More and more instructional designers are opting for online learning, partly because many global organizations comprise virtual teams that conduct all training and business online, and partly because some studies say that online learning is actually more effective than face-to-face instruction.
Still, many are skeptical of replacing the traditional in-person training approach with a student-centered online method. Without the presence of an instructor-led framework, how can learners be successful?
The hallmarks of asynchronous learning
Asynchronous learning is a teaching method that takes place outside the constraints of time and place. The main features of asynchronous learning are that it is:
- student-centered, meaning learners are active participants in their learning and often engage in peer-to-peer instruction;
- self-study, because lessons are completed on the student’s own time;
- online, outside of a traditional classroom.
Keep in mind that “online” does not always equal “asynchronous;” web conferences or live Skype sessions are considered synchronous tools because they require a set time for learners to be available. Some instructional methods, in fact, will include elements of both: an online course that hosts asynchronous discussions boards, pre-recorded lectures, and self-study modules may also require students to meet in Google Hangout groups to work on a project.
Likewise, there are elements of asynchronous learning tucked in even the most traditional classroom-based learning: homework that is completed off-campus, for example.
Advantages of asynchronous methods
Although there are a few obstacles to creating elegant online learning environments-such as the unavoidable requirement that students must have access to digital tools and the fact that instant feedback is not always possible-many will quickly agree that asynchronous is the way to go for several reasons.
Let’s start with the obvious. Learners are able to select courses based on genuine interest, rather than proximity or schedule (and it makes instructional tools that are required feel much more hospitable if they can be done on the learner’s own terms). This can, in turn, affect learner engagement—consider the employee who has to frantically rearrange childcare to attend a mandatory training, and the one who is able to complete the training online at home while his child is down for a nap. Which of these individuals do you think is going to absorb the content with interest and genuine motivation?
Removing time and location constraints on a course means opening it to a much broader audience. Peer-to-peer interactions have the opportunity to be richer and more engaging when diverse points of view are introduced. Consider the example of massive open online courses (MOOCs), which boast some of the most enriching and multifaceted discussions because of their ability to host students from various countries in one learning environment.
More time for reflection
In traditional classrooms, learners are called upon to organize their thoughts and respond to course content within the context of the classroom—this presents a challenging task for introverts or learners who need more time for reflection before giving a response. Asynchronous discussion boards, often hosted in Learning Management Systems, allow for dynamic conversations to happen at a pace that fits each student. Peer-to-peer conversation can happen organically, with students responding to one another in the same way they do with their own email: when they have the time to respond thoughtfully.
Are asynchronous methods right for me?
Instructional design isn’t about hopping on trends or following the crowd. Good course design involves a close examination of the content, objectives, and audience for the material. And sometimes the truth is that asynchronous methods don’t work. Projects that require large-group interactions can be cumbersome to conduct online, and the immediate feedback that may be necessary for some tutorials is often difficult to achieve with asynchronous tools. A careful analysis of your instructional objectives and assessment plan is in order before making any decisions; in the end, you may need to let the content tell you how it wants to be delivered.