There are two primary ways of providing collaboration or instructional services within a Learning Delivery Environment (or within loosely integrated forums, such as in a portal) – synchronously or asynchronously. This article from the ‘Recipes for E-learning Success’ series examines the key strengths and weaknesses of each and how they are appropriate for a different set of circumstances.
Horses for courses
There are two primary ways of providing collaboration or instructional services within a Learning Delivery Environment (or within loosely integrated forums, such as in a portal) – synchronously or asynchronously. Each has its key strengths and weaknesses and is appropriate for a different set of circumstances.
Synchronous interaction involves the parties (learners, or learner and instructor) being online at the same time and communicating in real-time. A range of synchronous communication tools can support interaction in this virtual classroom environment, including:
• Voice and video conferencing
• Shared whiteboards and live presentation tools
• Application sharing
• Live assessment testing and voting
• Audience control tools including hand raising, approval feedback and audio/video control
• Web Safari (leading a live web browsing session)
• Breakout rooms for smaller groups
The benefits of synchronous interaction are that learning and feedback are immediate and therefore happen in shortened elapsed time. They are ideal for activities such as brainstorming, group decision-making, and remedial coaching since these activities need rapid interaction and feedback, and tend to be of a lower quality if spread over a longer period of time. We often encourage the use of synchronous tools for question and answer sessions with an expert or guru in the specific field being studied. Many forward-thinking experts are more than willing to join a session remotely. For the organiser it provides a considerable saving on travel and subsistence costs of the expert, and opens up his or her diary; one hour is far easier to schedule than a three-day trip!
The downsides of synchronous learning are logistics and the limitation of time. All parties must be online at the same time, regardless of location, which may be disruptive to those in widely-dispersed time zones. Synchronous communication works well for short sessions – maybe one-hour maximum, but is problematic for longer periods, with individual attention and learning value decreasing rapidly, particularly if the participants are in a working office environment. Depending on the audience size and availability, it can also be difficult to schedule times when such sessions can happen. Another consideration in synchronous communication is language – it’s much easier to interact in your own language. Non-native language speakers (or typists!) can take on a much more passive role, with activity being dominated by native language users.
The degree of interactivity within an actual live session is controlled by the instructor and will be more limited for larger audience sizes as the interaction processes become harder to manage. With very large audiences the aim should be to use the tool essentially as a broadcast session rather than one which is highly interactive. Also the performance of the products depends on the size of audience as well as the media being transmitted. It is important to consider bandwidth issues when designing content for use across this medium.
Asynchronous interaction involves the parties communicating over elapsed time, not real time, usually in a typewritten format. As well as straightforward discussions, asynchronous interaction could also include group project activity, assessments, surveys, votes etc. These activities may be completely open-ended or may be constrained with a defined start or end time.
The key benefit of asynchronous interaction is its flexibility and ability to fit into everyone’s working day. Participants engage with the system when it suits them, and information of all kinds including documents and file attachments can be shared, not just text in discussions. For groups spread across multiple geographies and time zones, or even those who have very different work patterns, it is an ideal delivery mode. It is also more of a leveller than either face-to-face or synchronous communication, as all participants have an equal opportunity to contribute; they are not relegated to the back of the class by a talkative colleague. Additionally, those who have trouble speaking up because of language differences or shyness can take their time crafting a written reply. This mode of communication allows time for everyone to think about a given subject, and is ideal for those ‘I wish I had remembered to say….’ moments! Another advantage of the asynchronous environment is that the learning does not have to be geared to the average student. Those who wish to research a subject in more depth can do so in their own time, and those who are slower learners can review material a number of times. Technically access to asynchronous environments can often be made with a lower hardware and network specification, which is of use to remote participants.
The downside of asynchronous learning is that it occurs over longer elapsed times. Often it means that it is difficult to come to group decisions, or for rapid and controlled discussion of ideas to take place. And there is the motivation factor; it’s critical. It is human nature to leave work until the last minute or until it is obvious that it is going to be assessed or judged. In a live environment, there is more exposure and obligation to be prepared. Many people, with no strict deadlines in the asynchronous environment, and no teacher watching over them, fail to contribute to the deliverables. Many need additional coaching in self-managed learning and collaboration.
Bringing It All Together
In reality, the best learning programmes often combine synchronous and asynchronous environments. The benefits of one are often the shortcomings of the other. A fully integrated environment, which makes use of the best features of each is the one most likely to have success. For example, a longer-term learning programme could be designed as follows:
• Asynchronous ‘about me’ introductory session and icebreaker
• Simple asynchronous exercise
• Synchronous session confirming expectations and deliverables, with a simple exercise
• Main body of work where learners research and discuss a subject asynchronously, in order to gain a common level of knowledge and understanding. Increasingly complex activities and exercises over time.
• Periodic live ‘checkpoint’ events to motivate the participants and allow them to communicate rapidly with each other, experts and instructors. Includes private coaching sessions.
• Asynchronous reflection on the quality and effectiveness of the programme.
It is clear that the greatest benefits are to be gained by understanding the specific requirements and mapping appropriately on to the right delivery mode. For ease of use and support an integrated synchronous and asynchronous environment provides the best of all possible worlds.
Success in e-learning involves three key areas. Firstly, a broad understanding of all the various components – from Learning Management Systems to content development techniques, from IT infrastructure to learning design and management of organisational change. Next, since e-learning programmes are rarely inexpensive, it is critical to get a high return on your initial investment, so making use of the most experienced resources possible is vital for success. The value of those who have ‘done it before’ cannot be underestimated. And finally, it is essential to co-ordinate and manage these components, business functions and resources. E-learning crosses many boundaries and should be viewed as a strategic endeavour, and managed as a truly cross-functional programme.
We hope that the articles in the ‘Recipes for E-learning Success’ series help you to understand some of the current issues surrounding this topic and have stimulated you to review your ideas on e-learning. Fosway is continually researching and developing e-learning best practice, and is focused on sharing its knowledge and experience with its customers and e-learning practitioners.
Recommended Fosway Reading
The other articles in this series are as follows:
• Recipes for E-learning Success
• The Volume Vs. Value Equation
• Blended or Integrated E-learning?
• Design Dynamics For E-learning
• Building Learning Communities
• E-learning Standards
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