You may have heard people talk about synchronous and asynchronous learning before. The concepts have been around for decades in the educational theory world, but understanding the distinction can help managers and business owners tackle their real-world training challenges.
What is Synchronous Learning?
Synchronous learning refers to the traditional classroom we all know and love. Students and instructor come together at the same time and place and learn a prescribed set of material at a pre-determined pace. Basically, it’s school.
What is Asynchronous Learning?
In asynchronous learning, people work on their own or with peers. They may follow a pre-determined curriculum, but they go at their own pace, using various resources, such as videos, webinars, documents, coaches and mentors.
Instructors take on a different role in asynchronous learning. They design the basic flow of the course, provide resources and facilitate progress and interaction. Students have to become more active in pursuing knowledge. They do not sit passively and receive information as in traditional classrooms. Ideally, students support each other in a “learning community” where they help each other understand and apply concepts.
Some education theorists have favored asynchronous learning since the days of “correspondence courses” in the late 19th century. (Source) Technology has since made this style of training much easier to access and manage. And we’re starting to see it more and more in training at work. Self-directed e-courses, for example, are types of asynchronous learning now possible with new technology.
Technology has also helped develop learning communities that include people separated in space and time. Wikis, on-line forums and chat rooms encourage peers to pool their knowledge and collectively solve challenges.
Which one is better?
People are most familiar and comfortable with synchronous learning. It’s an efficient way to provide a lot of information to many people at once and doesn’t require video skills, e-learning course development or webinars. And it’s easy to track course completions and test results because everyone’s in the same place doing the same activities. Many managers default to synchronous learning because it’s what they know.
However, classroom knowledge doesn’t always translate well to the real world. Some research has indicated that only 20% of classroom information gets used by employees. So much of the time spent in a classroom may be wasted.
It’s also difficult to schedule a time for everyone to be away from work and focused on training, so some people may miss out or you may have to offer the training several times.
Although we’re all familiar with synchronous training methods, we can’t be sure that classrooms provide the best learning value. In Diane Senffner’s recent article, she writes, “There is a false sense of security in corralling employees into a room to learn something. In spite of being a captive audience, they still choose whether they want to learn or not.”
On the other hand, asynchronous learning lets people use whatever time they have available between work tasks. They can learn at their own pace which gives people time to reflect on the material. Studies show that more time to absorb information leads to better retention.
Learning communities foster stronger relationships between peers and help tap into tribal knowledge that never makes it into course material. Also, studies show that learners are more engaged when they have more autonomy over the learning process.
However, it’s not easy to build these learning communities. Managers have to lead and actively facilitate, which they may not be comfortable with. Instructors have to shift from lecturing to guiding and supporting individual efforts. Even learners may be uncomfortable with a new approach at first.
Managers also have the challenge of tracking everyone’s progress. It’s hard to know how employees are doing when they’re all in different places with the material, but technology can help with this challenge. (Here’s a great tool for tracking asynchronous learning.)
How can I get the best of both worlds?
Given that both kinds of learning offer significant advantages, many trainers mix and match styles for a hybrid approach.
You have endless possibilities for blending classroom and self-directed learning, but here’s a particularly effective strategy. Begin with a short synchronous class (in person or virtual) that lays out the basic concepts, explains the learning goals and the motivations for the competency you want learners to achieve. Then send learners out to apply the concepts at their own pace. Instructors provide specific tasks for employees to accomplish with their new knowledge and point them to resources, mentors or coaches who can help them.
Offer a variety of activities to keep people engaged and also let them try out their knowledge in different ways. For example, ask them to “teach” the concept to a peer, explain it in a forum, demonstrate it for a mentor or coach, or apply it in a new way.
Encourage learners to help each other and assign tasks for them to work on together. Have them record successful accomplishments. Or they may come back to the classroom to share experiences and discuss higher-level concepts as the next steps to mastery.
This blending gets learners started in a comfortable setting and provides guidance and support for their own efforts, but keeps them engaged and improves transfer by having them use the new information on their own.
This approach also ensures that classroom time is well used. If the classroom material doesn’t apply to learners’ jobs, they won’t be able to complete the asynchronous phase. Instructors can then adjust the course to better reflect students’ needs.
Regardless of how you combine training styles, keep in mind a few success tips:
- Keep the tasks bite-sized.
- Provide solid support structure.
- Provide variety.
- Encourage collaboration.
If you haven’t thought about the differences between synchronous and asynchronous learning, take some time to find out more. You may have to chart some new territory, but you may discover the fastest and most effective way to train employees today.