How to Best Leverage Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning

Over the last two years, so much about the way that we learn has been turned upside down. Traditional, in-person classroom training went virtual, and scheduling a live session became more complicated than ever. The upside is that it prompted many to reconsider their learning strategy and how to best leverage synchronous vs asynchronous learning. 

We’ve delved into the differences between synchronous learning vs asynchronous learning before and thought through the pros and cons of each. Here’s the quick recap: synchronous learning happens when people are learning the same thing at the same time—think traditional classrooms with a teacher or facilitator, live virtual sessions held via video call, and other forms of learning where the teacher and learners are on the same schedule and knowledge transfer happens in real-time. 

Asynchronous learning happens when people are learning the same things but at different times. That’s key to understanding asynchronous learning vs. synchronous learning: asynchronous learning does not require that learners show up, log in, or participate at a specific time. There aren’t virtual lectures or scheduled class periods that the learners must attend—instead, learners access materials independently and at their own pace.

So, what is synchronous and asynchronous learning? When should you opt for synchronous learning and when is it best to take an asynchronous approach? And how can the two work together to create an effective blended learning experience? 

How to best leverage synchronous learning

Synchronous learning is a classic for a reason: there are plenty of instances where live, real-time learning can’t be beat. There’s often a benefit to being together with learners at the same time. It’s a matter of asking yourself the right questions to determine if synchronous learning is the best fit for your material—and how to make the most of your time together when you do opt for a real-time experience. 

What is synchronous learning right for? Here are some questions to gut-check if synchronous learning is necessary, and if you’re prepared to deliver the best experience possible (especially if it’s a virtual session!):

  1. Why does everyone need to be together at the same time? 
  2. Since we’re all together, how might we interact as much as possible? 
  3. As much as being a teacher is important, how can I serve as an effective host?
  4. Am I prepared for potential logistics problems? 

Once you’ve done the legwork to ensure you’re ready to deliver a quality synchronous learning experience, here’s a quick rundown of the kind of learning material that is well-suited to synchronous learning.

Active learning

Active learning calls for learners to directly interact with the learning process—think experiential learning like group discussions, demonstrations, and hands-on activities. These traditional classroom activities are a natural fit for synchronous learning, but they don’t necessarily require in-person learning. Virtual classrooms can leverage tools like breakout rooms and digital whiteboards to facilitate meaningful active learning that gets learners interacting with and learning from one another.

Is this active learning?

Not sure if your learning material is active or passive? Here’s a quick tip to differentiate one from the other: consider the ratio of how much your learners are producing versus consuming. Say your lesson plan involves students working together to produce and share a presentation, or participating in a demonstration of a new procedure. In both cases, it’s the right call to get together as a group in real-time.

Teaching concepts

If your learning experience involves the kind of active learning exercises mentioned above, there’s a good chance you’re teaching a concept. Concepts are ideas that need to be understood, not memorized. Collaboration and engagement are valuable tools to facilitate learning a new concept, and it’s a great reason to bring a group together for synchronous learning. Synchronous vs asynchronous learning also allows learners to participate in real-time Q&A and receive instant feedback from teachers, which can accelerate their understanding and improve learning outcomes.

Practicing procedures

Need to teach your learners a new procedure or protocol? Usually, that means it’s time to bring the group together. It takes practice and repetition to perfect a procedure—a synchronous session is a great opportunity to hold a live demonstration and follow it up with some active learning exercises to encourage application and reflection. Send your learners into small groups or pairs to replicate the demonstration and practice executing it themselves. This also encourages more informal peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing.

Common pitfalls with synchronous learning

Just because you can host a real-time learning session doesn’t mean you should. Synchronous learning is often the default, but it’s worth it to take a step back and consider the pros and cons of synchronous vs asynchronous learning. Ask yourself if the material truly requires everyone to be together as a group, and revisit the reflective questions we shared earlier to help clarify if synchronous learning is the right fit.

Once planning for your synchronous session is underway, be sure to avoid the “talking head” syndrome that plagues many traditional classroom settings. Especially if you’re attempting to recreate an in-person classroom virtually, many make the mistake of commanding all of the time to rattle off slides and information-dump. Instead, be sure to plan for interaction, brush up on your hosting and moderating skills, and, of course, find a quiet place with a solid internet connection for hosting your session.

