I think the discussion on whether online learning is better fostered by asynchronous or synchronous tools depends on the tool and the way it is being used. For example, Huang and Hsiao (2012) found that learners tended to rely heavily on email as a form of asynchronous communication with the instructor, but the authors found that email does not lend itself to effective teaching. Instructors stated that misunderstandings often required several communications back and forth to clear up, and that they often had to repeat themselves.
Asynchronous communication via discussion board, however, has several benefits. Instructors report that the conversations generated through online discussions are richer and deeper than those produced in a traditional classroom, and that all students have and equal opportunity to participate online (Huang & Hsiao, 2012).
However, these forums lack social presence, as students and instructors both often feel a disconnect from one another (Huang & Hsiao, 2012; Stodel, Thompson, & MacDonald, 2006). Asynchronous forums also need to be carefully formatted and monitored to avoid becoming a place where students just “report in” (Huang & Hsiao, 2012; Stodel et al., 2006). Finally, learners and instructors are concerned with the lack of non-verbal cues in an asynchronous environment, fearing that meanings may be misconstrued (Huang & Hsiao, 2012; Stodel et al., 2006).
On the other hand, not all synchronous tools are equal. While no significant pedagogical difference was found in one study comparing classes taught using asynchronous or synchronous text-based communications such as a chat board (Johnson, 2008), other studies indicate that learners find the asynchronous chat tools of little benefit and often do not take advantage of them (Huang & Hsiao, 2012; Stodel et al., 2006). These latter studies report that students and instructors find the chat-based communication limiting, slow, and prone to interruption.
Synchronous web-conferencing offers many benefits for instructors and students alike. Primary among them is the ability to establish social presence. Instructors and student like that they are able to see and speak to one another and establish a real relationship (Huang & Hsiao, 2012). This format also facilitates a more spontaneous, natural dialog between instructors and students (Huang & Hsiao, 2012).
The major disadvantage to using synchronous tools, especially web-conferencing tools, was convenience. Since many students opt to take a web-based class because of other commitments that make attending a face-to-face class difficult, time is often a constraint for these students. Additionally, students may attend an online class from many different parts of the country or even from another country, making coordinating a meeting across multiple time-zones a real challenge. In the study by Huang and Hsiao (2012), the major reason instructors opted not to use synchronous online tools such as web-meetings was the risk of alienating some or all of their students. They felt that the benefit of the synchronous format was outweighed by the possibility that potentially only half of their students could attend the live session as scheduled.
Personally, I have taken classes that used both methods. I prefer the classes that have a synchronous component because they leave me feeling more confident in my own performance as an online learner, provide me a time of accountability by which I need to be prepared to discuss the topics for the week, and give me a sounding board of other like-minded professionals off which to bounce the ideas I have forming in my brain. I think I learn better in the social context of the synchronous session than I do just reading the discussion postings, but then I am an aural learner. I need to hear something to understand it. In the absence of a synchronous session, my husband becomes my sounding board, but he cannot respond back to me intelligently on the topics about which I am learning. The synchronous classes have not always been convenient, but I’ve managed to find a way to make them work. I think they really work to my advantage.
Huang, X. S., & Hsiao, E.-L. (2012). Synchronous and asynchronous communication in an online environment: Faculty experiences and perceptions. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 13(1), 15–30.
Johnson, G. (2008). The relative learning benefits of synchronous and asynchronous text-based discussion. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(1), 166–169. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00739.x
Stodel, E. J., Thompson, T. L., & MacDonald, C. J. (2006). Learners’ perspectives on what is missing from online Learning: Interpretations through the Community of Inquiry framework, 7(3), 1–24.