Asynchronous vs. Synchronous: How to Design for Each Type of Learning

This school year will look very different for most teachers. Some are beginning entirely online and others are returning to school on a modified schedule where they will only see students in person a couple of days a week. So, the question many teachers are asking is, “How should I spend my limited time with students in the classroom or in video conferencing sessions? What is the best use of that time?”

First, let’s be clear about the differences between asynchronous and synchronous learning.

Asynchronous LearningSynchronous Learning
Occurring at different times and in different places (e.g., students working at home).Occurring at the same time and in the
same place (e.g., students working in the classroom or meeting online for a video conference session.
Students can access content, resources, activities at any time, and from anywhere.Students can access content, resources, and activities at a specific time and location.
Students can control the time, place, and pace of their learning.Students may have some control over the pace of their learning, but they do not control the time or the place.
Students work independently to complete assignments and tasks. Students have access to teacher and peer support while completing assignments
and tasks.

If we take a step back and think about the benefits and challenges of asynchronous learning and synchronous learning, that can provide clarity about how to think about the design of our curriculum in an online or blended learning course.

Asynchronous learning provides students with a high degree of flexibility and autonomy. They can control the pace of their learning, which lends itself to the following activities.

Teachers who are seeing students for synchronous face-to-face sessions in a classroom or virtual conferencing sessions online may find it useful to think of the asynchronous learning as pre-work and post-work for the synchronous sessions.

The pre-work may involve students reading texts, watching videos, listening to podcasts, exploring teacher-curated resources online, and taking notes. Completing this work asynchronously lets the students control the pace at which they consume and process information. Teachers may also want to engage students in online discussions to encourage them to think critically about that information before attending class.

If students engage in meaningful pre-work prior to class, the teacher can maximize their limited synchronous time with students in a blended learning or online learning course. They can focus their time and energy on high-value learning activities when working directly with students. Instead of feeling pressure to cover the curriculum or present information, the teacher can use their precious synchronous time to do the following.

Teachers can follow this synchronous time with post-work activities, like additional review and practice, research and exploration, or reflection that build on the work students did in synchronous sessions.

The biggest advantage of synchronous learning is human connection. When students learn in a shared time and space, they have access to their teacher and each other. So, teachers should design with that in mind, prioritize community, and leverage those human connections to engage students in social learning.

Need support getting started with blended learning or online learning? Check out my self-paced online course.

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23 Responses to Asynchronous vs. Synchronous: How to Design for Each Type of Learning

  1. Tangirala Shashidhar says:

    Asynchronous learning also depends largely on the capability of the student to do work on their own. Teachers will have to prepare students for asynchronous learning. This might add up to their work load.
    What if students prefer synchronous learning and be done with the work in the classroom under the guidance of the teacher?

    • That is a great point, Tangirala.

      There is a lot of skill-building (academic and self-regulation) involved in helping students thrive during asynchronous learning. You are also correct that some students will gravitate to one type of learning over the other. Unfortunately, many teachers going back entirely online or on a hybrid schedule won’t have the luxury of a lot of synchronous time with students so there will likely need to be a blend of synchronous and asynchronous work.

      Take care.
      Catlin

  2. Jeanne Carey Ingle says:

    This is so clear and succinct – it really captures the power of both learning environments. Thank you for this excellent work!

    • Thank you, Jeanne! I appreciate that. I’ve had several teachers ask how to plan for each type of learning, so I wanted to provide some ideas for thinking about this as they plan. These are the types of activities I focus on when coaching teachers who are planning for blended and online learning. I’m thrilled you found it useful!

      Catlin

  3. Jim Leveille says:

    Thanks, I will use this information to organize my online instruction and “live” conferences.

  4. Sherry Bandy says:

    Do you have a lesson plan template that helps teachers who are teaching both students online and those face to face in a classroom at the same time?

    Thank you

    • Hi Sherry,

      No, I don’t have a lesson template like that. Maybe other folks in that situation have created something they can share.

      Take care.
      Catlin

      • Jacquelyn Christy says:

        Hi Catlin,

        I am the principal of a small school in So Cal. Our district has reopened virtually using the am/pm model which includes both asynchronous and synchronous learning times. This was in preparation for having students back on site soon using the hybrid model of am/pm cohorts. Not all families are choosing to send their students back in person, so we will now be blending online with in person as our teachers navigate streaming to students at home while teaching to some in person. This really modifies what the synchronous learning looks like. While it’s a lot to learn all at once, I am excited to have these opportunities to try out various models of teaching/learning that break our traditional molds of education.

        I appreciate how you clearly laid out meaningful activities that can be completed during the asynchronous learning times. I think that if we can leverage that time most effectively, we can set ourselves up for yet another blended learning model that allows schools and families to take advantage of the best of both worlds: online and in-person learning. This could occur in daily learning cycles which keep cohorts of in-person classes smaller for more personalized learning opportunities.

        I would be curious to get your thoughts on this.

        ~ Jackie

        • Hi Jackie,

          I just published a blog about the concurrent classroom where teachers have some kids in class and some attending virtually. My biggest concern about the concurrent classroom is that teachers will revert back to lecture followed by independent practice. In that blog, I describe how teachers can leverage blended learning models to more effectively engage students and maximize their time in a concurrent classroom.

          I agree that this moment (as tough as it is) presents an opportunity to rethink school structures and schedules. I love the idea of keeping in-person classes small so that personalizing learning feels more manageable for teachers.

          Thank you for taking a moment to share the approach your school is using to navigate this situation. It’s fascinating to hear what schools are doing right now.

          Take care.
          Catlin

  5. Caryn Morrow says:

    Thank you for these added references. Enjoy the clarification of the posters and the images.

  6. Leatrice Clark says:

    This has been very helpful. Thank you.

  7. Tammy says:

    Thank you very much for this information! I find it very useful and can’t wait to share with my peers at school.

  8. Marcia bickford says:

    Do you know of someone who does the same kind of work you do only about the youngest learners? I need help with kids who cannot read yet or work independently!

  9. Carla Johnson says:

    Are the infographics available for download and sharing! I really love the information!

  10. Nesell Oribe says:

    Thank you for this. God bless you always Maam!

  11. Maura Andrews says:

    Obviously kindergarten is hard to have them do live online at the beginning of the year. Last spring I found the delay on Web ex was hard to keep their attention. What to record or do live?

    • Hi Maura,

      I usually recommend that any instruction, modeling, etc. that everyone needs to see and hear is best in a video. That way students (and parents/caregivers) can self-pace through the explanation or model pausing, rewinding, or rewatching as needed. Then any instruction and modeling that would benefit from interaction, discussion, sharing, etc. is best in a video conference.

      Catlin

      • Goldy says:

        Maybe human connection deserves an asterisk for the online component. “ The biggest advantage of synchronous learning is human connection*”

  12. Mark Butler says:

    The challenge is when half the students are virtual/synchronous and the other half are physically in the classroom. Engaging and pacing both audiences at the same time can be difficult.

  13. Joe Abel says:

    Great stuff.

  14. Sarah James says:

    How does this address equity for students with limited access to the online environment, poor internet speeds or family dynamics that prohibit live sessions; OR the school district does not require synchronous learning. This seems to leave a chunk of the learning experience out for students who only access asynchronously. How to bridge those gaps?

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