An Affinity for Asynchronous Learning

An Affinity for Asynchronous Learning

There is something that bothers us about conversations about replacing face-to-face teaching with online learning: they often fall into a trap of assuming that incorporating synchronous interaction is the optimal way to make learning more personable, that it approximates the face-to-face setting closest, and is therefore preferable and better. More often than not, synchronous interaction here implies some form of two-way audiovisual interaction, even though there are text-only forms of synchronous interaction (e.g., Twitter live chat). There are also asynchronous forms of audiovisual interaction (e.g., voicemail, recorded lectures).

But we feel the enthusiasm for audiovisual synchronicity often comes without sufficient discernment, and without deliberative consideration of how asynchronous learning can be not only viable but productive.

We’ve had experiences both teaching and learning online in a variety of formats, as well as supporting others who are still learning to teach online, and this article reflects our experiences and how they affect our thinking about digital pedagogy more broadly. We both have a strong preference for asynchronous learning.

In November 2013, we participated in a Coursera MOOC from the University of Edinburgh: E-Learning and Digital Cultures (and #edcmooc on Twitter). We’re from opposite ends of the world (Cairo, Egypt and St. Paul, Minnesota, United States) both geographically and culturally, but not digitally. And through asynchronous communication, we not only came to meet, but also to write this piece, and while writing it, to realize that much of our higher education careers have been quite similar (we both did our master’s degrees online in 2003, using dial-up).

There are two misconceptions that we think hinder teachers’ creativity when thinking about teaching online. The first is a tendency to think of ways of approximating their face-to-face teaching into an online format as much as possible — instead of considering the possibilities afforded by the new medium, with the diverse opportunities for engagement and communication. The (problematic) assumptions behind this include a belief that text is less personal, that immediacy is inherently more valuable, and that approximating face-to-face is beneficial. The second, which relates to the first, is the belief (as Kolowich suggests) that increasing the “human” element of an online course is best done by either showing the face/voice of the teacher (e.g., as in pre-recorded lectures used in many xMOOCs), approximating a non-interactive lecture-based face-to-face class, or interacting synchronously (as in Google Hangouts), approximating a discussion-based face-to-face class.

An automatic preference for synchronous (usually audiovisual) interaction with students is often a “mistake”. It would, teachers imagine, be just like a face-to-face class, only online. Right? Actually, usually not. Maha has had experiences facilitating web-based video dialogue, and even though she sees it could have enormous potential when it works well, very often it does not. When we learn online, we are not together in one room, and we need to recognize not only the limitations of that, but the openness of its possibilities.

The strengths of online learning, especially in massive courses such as MOOCs, and especially for adult learners, might lie in their asynchronous interactive components.

Synchronous learning is biased

Here are some of the problems we have with synchronicity, as teachers and as learners. We wanted to include other people’s views on this, so we surveyed other participants in #edcmooc and quote some of their responses.

First, synchronous meetings are biased against certain time zones.

If the person leading the meeting is based in Europe/Africa, any time that is convenient for them will either be biased towards US-based time zones, or Australian/East Asian time zones, rarely being convenient for both. An imperfect way around this is to change the time of such interactions each week (as #moocmooc and #futureed chats have been), to accommodate each of the extreme time zones — i.e. you accommodate each timezone half as often.

Second, synchronous meetings are culturally unaware.

One Friday, Maha discovered that she had missed three separate synchronous meetings (two on Twitter, one Google Hangout) that she was interested in. Why? Friday is a holy day and weekend in much of the Muslim world. In Egypt, this could mean a variety of things: it could mean family time (therefore no time to work online); but it also means a day free of official work and study, which might make it convenient for online meetings; many people stay busy online on Fridays, which slows down everyone’s home internet connection (younger people like to spend lots of time online: fewer  family commitments, among other things) and, in recent years, Friday has become a day for political protests and clashes (lots of social networking there, again slowing internet connections, but also keeping one too busy following that news if one is at home rather than on the street, leaving little brain capacity for online professional development).

