A Guide to Asynchronous Learning: Definition, Benefits & Examples of Activities

A Guide to Asynchronous Learning: Definition, Benefits & Examples of Activities
Imed Bouchrika by Imed Bouchrika
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

The words that two researchers trumpeted exactly a decade ago seem eerily prophetic today in a world plagued by COVID-19. “The key lesson for others may be to embrace e-learning technology before disaster strikes!” (Todorova & Bjorn-Andersen, 2011). In an intermittently restrictive global travel environment, eLearning, asynchronous learning, blended learning –all of which involve a mode of learning that does not require physical presence— is the ‘classroom’ of the times.

This COVID-19 pandemic season provides the perfect reason and opportunity for you to familiarize yourself with asynchronous learning definition, its benefits and challenges – how it could help or hurt instructors and students alike, and some example activities under this learning environment.

This article will speak to educators who are just going through the motions and are not convinced that asynchronous education works; who lack the motivation to try the new, engagement tools available to them on this platform; or who lack the training to take the lead and take advantage of the new asynchronous classroom. How different is asynchronous learning from the traditional classroom and other online methods? What are its strengths and weaknesses? These will be discussed and actual asynchronous activities explained in order to give readers a taste of how this new learning looks like in real time. Finally, these new trends will and should impact global policies on education. What do the experts say? Studies, their analyses and recommendations will be cited for readers to consider.

Asynchronous Learning Table of Contents

  1. COVID-19 and Asynchronous Learning Opportunities
  2. Asynchronous Learning Definition
  3. Precursors to Asynchronous Learning
  4. How different is it from traditional educational systems?
  5. Synchronous vs. Asynchronous
  6. Asynchronous Benefits
  7. Disadvantages of Asynchronous Learning
  8. Asynchronous Learning Activities
  9. Learning after COVID

COVID-19 and Asynchronous Learning Opportunities

To many households, this is a new experience. When children are prohibited from physically going to school, but have to attend ‘class,’ children and parents have to quickly learn how to comply with school assignments through computers, mobile devices, and the internet—while trying to enjoy the unusual presence of everyone in the family at home in the middle of a workweek. Working fathers and mothers – who could no longer travel to work or who had lost their jobs, find themselves in new roles as stay-at-home teacher’s assistants.

Many may look at these online classes as just stop-gap measures or experiments that will be in place until things return to normal.  Then we can forget about them. But in its landmark paper entitled “Education in a Post-Covid World,” the International Commission on the Futures of Education of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) advises all that we cannot and we should not.

effect of covid on online learning

Asynchronous Learning Definition

Asynchronous (which literally means ‘not at the same time’) learning is not something new. It is just something whose time has come.

Asynchronous learning, meaning, it is education that does not require students and teachers to be collocated or be in the same place, to be active at the same time, or to progress at the same pace – has been the educator’s dream for centuries.

Precursors to Asynchronous Learning

The following is a timeline of attempts at and developments in distance learning over the years.

  • 1840’s – Sir Isaac Pitman teaches shorthand to his students via mailed postcards
  • 1970’s to 1980’s – TV/video-based training allows companies to conduct training without instructors having to be physically present. Stanford University Interactive TV network harnesses the power of the satellite so professors could teach to different groups of students in the campus at the same time.
  • 1982 – The invention of the CD-ROM gives educators a medium that could hold much more content than diskettes. Interactive authoring tools allow content creators to design courses that let students make choices and interact with their CD-ROM-based lessons. Interactive K-12 courses that feature cartoon characters become commercially popular.
  • 1980’s – 1990’s – The development of several early classes of Learning Management Systems (LMS) allows companies to develop entire training curricula for employees using on-site servers.
  • 1993 – The European Organization for Nuclear Research’s decision to make the internet available to the public opens up possibilities for global learning. Low PC ownership and technical limits on modem and bandwidth, however, stun this potential. At the 56kbps rate of those days, a low-quality 3.5 Mb song would take 10 minutes to download.
  • 2000’s – The torrent of new technology enables LMSs to fulfil functions previously provided by discrete technologies. In this decade (and up to the present), we see advanced LMSs providing analytics capabilities, virtual reality and augmented reality experiences, reliable mobile operability, speech-to-text interfaces, and so on
  • 2010 – Around this time, broadband and fiber internet become increasingly widespread. As connection speeds reach 940 Megabits per second, streaming sites like YouTube and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) are born. Video chat software and services are offered to the public. This also boosts the capabilities of Learning Management Systems, making possible off-site/cloud hosting.

