Synchronous and Asynchronous Interactions: Convenience and Content

Synchronous and Asynchronous Interactions: Convenience and Content

Anthony S. Chow (University of North Carolina – Greensboro, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-3688-0.ch008
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This chapter explores similarities and differences between synchronous and asynchronous communication in online learning through the lens of both instructor and student using social communication, usability, and learning theory as conceptual frameworks. Each construct is defined and explored, with a discussion of how each is experienced by instructors and students. Online activity and user preferences are explained using concepts from usability and how the interactions, communications, and information processing differences lead to student learning as defined by contemporary learning theory. Best practices, within the context of available technology, are recommended.
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“Well, I got to attend my first live class session this week, as opposed to watching the recording. I really prefer being there for the class. It's easy for the mind to wander when watching a recording, but being there live to interact and ask questions helped the material sink in more.” –An anonymous student, 2011

Synchronous and asynchronous communication in online learning can be understood via two seminal variables: space and time. Synchronous communication reflects two or more people being in the same real or virtual space at the same time; that is, real-time interaction (Falloon, 2011; Hrastinski, 2009; Maushak & Ou, 2007; Ward, Peters, & Shelley, 2010). Asynchronous communication does not require either variable be present (i.e., people do not have to be together in the same space or time (Hrastinski, 2009; Küçüka, Genç-Kumtepe, & Tasci, 2010; Picciano, 1998; Ward, Peters, & Shelley, 2010)) and can be defined as “learning at anytime or in anyplace using Internet and World Wide Web software tools (e-mail, electronic bulletin boards, and Web pages) as the main vehicles for instruction” (Picciano, 1998, p. 2). While the differences appear subtle in terms of human communication and interaction, being in the same place at the same time as another person, as opposed to being somewhere on your own, creates significantly different experiences in terms of instructional delivery, information processing, and overall interaction and dialogue.

Having been involved in distance—and now online—learning over the past decade, I have seen the various facets of each. The debate over whether synchronous or asynchronous methods are preferable is akin to those about qualitative versus quantitative methods, brands of colas or smart phones, and public versus private education. ‘Beauty’ in this context is certainly in the eye of the beholder because providing online learning means, first and foremost, being able to meet the unique circumstances, contexts, and preferences of learners. To understand this more clearly, we need to first examine why online learning is so popular and effective.

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