Blended Learning Basics: Using Asynchronous and Synchronous Training Activities

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Many studies have shown that blended learning experiences tend to lead to better instructional outcomes–more learning, more knowledge acquisition, more skill development, better transfer to the job, etc. For more on this, including some quotes, studies, and meta-studies about blended learning effectiveness from the US Department of Education, learning researcher Dr. Ruth Colvin Clark, and learning researcher Dr. Will Thalheimer, see our Guide to Blended Learning Strategies.

But of course, learning design professionals shouldn’t just blend willy-nilly. You should have a reason for choosing to select the different training delivery methods you use in each learning blend.

There are multiple different ways to think about how to choose the right training delivery methods for the right learning activities in your learning blend. One of them is to think of when the learners will benefit from an asynchronous learning experience and when they’ll benefit from a synchronous learning experience. (Quick note for those not used to the jargon: an “asynchronous” learning experience means the learner is completing the learning experience alone–think of something like reading a book or completing a self-paced elearning course–and a “synchronous” learning experience means the learner is completing the learning experience with an instructor and other learners–think of a traditional instructor-led classroom training session or a virtual classroom completed online).

To help give you some ideas of how to use asynchronous and synchronous learning activities in a learning blend, we checked out a great recent series of articles on blended learning and synchronous/asynchronous activities written by our good friend, the learning researcher Dr. Patti Shank. Dr. Shank wrote these five articles for eLearning Industry–you can find the first article on synchronous and asynchronous learning here and then continue to read the rest.

We’re going to give you some of the highlights on Dr. Shank’s five-article series on asynchronous and synchronous activities in blended learning programs in the article below, although of course we invite you to read all the articles.

And if you’re curious, check out some of our earlier collaborations with Dr. Shank on other important learning topics:

Now let’s learn a little more about when to best use asynchronous and synchronous learning events.

What Is Asynchronous?

In the first article, Dr. Shank explains what asynchronous and synchronous mean.

Asynchronous means the learner is completing the learning experience on his/her own and at his or her own pace.

A traditional elearning course is an example of an asynchronous learning experience.

An online discussion board may be asynchronous if the learner is simply reading and typing without generating something like a real-time conversation. However, it could be synchronous if the replies are flying fast and furious enough.

What Is Synchronous?

This is a learning experience the learner takes with others. You’d generally expect an instructor and other learners.

Examples are instructor-led classroom training and virtual classrooms through a webinar-like online platform.

As noted, sometimes something like an online discussion board may qualify as synchronous as well, assuming the discussion is happening real time.

What Are Content Interactions and Social Interactions and Why Do They Matter?

In the second article, Dr. Shank talks about content interactions and social interactions.

A content interaction is when the learner is directly engaging with (or interacting with) the learning content or an assessment activity.

A social interaction is when the learner is interacting with people. For example, this might be a discussion with other learners in a classroom or in the chat feature of a virtual classroom. A special kind of social interaction is when the learner is interacting socially with the instructor, as the instructor is tasked with things like checking understanding, correcting misconceptions, answering questions, providing feedback and support, and more.

Blending these two types of interactions–content interactions and social interactions–leads to effective learning blends. Learners can have content interactions in both asynchronous and synchronous learning activities, but asynchronous activities allow the person to really engage with the content at his or her own pace and often leads to deeper processing. And synchronous learning is essential for social interactions.


What Is Processing?

In the third article, Dr. Shank explains what processing is. Processing is what causes people to learn. People don’t learn from content. They learn from processing that content and through social interactions, as explained above.

Dr. Shank talked about processing and deep learning in a lot of detail in our earlier recorded discussion, Deep Learning, Deliberate Practice & Desirable Difficulties. 

Learning Benefits of Asynchronous Learning Experiences

In the third article, Dr. Shank lists the primary benefits of asynchronous learning as:

  • Flexibility (for the worker’s schedule, learning preferences, pace, etc.)
  • Opportunity for deep processing of content

Learning Benefits of Synchronous Learning Experiences

In the fourth article, Dr. Shank lists the following primary benefits of synchronous learning experiences:

  • Immediacy–the ability to get feedback and guidance, have questions answered, etc., especially but not exclusively from the instructor, in real-time
  • Social interactions–communication, support, discussion, insights, and so on (which can aid processing)

The Recommended Blend of Asynchronous and Synchronous Learning Activities Within a Blended Learning Program

So what’s your takeaway? What does Dr. Shank recommend in terms of what to blend and why?

In this case, let’s directly quote her from the fifth article:

Most content interactions (and individual processing) should ideally be done asynchronously and most social interactions (and group processing) should ideally be done synchronously. There are reasons why this may not work, of course, but it’s a good rule of thumb to start with.

So there’s a great rule of thumb.

And here are a few additional good tips should includes near the end of the article:

  • Consider using asynchronous learning for prep time (kind of like the flipped model of instruction)
  • Use asynchronous learning activities when cognitive load is already high

Conclusion: Consider Asynchronous and Synchronous When Designing Learning Blends

We hope you found this article helpful. Thanks to Dr. Patti Shank for all the great research and suggestions.

Be sure to download our Blended Learning Guide for more strategies for effective blended learning, and watch for additional articles on blended learning in the future.

Here are links to Dr. Shank’s Five Articles at eLearning Industry:

And here’s that guide (below). Have a great day and please leave your comments below.

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Guide to Blended Learning Strategies

Learn the importance of using differing training delivery methods and get some tips for selecting the right training method for each training need.

Download Free Guide

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 25 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center and an Instructional Design certification from the Association of Talent Development (ATD), and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI/ASSP Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training. Jeff frequently writes for magazines related to safety, safety training, and training and frequently speaks at conferences on the same issues, including the Washington Governor's Safety and Health Conference, the Oregon Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference, the Wisconsin Safety Conference, the MSHA Training Resources Applied to Mining (TRAM) Conference, and others.

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