Third, synchronous meetings are biased against families and busy people!

Maha once participated in a Google Hangout at midnight Egypt time (there’s that time zone bias again) and had to interrupt the interaction in the middle because her toddler woke up. These issues are less problematic with text-based synchronous events with larger groups (e.g. Twitter chats) because a few minutes’ absence would likely go unnoticed, and one can re-cap what was missed quite quickly. As one #edcmooc participant put it:

“It all comes down to time available to undertake the work required. Working full time with heavy work and family loads. And also when a mooc is managed from the other side of the world, the hangouts etc. are hard to do in real time. (i.e., I have to get up really in the morning UK time to catch.)”

These are logistical reasons, but important ones, as online learners may not have the luxury of learning online without the convenience of asynchronous communication opportunities.

Fourth, synchronous meetings that involve audiovisuals are elitist

Synchronous meetings can be biased against people with choppy internet infrastructure or even occasional electricity cuts (e.g. in developing countries), or whose level of technical skill or access to technical support can prevent them from participating fully (e.g., because of faulty mic setup). One #edcmooc participant said:

“I can’t touch type so I find myself easily lost in synchronous chat. I don’t have a reliable connection so Skype etc. frustrates me as I miss parts of chat and feel like [it would be like] shouting from my window as a means of engagement!”

Maha and Bard each completed our master’s degrees online using predominantly asynchronous communication, and we were both on dial-up at the time, which would not have allowed for  heavy reliance on synchronous and/or audiovisual interaction.

Fifth, synchronous meetings rely heavily on linguistic capital

(Maha wrote about this recently in Teaching in Higher Education.) In synchronous dialogue, if you are not fluent in the dominant language spoken, you are lost. This is less of a problem if the syncronous communication is one-on-one via text, which might allow participants a bit more time to gather their thoughts before writing them.

In our survey, nine respondents were neither native nor fluent in English. One such person commented that asynchronous learning “makes the act of communicating with other people less intimidating. I can make sure that I don’t misunderstand what other people are saying.” Another person said, “synchronous thinking and responding could not happen when you should think of the content in another language’s logic and translate your ideas to English.” Note the emphasis on synchronous thinking. The thinking itself can benefit from asynchronicity (coming up later).

Why go for asynchronous learning?

There is nothing particularly revolutionary about what we have said above. But for some reason, many of these issues are not put into consideration when planning online learning experiences. People do not always ask themselves if what they are trying to do necessarily requires synchronous interaction (or audio or video, for that matter). And they often forget to consider these access issues (among others that we have not mentioned). Though these are not pedagogical reasons per se, they are in our view important…pre-pedagogical!

Convenience is not a marginal issue!

If learners cannot access the learning experience comfortably in the first place, not much learning is going to happen, is it? Bard’s view is that sometimes asynchronous is the only convenient or possible way to go. One #edcmooc participant said,

“Async fits in better with the rest of my life. Also, in this MOOC it works as I am on the other side of the world and would never be able to attend sync classes (unless I were awake at 4am). Async allows me to control the pace and timing of my engagement, and therefore increases the likelihood that I will complete the course.”

Another person compared the benefits of synchronous vs. asynchronous learning as follows:

“Asynchronous communication links with my local time, my skills, my preferences, my interests, my agenda. So it is focuses on ME. Synchronous communication links with teachers and other learners, it is spontaneous and lets you know how is your GROUP.”

We are not sure that asynchronous interaction misses out on the group’s thinking, because it still involves social interaction, but the comment above does seem to fit with another person’s comment that asynchronous learning “allows people to participate authentically on their own terms” (emphasis added). Whereas to make synchronous learning work, the needs and convenience of a larger group of people need to intersect.

In our survey, convenience was one of the main reasons people preferred asynchronous learning (21 responses out of 54), often coupled with flexibility (6/54). Some people noted the importance of working at their own pace (15/54) and or the issue of timezones specifically (5/54).