So the groundwork was in place as early as the 1990s. But until 2020, it was just one of those things that was good to have, on stand-by, for future reference.  Then the pandemic hit. And when lockdowns kept people and teams apart – but life, business and learning had to go on– online collaboration and asynchronous learning became as indispensable as the smartphone.

How different is it from traditional educational systems?

But the experience of adapting and transitioning to this new mode of teaching and learning was not the same for everyone. Some teachers had previous experience with digital learning materials and online tools while others did not. Some teachers were more creative and willing to develop their own materials while others were more used to using standard curricula resources. Hence, the different rates of teaching adaptation.

Similarly, some students will have had experience with interactive learning materials – whether in school or as provided by their parents (i.e. interactive K-12 CD-ROMs, gamified learning). Others will have not.

However one looks at it, asynchronous learning definition is a disruption to the way things have always been done in the regular, traditional classroom, characterized by:

  • Fixed school hours
  • Fixed place of learning
  • The teacher/instructor drives the direction and content of discussions
  • The teacher/instructor makes the final decision/has the final say
  • Pre-qualified and pre-determined members of a class
  • High level of personal interaction
  • One curriculum for each grade level
  • Fixed pace of learning for all students in a class
  • Standard and fixed learning materials used
  • Single path to learning a skill or lesson
  • Synchronized promotion from one level to the next

In contrast, the characteristics of an asynchronous class include:

  • No common physical classroom
  • No common class hours
  • Self-paced learning
  • Gives students the power to decide among different tasks/’adventures’
  • Allows students to decide the order in which they want to cover a range of lessons
  • Students get to decide how deep they want to dive into a certain topic, based on their interests

Some methods of education, such as the Montessori system, allow for self-paced learning, self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play. But all these still take place in a single controlled environment (the classroom), and at the same time (class hours).

American educators' perception of online education

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous

Synchronous learning, by definition, takes place “at the same time.” This means there is simultaneous attendance at pre-scheduled lectures.

This being so, while traditional classes can be considered synchronous, the term could also be applied to some forms of online learning. Some examples of synchronous online learning are:

  • Live chat discussions/consultations (i.e. as part of learning management system)
  • Teaching or training session via videoconference/teleconference
  • Live-streamed (pre-scheduled) lectures or training

Although these online learning sessions may take place in different locations, the ‘classroom’ or the ‘place’ where learning takes place is the common, pre-determined time.

In contrast, asynchronous learning employs various technological tools so that, although learning may not take place exactly at the same time, there is a continuity of thought and communication – between the instructor and the learner and among fellow-learners.

Among these online tools are:

  • Pre-recorded lessons and training (i.e. via PowerPoint presentations, a YouTube video, etc.)
  • Email exchanges
  • Discussion boards (most learning management systems offer this functionality)
  • Social media group discussions
  • Chat software (i.e. Messenger, Viber, etc.)
  • Cloud-based collaboration documents (i.e. Google Docs, etc.)

All these remove time as a factor for effective communication of ideas and even reactions. Although there could be a lag between somebody’s initial statement (i.e. the teacher’s) and the reply of the other (i.e. of a student), the thread is retained in the online tool being used (some tools are more effective than others in threading discussions on a specific topic together). An asynchronous class, therefore, exists across different time zones, and continues for varying lengths of time, depending on the availability and pace of each learner.

Among other 2020/2021 statistics on online education, Statista reports that Undergraduate and graduate students expressed their views that, based on their experience, online education is about the same if not better than classroom education.

Source: Statista, 2021

Asynchronous Benefits

What are the benefits that asynchronous learning brings? The asynchronous learning experience can be different for each student in an asynchronous class. Some benefits will be more apparent to some while others will appreciate another feature more.

What are the benefits that asynchronous learning brings? The asynchronous learning experience can be different for each student in an asynchronous class. Some benefits will be more apparent to some while others will appreciate another feature more.

