Synchronous (i.e. Connect) vs. asynchronous tools (Forums): Which is better at fostering online learning? Why? What are your reasons and evidence for this?

Providing opportunities for collaboration and communication within an online course is essential.  The Stodel, Thompson & MacDonald (2006) study found that students in online courses miss the conversations in face-to-face courses when learning online.  The emotion, interaction, energy, and connections were absent in these online courses, as reported in student interviews (2006).  Learners interviewed were also not immediately confident about engaging in the online classroom. Becoming a successful online student does take some practice, and developing connections is possible.  Traditionally, discussion threads or forums have been used as asynchronous tools in the online course to encourage discussion and interaction with peers.  The ideas of personal participation and cognitive participation describe the dimensions of learning supported by asynchronous and synchronous online learning according to Hrastinski (2008).  Personal participation includes social interactions between peers and instructor with less complex discussions and topics; synchronous tools best support this.  Cognitive participation is more reflective and includes more complex discussions and topics, which is best supported by asynchronous tools (Hrastinski, 2008). The use of these tools together in an online course, for various activities and discussions, is ideal.

Research on surface and deep learning in online learning by Offir, Lev & Bezalel (2008) suggests that different interactions in the online course have different effects. Interaction levels between peers and instructor are a significant factor in the effectiveness of the teaching method.  The results from the interviews and observations show that the use of asynchronous tools in the online course (in a situation that does not require discourse between instructor and student or peer to peer) does not support raising questions by the students to the teacher (2008). This misses the mark on deeper processing and learning the material through posing questions. Regarding synchronous tools: the use of these tools is most effective with students with a high cognitive ability (2008).  These students (with high cognitive ability) are able to overcome little or no interaction provided in asynchronous learning. Overall, “when the interaction is richer, more comprehensive and more synchronous, the importance of the learning profile decreases” (Offir et al, 2008, p. 1182). “Questions, instructions and the presence of a teacher were found to be essential, since they motivate the students, concentrate their attention and enable deep processing of information, which enable the students to evaluate the extent of their mastery of the learned material” (Offir et al, 2008, p. 1182).

My preference is a combination of asynchronous and synchronous tools.  The use of tools will vary with the type and level of each course, but generally some flexibility and variance is needed. Provide space for students to collaborate and opportunities for interaction, but remember that not all students enjoy learning online and may expect a fully asynchronous learning experience. I would recommend details on the course expectations be provided in the course description, before a student registers, as to the expectations for synchronous or asynchronous tools and methods which will be used in the course.

Hrastinski, S. (2008). Asynchronous and synchronous e-learning: A study of a Asynchronous and synchronous e-learning methods discovered that each supports different purposes. Educause Quarterly, Number 4.

Offir, B., Lev, Y. & Bezalel, R. (2008). Surface and deep learning processes in distance education: Synchronous versus asynchronous systems.  Computers & Education, 51(3), 1172-1183.

Stodel, E., Thompson, T., & MacDonald, C. (2006). Learners’ Perspectives on what is Missing from Online Learning: Interpretations through the Community of Inquiry Framework. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 7(3).

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