Asynchronous learning promotes deeper reflection

The most frequently cited pedagogical reason in our survey for preferring asynchronous communication was that it promoted better reflection (15/54), and some also mentioned the ability to research or look things up before responding. Here are some of the comments:

  • “async allows me to be more contemplative which can lead to a more considered and articulate dialogue”
  • “I like not feeling pressured to communicate right away – I like to have processing time and feel as though I can come back to the conversation later and still participate. It helps me to be more thoughtful.”
  • “I love the flexibility [of discussion forums] and the time offered to think over one’s response (or ideas). In a perfect world a chance to do some higher order thinking, especially for those who can’t or don’t want to react in the moment with clearly stated points of view. As a teacher, one has the chance to view and reflect on students’ performance, concerns, level of understanding. As a student, one has the chance to do the same – if you don’t intervene at exactly the moment when the other student expresses her ideas, it doesn’t matter.”
  • “In terms of my learning style, I enjoy reading and reflecting; turning things over in my own mind before contributing; being able to stop, walk away, look something up, before responding.”

Another person compared synchronous and asynchronous learning in terms of reflection:

“I personally feel that synchronous, being time bound, may sometimes induce a sense of urgency, due to which important concepts may be overlooked. Asynchronous provides me the opportunity to explore learning at my pace, allowing me more time to experiment and explore. An occasional synchronous interaction helps to clarify concepts and is also a little reassuring in the sense that it helps to affirm the presence of the trainers / lecturers.”

Questions to consider when making decisions about synchronicity

Pedagogical

  1. Would the activity benefit from extended reflection?
  2. Would the activity benefit from additional research that students bring into the discussion?
  3. Does the activity require audio/video that can be recorded separately and uploaded for feedback later? Or is spontaneous audio interaction part of the essential learning outcomes (e.g. language courses)?
  4. Does the activity require synchronicity but not necessarily audiovisuals? Consider text chat (e.g., on Twitter), but note that information overload can occur, especially with larger groups.
  5. Can the interaction benefit from many-to-many interaction? That richness comes mostly from asynchronous text.

Logistical

  1. Are most of your students full-time and able to commit to synchronous sessions?
  2. How large is the class? Large-class interaction is more manageable asynchronously, but also benefits from breaking up into smaller groups.
  3. Are participants in a variety of timezones, or clustered around one side of the world?

Ethical

  1. Do students have equal access to good-enough infrastructure for synchronous (e.g., no electrical cuts), high bandwidth interaction (for synchronous audiovisuals)? If even one student does not have this, you have an equity issue.
  2. Do some students have linguistic difficulties or other learning difficulties that may be helped by working at their own pace? If so, asynchronous is important to consider.
  3. Do you have minorities or students who are shy, reluctant to speak up, or intimidated by louder or more eloquent others who tend to hog the conversation? Don’t all learning situations have some of these issues? Asynchronous learning creates space for these learners without having to suppress the more eloquent, more dominant participants.

Want to think about this further? The pedagogical benefits and challenges of asynchronous learning are documented, and there are a variety of platforms and ways to communicate asynchronously besides traditional discussion forums. Let us know in the comments what you think.

[Photo from gualtiero on Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0]

About the Authors

Maha Bali

Maha Bali (@Bali_Maha) is Associate Professor of Practice, Center for Learning and Teaching, American University in Cairo. She writes at blog.mahabali.me and is one of the facilitators of edcontexts.org.

Bard Meier

Bard Meier (@BardMeier) teaches college kids, writes songs for the RnR circus, roamed the hall at The New School, and can tell you the starting 5 from 70's TV, White Shadow. More at bardmeier.bandcamp.com.

19 Comments
Discussions from the Community.
  1. Pat says:

    If you do a live lecture and don’t record it – well, you don’t deserve to teach. Bias is unfair a word though, it has to happen sometime, and usually they are optional as well.