  1. Flexibility – This is the very first and most obvious advantage. It addresses a situation where the members of a learning group may not all be available at a fixed time. Attendees are not required to make their schedules fit to a common time. They therefore can go about accomplishing their other tasks at home, or fulfilling their other duties and responsibilities, without missing out on learning—as long as they are committed to allocating some time to the learning task/lesson until completion. Students never need to miss a class.
  2. Removes time barriers to learning – This flexibility removes all the time-related barriers and excuses that people have, which keep them from learning. As a result, more people are able to study and learn.  Not having a common time will not disqualify them from becoming learners. 
  3. Location does not matter – The absence of a common time factor makes irrelevant the differences between time zones in different locations all over the world. So even geography does not become a hindrance to one’s participating in a learning opportunity or event that was conceptualized, organized, or held in another part of the world. Learning becomes truly global.
  4. Removes intended or unintended bias – Not being in the same space at the same time removes the factors of competition among students and comparison by teachers. 
  5. Individualized pace – The students are free to develop and learn at their own pace. Slower learners are free to take the time that they need to compose their thoughts and answers, while advanced students can move forward or make themselves available to tutor their classmates.
  6. Creates opportunities for mastery – Not being bound by a set time limit for learning provides students with greater opportunities to master their lessons. They can go over their lessons as often as necessary. 
  7. Bypasses self-inhibition among disadvantaged students –  From a student personality perspective, the absence of physical contact and exchange, removes internal factors that may hinder one’s willingness to attend a class. Factors like shyness, insecurity because of one’s physical appearance, disability, or a lack of self-confidence because of one’s social/financial standing. Whether among younger students or higher education students, such factors are at play in traditional classrooms.
  8. Cuts parental costs of sending children to school – In many developing nations, parents do not have the money for their children’s uniforms, food and transportation expenses. The removal of these expenses opens wider the door to educational access for many underprivileged families.
  9.  Lack of physical classrooms will never be a bottleneck – Still in developing nations, the lack of government and private funds to build enough classrooms is one reason why many school-age children and youth are not studying. With asynchronous and online learning, the costly requirement of constructing a common facility where students can learn (classrooms with running water and toilets, etc.) is eliminated. This will help many nations improve literacy.

Online programs have a way of drawing in and enabling certain student groups who may find it difficult to take these courses otherwise, as the chart below shows.

Source: Statista, 2021

Disadvantages of Asynchronous Learning

Having identified the many advantages of asynchronous education, it is also incumbent upon us to mention that there are also challenges to this new mode of learning.

  • Low-Touch – The lack of face-to-face, personal interaction may make the asynchronous class less engaging to more gregarious students. Having a camera to provide a visual element to the online interaction may mitigate this.
  • Delay in Corrections – Due to the delay or lag between interactions, there is a possibility for the course material to be misunderstood and for the needed correction to come too late.

Asynchronous Learning Activities

Technology is the asynchronous learning instructor’s co-teacher. As earlier mentioned, he or she should use pre-recorded lessons and training, email exchanges, discussion boards, social media group discussions, chat software, and cloud-based collaborative documents to get everyone on the same page (albeit at their own pace), to bridge the distance, and to compensate for the lack of physical presence.
What are some asynchronous example activities?

If you have watched a play, you probably noticed that the actors exaggerate everything they do. Instead of just waving, they wave their hands widely; instead of just winking, they add a bob to their head. This is because they are aware that the distance between them and the audience can ‘drown’ their message – whether verbal or physical.

It is the same way with asynchronous learning activities. The instructor can assume that while the student is going through the activity, there will be distractions and interruptions all around him. So the teacher or trainer has to make sure that the activity is ‘louder’ and more engaging than the disturbances at the learner’s end.

Among the things the teacher can do to keep learners engaged are the following:

  • Create a video of the lesson. But do not stop there. Add documents (i.e. links to shared online documents), running text, photos, slides, and sound! That sounds like a full production number. But tools like Moovly will take care of the technicalities so teachers can focus on their content.
  • Show them how to do it. Demonstrations are the best way to impart a lesson, especially if it has to do with a process, a physical movement, a sport or skill – more so if it is something the students have never done or been exposed to before. Remember, learners, especially children, are mimics and love to imitate human models who can show them how to do something right.
  • Discuss, talk, react! There are discussion boards, chat applications, and social media that asynchronous instructors can take advantage of to make sure everyone understood the instructions, is on the same page, and is proceeding in the right direction. Students can likewise show their responses and reactions to the teacher’s or their classmates’ statements. Communication takes on a whole new dimension when it happens online,
    adopting a whole new set of symbols and meanings other than the alphabet’s. Make sure you are familiar with your emojis and look for engaging gif images that add action/animation to your messages. In a synchronous class, the teacher would talk louder or crack a quick joke to wake students up. In an asynchronous class, there are new ways to do this.
  • Do it together! Design a group project that requires teams to interact and communicate with each other to complete the task. It could be a presentation about a place everyone wants to visit, but could not because of current restrictions, or it could be a simple computer program. Groups can use real-time collaboration documents such as Google Docs or shared cloud folders like Dropbox to build their project. The online nature of asynchronous communication helps to draw out normally timid and non-participative students. Some teachers would allow students to use anonymous ‘handles’ or online names. This eliminates the usual synchronous class dynamics where discussions are normally dominated by the louder, more extroverted students. It also removes instructor bias in evaluating and grading the results of student activities.
  • Gamify! Who does not love games? Games have become a part of the millennial android generation’s lifestyle. Use this to your advantage by designing games that help them to practice what they just learned. JeopardyLabs, Quizlet, and Sugarcane help you to create an online learning-gaming experience for your students to motivate them and keep them engaged. Guide2Research predicts a higher integration of gamification into elearning systems in the coming years as a means of winning the minds of this mobile generation.

Source: Edge Research Center for Democracy and Technology (2020)

Learning after COVID

When and if the resolution of the Covid-19 pandemic reverts the world to the way it was before, will learning suddenly jump back to where it left off and put aside all the online, asynchronous, elearning techniques learned during the quarantine periods?

In its white paper entitled “Education in a Post-COVID World: Nine Ideas for Public Action” (2020), UNESCO recommends a redefinition of what “right to education” means, what “the common good” is, and what structures and platforms are necessary to dispense these. In a very practical way, COVID-19 has made the world realize that connectivity, or a simple internet connection, is a lifeline to education.

Educational bureaucracies also need to give autonomy to teachers who are in the right place to understand their students’ real needs and to devise the appropriate and timely solutions for these.  And the way to empower them is by providing plenty of free and open source technologies.

“The educational systems best prepared to respond to the crisis will be those that are capable of valuing their teachers and giving them the conditions for autonomous and collaborative work. This crisis revealed the difficulty of dealing with unexpected situations in centralized bureaucracies and showed us that the real capacity for response and innovation lies in the initiative of educators who, together with parents and communities, have in many cases found ingenious and contextualized solutions.” (UNESCO, 2020)

A provocatively titled paper, “Online Learning: A Panacea in the Time of COVID-19 Crisis,” posits that this current pandemic was a catalyst for asynchronous learning and the many variants of elearning. The paper’s objective was “to explore the growth of EdTech Start-ups and online learning” and to provide an “analysis of online learning during the Corona Virus pandemic and natural disasters” (S. Dhawan, 2020). And he notes how the fast-growing EdTech industry has responded to UNESCO’s call, risen to the challenge, and provided free courses and e-resources to students. A study by KPMG and Google predicted this growth in 2017 and projected that by 2021, EdTech would become a $2 billion-dollar industry by 2021. But with the COVID-19 pandemic driving the industry on, it may well exceed that. The Director of AI English in Australia, Li Kang, observes, “Online Learning is the future and if there was no virus, that realization would have taken another few years but this has accelerated the process.”

U.S. parents' support of online learning

eLearning from the COVID Emergency

What this means for educators is that they cannot go back to their old, comfortable, digitally isolated classrooms and teaching methods. COVID-19 was the Rubicon of global elearning. Education has come this far – bridging distances and eradicating time, geographic, and financial barriers to learning. There is no good reason to turn back.

With a return to the classrooms, it will probably be possible to have the best of both worlds – and apply blended learning.  We can only build on this pandemic learning and go farther now that we are better prepared to deliver learning regardless of whatever calamities or pandemic might strike the world in the future.

What shape will elearning and asynchronous learning evolve into? Is EdTech and the infusion of technology into classrooms the future of Learning Management Systems? We may not have to wait for the COVID pandemic to end before we see the answer to these questions.

 

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