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What is Asynchronous Learning? Plus the Pros and Cons

five different arrows in different shapes pointing to the same diploma

What is Asynchronous learning? As a learning professional, I’m sure the question has crossed your mind since the rapid increase in remote and hybrid workforces. In our current digital lives, synchronous, face-to-face learning is no longer the default way we engage with our learners. Sure, you can jump on a Zoom and replicate your face-to-face training over a screen, but how effective is that, really? And if you’re interested in incorporating more creative or innovative teaching methods, where should you start? Asynchronous learning is worth some consideration.

What is asynchronous learning?

“Asynchronous” means that objects or events are not happening at the same time. In terms of our technological world, this also means that people can participate in the same experience but at different times. So what does it mean when we apply “asynchronous” to learning opportunities? Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like:  Asynchronous learning is when people are learning the same things but at different times.

The important distinction between asynchronous and synchronous learning is that asynchronous learning does not require that learners log in or participate at a specific time. This means that there aren’t virtual lectures or scheduled class periods that the learners must attend. Synchronous learning, on the other hand, does require that learners log in at a designated time, in which they are all learning together simultaneously. Though virtual learning, in either format, often grants learners the flexibility to participate from home (or wherever else they may want to), with asynchronous learning, there is the added flexibility of completing work and reviewing materials on their own schedule. 

Put simply, when you take content that was traditionally taught in a classroom and put it online, still requiring people to learn the same thing at the same time, this is not asynchronous learning. This is doing synchronous learning online. But, when you put content online without designated class periods and allow your learners to access materials and complete learning objectives at their own pace, that’s asynchronous learning. 

Examples of asynchronous learning

There are a lot of great examples of asynchronous learning in consumer-facing platforms like Khan Academy, Udemy, Couseca, and Pluralsight.

In a business setting, a basic example of asynchronous learning would be when you create a course and have learners view that content on your learning management system (LMS). The course allows for multiple people to learn the same things but at different times. 

Now, let’s explore a couple of more detailed examples to really paint the picture of what an asynchronous learning experience looks like:

Asynchronous learning for sales product training

Imagine you have a new product launching in 3 months, and before then, you need to teach all of the members of your sales team about the product. The individuals on your sales team represent different territories and regions, and as such, they live all over the country, with only a few of them based out of your headquarters. So, instead of covering travel expenses for the entire sales team, disrupting their day to day, and attempting to coordinate a mass learning experience, you put together educational content available online that the team can use to learn the features of the new product from wherever they’re located and on their own time. Not only does this save your business money, but it also allows your team to work within their schedules and time zones. 

Asynchronous learning for tight tech timelines

Imagine now that one of your Senior Software Engineers notifies you that there is a new regulation that all of your techs need to follow, and they all need to get up to speed. Fast. However, many of your techs work conflicting schedules and have very limited availability. It doesn’t look like you will be able to coordinate a time that works for everyone in the near future, especially without disrupting your business, so instead, you decide to incorporate asynchronous learning. To do so, you work with your Senior Software Engineer to create online content that details the new rules your techs need to follow and grant them access to it. This way, despite their differing schedules, everyone will now be able to learn the necessary material within the tight timeline.   

So, asynchronous learning can work really well for a variety of reasons, but like most things, it isn’t perfect.

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What are the pros and cons of asynchronous learning?

Benefits of asynchronous learning

Flexibility 

Asynchronous learning gives you the ability to follow a simple four step process: Build your curriculum, record the curriculum, place your curriculum in a learning platform, and repeat. Your curriculum can then be viewed by learners anywhere at any time, and you don’t have to actively instruct them every time someone reviews your material. Thus, your learners aren’t restricted by time or place, and neither are you! This is especially useful during a global pandemic. Asynchronous learning offers clear advantages when being together in a group could be life-threatening.

Budget-friendly 

If budget is a concern, being free of time and place can save you tremendous amounts of money. As referenced in the sales team example earlier in this post, asynchronous learning opportunities can help alleviate travel expenses, and they can also reduce, or possibly eliminate, space rental fees and other expenses. 

Scalability

Another advantage of asynchronous learning is it’s scalability. With the traditional classroom model, the more you need to teach, the thinner your resources are spread. Reaching more students means needing more teachers and instructors. It also equals more classrooms, more travel expenses, and more resources. But with asynchronous learning, you often only have to teach or record your material once, and multiple cohorts of students can learn from it. Not only does this allow you to do more with less, but it also gives you more time for other activities and projects while multitudes of students still benefit from your content. Don’t forget, we should always be gathering data on our courses and making improvements over time when needed. A smarter workforce is a better workforce, and an asynchronous strategy can help you reach more students without utilizing more resources. 

Availability

Not only is asynchronous learning considerate of learner’s schedules, but it’s also considerate of their differing learning processes. Not all learners can absorb material at the same rate, and asynchronous learning allows learners to go at their own pace. It also enables them to refer back and review concepts that they may need to spend more time on. With asynchronous learning, learners get to take control of their education (for better or worse). 

Asynchronous learning challenges 

Student motivation required

Possibly the most poignant challenge is that if the learning “event” isn’t happening at a required time, it means that the execution or completion is now your learner’s responsibility. So, one of the most important skills you’ll need your learners to have is motivation. And it can be a lot harder to motivate a student if you don’t have live, interactive contact with them. It’s not impossible, of course, but it is more challenging. 

Difficult to adapt

As a learning professional, it’s vital to meet your learners where they’re at and make adaptations when needed to help ensure their success. For example, if many of your learners are struggling with the same concept, in a synchronous format, you could slow down and spend more time providing examples and ensuring that your learners have a grasp on the material during the designated class period. This is a lot harder to do in an asynchronous format in which you don’t have the live interaction with all of your learners.

Easier to lose focus

Without real-time activities and interpersonal connections, it can be especially difficult to command the attention of your learners. And a lack of live interaction between students isn’t the only potential attention span pitfall with asynchronous learning. Procrastination, distractions, and being physically disconnected from the learning environment can all compound a learner’s difficulty focusing on the material. 

Prolonged feedback timeline

Because you can’t control when your learners are learning, you also can’t control when they ask questions. This means that if a learner accesses their materials and has a question at a time when their educator isn’t readily available, the learner may waste valuable time waiting for their educator to get back to them before they can continue. Synchronous learning’s designated class times better allow instructors to be prepared for questions. 

Will asynchronous learning work for your people? It all comes down to understanding your learners

So, should you incorporate asynchronous learning into your training? Well, it depends on the situation and the learners. Are you under a tight timeline? Are you trying to save money or conserve resources? Do your learners have conflicting or busy schedules? Asynchronous learning can be an innovative, useful way to show learners that you respect their time and their ability to complete tasks on their own. And it can save learning professionals time and resources in the process. But, it doesn’t work for everyone. Are you worried about learners having the motivation to complete their tasks? Do you enjoy the ability to adapt your lessons as you go? Do you want to interact with your learners or have your learners interact with each other in real time? Then synchronous learning might be a better fit. Ultimately, it all comes down to understanding your learners and their needs, and then making an intentional decision to meet them where they’re at. 

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