How to best leverage asynchronous learning

We’ve all attended a meeting that could’ve been an email—and every learner has attended a training about something they could’ve learned on their own. Asynchronous time is individual time, and we see it used effectively in virtually every discipline. College students complete readings and write papers outside of the classroom. Musicians practice scales on their own. Athletes independently study film of their opponents. 

Asynchronous learning allows learners to complete assigned tasks on their own time and at their own pace. This approach saves time (and often money) and protects the individual’s autonomy to learn in a way that works best for them. So, when considering synchronous vs asynchronous learning, when is asynchronous the best choice? What is asynchronous learning right for? And what are some best practices for effectively leveraging this style of learning?

Learning facts

Let’s return to the content ratio concept we talked about earlier in the “Is this active learning?” section—it’ll help clarify whether to choose synchronous learning vs asynchronous learning. If your learning material requires listening to presentations, watching videos,  and reviewing slide decks, then your lesson plan has a higher ratio of consumption for learners. Whenever you need learners to consume information, that’s another way of saying it’s passive learning. In that case, you’ll likely want to opt for asynchronous learning. 

Individual work gives learners the freedom and flexibility to learn and digest new information at their own pace and revisit information to delve deeper as needed. This way of learning puts the responsibility on the individual to do the work, and depending on the work environment and availability of your learners, that’s definitely worth considering.

Developing a shared foundation

They say content is king but with asynchronous learning, curation is king. You can leverage asynchronous learning to build a shared foundation of knowledge with your group of learners. By assigning learners reading materials, training videos, and practice exercises, you can ensure everyone is building a common foundation of facts and information. This approach also allows learners to self-pace: they’ll spend less time on topics they grasp quickly and more time on topics that challenge them. 

Especially if you’re using it as pre-work for a larger curriculum, this approach is helpful in assessing your group’s knowledge to identify any gaps and actions needed. Asynchronous learning can provide valuable insights into the topics you should focus on as the curriculum progresses.

Minimizing the demand on the learner

Plain and simple: when you don’t need to be together as a group, don’t be. Asynchronous learning is a learner-centered method. When you have the opportunity to respect your learners’ time and autonomy, take it. 

Common pitfalls with asynchronous learning

Even if you understand the difference between synchronous and asynchronous learning, you still need to learn the pitfalls of each approach. When it comes to asynchronous learning, it’s impossible to ignore the issue of accountability. At the end of the day, you need your training to get done, and when you opt for real-time, scheduled learning, at least you know your learners will show up.

If you’re worried that an asynchronous approach means learning won’t happen, take a page (or six!) from Jeff Bezos’ approach at Amazon. The company famously employs six-page project briefs and schedules time for people to read them. Promote accountability by having your team members schedule time for asynchronous learning. Bonus: this practice reinforces that learning is a top priority for your organization. 

A way to think through synchronous vs asynchronous learning

So, is it really synchronous vs asynchronous learning? Sure, in some cases it is—but more often, it’s a choice we make again and again, as part of a larger strategy to bring about real behavior change in our learners. It’s worth considering how the two approaches can work together and complement your overall learning efforts. A blended learning strategy—a mix of synchronous and asynchronous efforts—can provide the best of both worlds. 

Whether you’re leveraging synchronous or asynchronous learning, one approach tends to inform the other. For example, the asynchronous pre-work you assign to learners can provide important data for how you’ll tailor your next live, synchronous session to deepen learning.

Here’s an example: You work for a restaurant group, and you need to train your bartenders how to make the new seasonal line of cocktails. You might start by giving your team the recipes and instructions in advance to learn and study (asynchronous learning). But in order to improve the quality of the drinks and get your bartenders comfortable with the new menu, you’d then hold a real-time training with the entire team to break into small groups and practice making drinks for each other (synchronous learning). The two styles can work together to create more successful outcomes overall.

Synchronous or asynchronous, the bottom line is that a one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t cut it anymore. For learning professionals who believe in matching the right tool to the job, exploring synchronous and asynchronous learning is an exciting opportunity to meet learners where they are and create better learning experiences.

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