    Also, google hangouts are no good in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Maybe China too. We didn’t use them for this reason, but I assume so few people outside the US are used to things being banned, or maybe unwilling to pay for an alternative (we use livestream for this purpose).

    Twitter itself is lauded but I think suffers from problems fora do not. We ran our MOOC social media chats on facebook, google plus, the coursera fora and twitter. Twitter chats fade away as the hashtag fill ups. The rest do not. If you’re arguing for time wealth as a factor, then twitter chats are bad.

  2. Ronald says:

    Great post.
    I agree with you, I too prefer asynchronous communication in online education. And for all kinds of reasons as you mentioned.

    I participated in EDC MOOC too, I was in the January 2013 course. That was my very first MOOC. I’m hooked now. ;-)

    Great that you wrote this together with all these thousands of km between you.

    Anecdote:
    I myself had a software development firm in the Netherlands about 10 years. I worked together with a programmer in Texas in the USA for a year. Together we developed software for clients in other parts of the USA. None of us ever met in person, only the occasional phone call to discuss issues was synchronous. All the rest was done asynchronous. That worked very well and we made a lot of great stuff together.

  3. Carl Simmons says:

    Excellent post.
    This accords with my experiences of providing students with formative screencast feedback. They draw parallels with tutorials but I think the consensus they and I feel is that asynchronous feedback gives me time to frame my responses and they have time to reflect without feeling they have to “fill dead air time” (because of social norms )when we are both trying to think.

  4. Maha Bali says:

    Thanks all, for the comments. And Pat, you are right, Twitter has loads of issues, losing things is one of them and I wish they would change that (storify is not optimal either, but at least you can archive things).
    RE: bias being a storng word :) yes, I guess it is, but I hope it makes folks stop and think. Async is biased in other ways too (e.g. Against visual learners since it is mostly textual).
    Strangely, although much sync learning is optional (as in MOOCs) there is also the way u feel for having “missed out” and excluded, not because you “chose to” but because you truly could not. Just last week I had an electrical cut during the time of a twitter chat. I was able to make it on iPad and 3G but wouldn’t have been able to make a google hangout, for example, at that internet speed.
    Can we maybe lobby for twitter to have a better archiving system or something? And meanwhile for someone to devise a better twitter chat tool?

  5. Lyra says:

    I agree with much of what you’ve written here, particularly with regards to the reflection that asynchronous learning affords.That said, there are sound arguments for synchronous online learning, too, ones that don’t rest on naive assumptions about replicating a face-to-face classroom online.

    Let’s take care not to assume that those who embrace synchronous online learning are ipso facto eschewing asynchronous learning. Indeed, most traditional, face-to-face classes take advantage of discussion boards, blog posts, and other reflective tools that are standard in any LMS. No synchronous environment–online or face-to-face–can offer the reflection and deep learning that a (well-designed) asynchronous discussion can.

    The more immediate problem with this post, however, is that you use Kolowich’s profile of Douglas E. Hersh to support your argument that “an automatic preference for synchronous interaction with students is often a ‘mistake.’” Yet Hersh isn’t teaching synchronously. He’s delivering “lessons and messages using videos recorded with a Webcam.” The only evidence of synchronous learning in this article is the design feature of his platform that allows students to see who else is online in case they want to chat or Skype with someone. Furthermore, Hersh’s research in online learning, along with the research of Kolowich’s other references, belie the accusation that their preferences for increased human presence is in any way “automatic.”

    Hersh’s goal is simple: to improve retention in online courses. His research suggests that he can do this through increasing “human,” or social presence. This is a noble goal, one that Hersh is well suited for because of his own “openness” to the many possibilities that online learning affords.

