Special Report

E-Learning Delivery Debated

By Ian Quillen — April 23, 2010 7 min read
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Just as the model of blended learning is pulling the worlds of virtual and brick-and-mortar schools together, new theories within virtual learning are bridging the divide between synchronous and asynchronous instructional methods.

Online educators say they once debated whether to deliver courses synchronously, by allowing access to instruction during a given time, or asynchronously, by allowing access anytime and anywhere. Now, they are designing approaches that meld both methods.

“The online model is really designed to be flexible for the individual student,” said Pam Birtolo, the chief learning officer of the Orlando-based Florida Virtual School, or FLVS, which is seen as a trendsetter in virtual education. “I don’t know that you can separate the two anymore.”

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Though synchronous and asynchronous means of instruction are no longer at theoretical odds, considering the benefits of each approach is still important, educators say. And it’s especially important to be aware of ways to incorporate both approaches when possible, such as maintaining archives of a one-time live webinar or prompting a message-board discussion around a video presentation.

“I think that asynchronous instruction is made much stronger by blending in some synchronous tools,” said Liz Pape, the president and chief executive officer of the Virtual High School Global Consortium, based in Maynard, Mass. “The other thing to keep in mind is that good synchronous [content] has archiving capabilities that enable it to act like asynchronous [content].”

Following are some of the benefits of synchronous and asynchronous instruction, as identified by Ms. Birtolo, Ms. Pape, and three other experts on virtual education.


Problem-Solving: The choice to deliver courses synchronously or asynchronously sometimes depends on the subject. In math or the physical sciences, where much of the work is based around problem-solving through logical sequences or equations, immediate, synchronous feedback from an instructor is advantageous.

Christa Ehmann Powers, the vice president of education at Smarthinking, a Washington-based online-tutoring service, said her service’s math students overwhelmingly choose synchronous tutoring. “My argument would be that there are certain subjects, given their very nature, that are more relatable or more appropriate for synchronous work,” she said.

Discussion Flow: Instructors might want to keep class discussions in a real-time format if the topic is one that requires the teacher to be an active mediator. Students may be very comfortable with e-mail and discussion forums among friends. But they can become hesitant when a teacher tries to step in to such ongoing conversations, said Myk Garn, the associate director of the educational technology cooperative of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board.

“It takes a very skillful instructor to insert themselves into that [asynchronous] discussion,” said Mr. Garn. “It’s kind of like the coda to it, and the discussion ends.”

Younger Students: As virtual learning expands from the postsecondary level all the way into kindergarten, younger students have become more proficient with the technology needed to take part in virtual learning. But early-elementary pupils who are uncomfortable navigating forums or even using a keyboard to communicate may benefit from synchronous instruction in a webinar format, said John Watson, the primary author of “Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning,” a study from the Evergreen Education Group, a consulting group based in Evergreen, Colo.

Increased Teacher Access: Synchronous instruction can occur outside of class time and on a one-to-one basis when teachers set online office hours to be reachable by video or online chat. Students who need additional help are often better able to articulate their challenges to an instructor who is giving immediate feedback in that set time-frame, Ms. Birtolo said.

Standardized Testing: While the allure of virtual learning for full- and part-time students is often the flexibility to complete coursework at one’s own pace and availability, many virtual courses are still subject to standardized testing. And it’s much easier to maintain a test’s integrity in a synchronous online format, said Mr. Garn.

Clubs and Socialization: Many of the supplemental organizations that enrich education in regular schools can be replicated in virtual schools through real-time online meetings. At FLVS, said Ms. Birtolo, students participate in Future Business Leaders of America, a science club, and the Model United Nations, among other clubs, through synchronous communication.

Synchronous Archives: Just because instruction is delivered in a synchronous manner doesn’t mean it has to disappear into a vacuum. The best synchronous instruction, whether a video lecture, a live chat, or a webinar, can be archived for students to recall in an asynchronous manner, Ms. Pape said.


More Time Better Than Real Time: The most straightforward benefit of instruction that can be accessed at any time is that the learning process is suddenly not constrained by the clock. Students receiving asynchronous instruction who struggle in one subject and excel in another can devote more of their time to comprehending the subject in which they’re struggling. English-language learners especially benefit if, for example, they understand the concepts in a science or math course but need time to translate lectures.

And teachers who spark a lively discussion can transfer the momentum to an online forum if the period ends before the debate does.

“In reality, you’ve extended the class day for the kids,” Ms. Pape said. “It’s no longer dependent upon the school bell.”

Critical Thinking: Just as problem-solving may correspond to synchronous instruction, critical thinking and writing may fit better with asynchronous teaching. Writing may be more personal, making synchronous instruction a bit more threatening, said Ms. Powers. But contemporary models for teaching writing also transfer better to an instructional method that requires students to take more ownership, she said.

“If you’re aligned with some of the late thinking on how to teach composition and rhetoric and writing as a process, then that all falls in line,” Ms. Powers said.

How Students Live: Today’s students live large portions of their social lives through text messages, Facebook posts, and e-mail chains. While teachers may feel more comfortable communicating in real time, their students have a higher comfort level when they can access advice anytime. For example, Ms. Birtolo said, FLVS students increasingly prefer text-message instruction to phone or online audio instruction.

“You can watch the trends that are happening [in the general public] so you can know what the trends are going to be in online learning,” Ms. Birtolo said. “The texting thing, that just makes sense.”

Less Is More: Teachers who don’t teach online sometimes fear communication with students will break down in an asynchronous setting, but online instructors find the need to be proactive actually improves the teacher-student relationship.

“We sometimes hear that ‘We know our students online better than in a face-to-face class,’ ” said Mr. Watson. “The sense, I think, is they have to be so in touch with students because at a distance it helps get them a better understanding [of each other].”

Global Standard Time: Distance learning in some virtual classes involves enrolling students from all over the globe. That international reach can greatly improve discussion on message boards, especially if the course covers world issues in social studies, history, or geography, for example. But when students in the same class are 12 time zones apart, finding a common time for synchronous instruction can be nearly impossible.

Asynchronous Doesn’t Mean Slow: The line between asynchronous and synchronous communication is blurred by new communication platforms and by increased time spent on computers. Technically, for example, an e-mail is an asynchronous communication, while an instant message is synchronous. But in both cases, it’s the attentiveness of the instructor and the student, rather than the method of instruction, that dictates the time lapse, Mr. Watson said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as E-Learning Delivery Debated


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