the ability to go back to pieces they need to brush up on
  • There is the opportunity to review outside resources to aid instruction

Main disadvantages

  • Limited access to an instructor and/or getting answers in real time
  • Some students may struggle without constant guidance and interaction
  • Not all instruction is best suited for self-paced learning

Choosing between synchronous and asynchronous learning

While synchronous and asynchronous learning each have their advantages and drawbacks, the best approach for a given design project is based on multiple factors. Here are three:

  • The students and their learning needs
  • The type of content
  • The time availability of your learners

For example:

  • If you are training a group that consists of individuals who have significant professional experience, who require lots of interaction and “talk time,” and who prefer being around and working with their colleagues you may find a synchronous approach to work best, given a comparative familiarity with eLearning.
  • The nature of the content is vital in determining the style of learning. Should your content be filled with complex ideas and technical terms that require much explaining or situational context, you may find asynchronous is not the right approach.
  • When content is easy to digest or in reflection of a complex issue, asynchronous could be the right move.
  • Finally, the availability of your learners as well as their access to the Internet are important in making a decision on your approach. If your audience is juggling training, work, and extra schooling they may not have the time to devote to completing training in one sitting. This is where asynchronous training really shines—freedom to complete at one’s own pace.

Both synchronous and asynchronous approaches to eLearning have their advantages and disadvantages. While one approach may be more effective than the other in a given situation, it is not to say it is best for all learning situations.

Think about each approach, and how your content and audience fit, to ensure you reach your learning objectives.