    • Maha Bali says:

      Hi Lyra,
      I think our article is meant to explain our own bias for asynchronous learning (hence the “affinity” in the title). We don’t deny sync can be good – we say explicitly it can have enormous potential when it works. I have done it a lot myself, but the article was trying to balance the lean toward sync that I am exposed to a lot (in my own f2f setting at least).
      But: Fair point. The Kolowich reference relates to the first part we mention right after, which is video lectures as a way of increasing the “human” element. I guess to be fair, most of our critique refers to audiovisual synchronous because it poses the most challenges related to access.
      One of the questions we asked on the survey (not used in this article) was about what participants need to feel there is a “human” element. And video was not it. Our research was of course small scale and in only one MOOC with mostly adult learners, so I wouldn’t generalize it, even.

  6. Excellent points, particularly the cross-cultural (time zone and language) and technical infrastructure aspects. We have a 2-pager (written from the perspective of our NowComment tool, but not overwhelmingly so!) that lays out what we see as the main advantages asynchronous offers even excluding those variables (though of course there are advantages synchronous offers as well, you have to assess the learning goals and situation and choose accordingly). For more: https://s3.amazonaws.com/ncom/documents/Top_Ten_Educational_Advantages_NowComment_online_discussion.pdf

  7. Gary Stobbs says:

    I agree with the article on the point of asynchronous discourse being able to promote greater reflectivity and time is a major factor when considering the ability to connect worldwide but after studying on a MOOC recently I feel that the content of the course can become lost in the technology. In trying to disseminate the course materials to a wider audience, are the materials being reflected on or is the methodology the focus of this reflection? Problems with the technology due to connectivity or power supply can be a barrier to some but if the number of devices and methods of deliver exceed the time available to student to access the materials.
    “The first is a tendency to think of ways of approximating their face-to-face teaching into an online format as much as possible” This is an important point in terms of the language used in asynchronous discourse. The discourse is more disconnected in time and so does the explanation of a point or concept become more difficult to understand?

  8. Bill Calhoun says:

    Thanks for this. I am applying to take my first online course (UC Denver!) and this is valuable insight.

    I wonder if some of the impetus toward synchronicity is a desire to have the MOOC do the teaching, as it were, as if to actually replace the flesh-and-blood teacher. But a MOOC can’t teach itself any more than a book teaches itself – the student uses the MOOC to teach himself, and you make a good argument for the effectiveness, perhaps superiority, of asynchronous tools.

    I like Gary Stobbs’ comment above about the language used in asynchronous discourse, and the risk of an explanation being difficult to understand. I’m faced with this risk every time I read anything that I hope to learn from. Interaction with a flesh-and-blood teacher is still valuable and sometimes necessary.

  9. Maha Bali says:

    Hey Gary and Bill, thanks for posting your comments.
    Is synchronous online interaction the same as flesh and blood? I think not. We don’t argue that asynchronous is better than f2f, just that it is different and its differences are part of its strength. We’re also arguing that synchronous doesn’t properly approximate f2f (aside from the access issues which prevent it from happening at all for some people).

    Misunderstandings occur in synchronous as well as asynchronous, though i can see why one might prefer a chance to immediately explain oneself or ask for clarification… But that assumes the ability to do so extemporaneously, not always possible for non-native speakers.

    I agree asynchronous discourse is not necessarily easy to understand (but imagine listening to speech and having to respond in your non-native language vs reading it slowly? Yeah)

    Buuut if we talk about native speakers with good infrastructure, where synchronous interaction often works out as intended, where the person has nothing to distract them from the online conversation… It is different from many sync situations i have been in. Again, when it works, when it is used for the right reasons, it can be great.

    In async text, there will be variability in one’s capacity to both express oneself clearly in text, and to understand others’ text. Not being a big visual learner myself, text is usually great for me. In xMOOCs, i often read the transcript rather than watch the lecture (at least I can skim it) – i think f2f lecturers read students’ faces and react to them whereas an online video is not like that (have seen some that try to anticipate student questions explicitly, though). I am happy, however, to listen to audiobooks or podcasts – sometimes for convenience reasons, but also for the nuances the narrator can add to the material. This has nothing to do with synchronicity of course, but difference in media. So much more to it than jut synchronicity and asynchronocity, right?

    • Parkash says:

      I understand where you are coinmg from with conferences, but on the whole I find them beneficial not for the presentations (of which hardly any are even passable), but for the opportunity to meet, in person, new people and people I know from online interactions. A few face-to-face hours with D’arcy Norman, Scott Leslie, etc is a rich concentrate of goodness, like months of email and Twittering I find it rejuvenating And, of course, when I speak it’s just one more chance to proselytize the gospel according to me and if it reaches only a few people (and it does ONLY a few), it’s worth it.

  10. Excellent article, the first I’ve seen on the sync/async.edu subject that covers so many perspectives. Even face-to-face classes have systemic sync problems: it’s rare in any one class period for both the professors to be doing their best performance/communicating and the students most receptive to listening/learning. Yet the entire university scheduling structure ignores this fact — tho it’s quite obvious if you follow learners/profs over the course of a school day.

    • Bard Meier says:

      Hey Barrett-
      Fantastic point to bring about in sync learning-not everyone is on que, on that particular day, and ready to absorb everything. And, I hope that the whole piece read to you as intended: sync learning isn’t hamstrung/outdated learning that needs to be replaced in order carry us forth. There’s plenty of good & bad to share with both styles of content delivery. Both, Maha and I, are pretty social people and know the value of face to face learning, And, very much like teaching as such.
      And your point about the university system needing to embrace this style of learning needs is mammoth! Most importantly, (to the admin folk) that the student population numbers start going in an upward fashion rather than what they have been doing and async could one part of the solution.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and write!

  11. Sherrie Lee says:

    Personally, the main benefit of asynchronous learning is to be able to develop ideas and responses more thoughtfully at my own convenience. However, I believe online learning will not be complete without some degree of synchronous learning. Setting aside time zone issues, real time interaction will bring about a different quality of learning. Even in a group of mixed cultures and levels of language proficiency, synchronous learning need not be a disadvantage. Participants from both dominant and non-dominant cultural backgrounds are learning from one another about how they think about the subject matter as expressed through spontaneity of words and reactions in text, tone / facial expressions in audio / video.

    I completed my Master of Arts in Teaching through a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning. One of the most important aspect of that learning was real time video conferencing in study groups of up to 4 people. (There was also live lessons for the class of 12 -15 students.) Forums were certainly useful in developing and discussing ideas. But my real time study group made it easier for clarification and also promoted a greater appreciation for my individual classmates.

    Nonetheless, I recognise the challenges of synchronous learning and this article has made it clearer that geographical and cultural considerations are important in deciding how online courses should be delivered.

  12. Alison Hancox says:

    do you have an updated link for this Sloan article: “The pedagogical benefits and challenges of asynchronous learning are documented” in your last paragraph?

  13. Wanted to tell y’all I linked to your great article in this PBS Idea Lab post: “Launch and Learn: Lessons in Multimedia Training”
    http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2014/10/launch-and-learn-lessons-in-multimedia-training/

  1. […] The idea of the event originated from a conversation that I’d been having with a wonderful colleague of mine who teaches at the American University of Cairo in Egypt. The last few semesters, for almost every upper division and graduate course, I’ve been inviting a prominent scholar or experienced professional via Skype, letting students talk to the guest. For my Writing in the Profession (WRT 304) course, I decided to invite Maha Bali from Egypt. But there was a problem: Maha’s city is currently facing power cuts, the timing of my class (2.30pm here 8.30pm in Cairo) is not the best for the parent of a toddler, and Maha seems to prefer asynchronous professional communications to synchronous ones (as she describes here). […]

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  5. […] do online, I should probably give them a chance to try both sync and asynchronous options (I have a strong preference for async). My concern is: I don’t want to be prescriptive about my pref for async given the […]

  6. […] I’m happy to ask permission. Now an important note in annotating is that, for example, I co-authored an article based on research done in #edcmooc (2nd run, not 1st run) but the article was not ABOUT the MOOC. […]

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