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Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Classes


Synchronous online classes are those that require students and instructors to be online at the same time. Lectures, discussions, and presentations occur at a specific hour. All students must be online at that specific hour in order to participate.


Asynchronous classes are just the opposite. Instructors provide materials, lectures, tests, and assignments that can be accessed at any time. Students may be given a timeframe – usually a one week window – during which they need to connect at least once or twice. But overall, students are free to contribute whenever they choose.

There are benefits and drawbacks to both designs. Some students like synchronous courses because they need to feel involved, in real-time, with the class experience. It’s rewarding to ask a question or offer a comment, and to receive instant feedback. For some people, real-time communication allows for more fruitful discussions.


For others, asynchronous courses provide a better way to learn. Many students need more time to form their thoughts or consider all the sides of an issue before offering an opinion. In a synchronous classroom, these students might get overshadowed by faster typists and spontaneous thinkers.


Whatever your preference, you can find an online college that offers your ideal course design. Most online courses operate asynchronously. But if you like the synchronous format, you can look for a program that offers more traditional class meeting times. You’ll also find that many courses incorporate elements from both formats.


As you’re researching synchronous and asynchronous options, you may want to ask college enrollment advisors which elements from the following list are used at their schools.

Synchronous Class Elements:

  • Chat (text only): Synchronous chat rooms allow multiple users to log in and interact. This is a great way to ask questions and to share resources and insights. The only drawback is that when there are a lot of people logged in, and everyone's trying to chat at the same time, the conversation can break off into tangents. The fast typists are definitely rewarded! If you're participating in a chat session, be sure to save the session (archive it), and review it later. You can usually save it as a .txt or .rtf file.
  • Voice (telephone or voice-over IP): Sometimes you'll be asked to dial into a toll-free number, or to log into a website where you'll speak through your built-in microphone or a headset. The purpose is to have a conference call with your instructor and/or fellow students. You may be reviewing a document or a presentation. In that case, it's extremely helpful to plan ahead of time and have all the documents you'll need at your fingertips.
  • Video conferencing: Video conferences can, in theory, require all the participants to have their webcams running. The conference administrator can then post everyone's head shot in the screen. This is not usually the case though, because to have everyone's web cam turned on and transmitting images requires a very fast connection and a lot of bandwidth. Usually, a video conference (or web conference) will involve two webcams operating -- the instructor’s and that of another key person. A video conference can involve a live feed from a classroom or elsewhere. Alternatively, the conference might transmit a presentation of slides and graphics, with a question and answer session at the end.
  • Web conferencing: What differentiates a web conference from a video conference is the fact that you'll probably not rely on video as your primary instructional content. Instead, you're likely to access a wider variety of media elements. Web conferences tend to be more interactive, and you'll probably be asked to respond to questions (survey, poll, questionnaire), which will give you a chance to interact. Web conferences usually incorporate chat and they often have a question and answer session at the end.
  • Internet radio/podcasts: When there is not sufficient bandwidth to broadcast live video of an event, instructors might stream the audio over the Internet. Good opportunities for audio streaming include concerts or political speeches. Ideally, the audio file would be archived for students to access and review later as well. The nice thing about Internet radio / streaming audio is that students can send chat messages while the event is happening.
  • Virtual worlds: Educational "islands" in virtual worlds like Second Life are wonderful places for students to meet "live" and to interact. They're ideal for learning languages because it's possible to speak with each other through headsets and VoIP. It's a wonderful way to practice conversation while being immersed in a virtual place that has the look and feel of another country or culture. While virtual worlds can be very engaging and productive as learning environments, they can be frustrating for those who are new. There's quite a learning curve as you learn to navigate the worlds, and to clothe and operate your avatar. Students should also bear in mind that virtual worlds require significant bandwidth along with a computer that has a lot of usable memory and a great video card.

Asynchronous Class Elements:

  • Virtual Libraries/Repositories of Documents, Presentations, Graphics, Audio Files, and Video: Your online course will provide you with instructional materials. They could consist of articles (often in pdf format) that you download from a virtual library. You may also be asked to download presentations, slides, and illustrative graphics. In addition, you may have instructional materials that consist of video snippets, audio files, and even full-length movies such as documentaries. In this case, you’ll often have the option to stream the content rather than having to download an enormous file.
  • E-Mail: E-mail is a foundational item in all online courses. It's a great tool for asking questions, keeping in touch, and receiving materials, updates, reminders, and even assessments. Some online courses use e-mail as the main way to interact with your instructor and peers.
  • Discussion Boards: The discussion board is another pillar in the online learning structure. It's a great way to respond to questions and to share documents and links. It's also a good place to ask questions and to clear up ambiguities.
  • Social Networking: Many online courses now incorporate social networking in order to enhance collaboration and learner interaction. In many learning management systems, social networking is built into units via embedded html scripts. Social networking programs that are often incorporated include blogs, wikis, Facebook, Orkut, Bebo, Twitter, Flickr, Youtube, Youstream, and more.
  • Wikis and Collaborative Documents: Collaborative documents allow students to edit each other’s work and to collaborate. You'll enjoy seeing how people contribute, and you'll feel excited about logging in and adding your thoughts and ideas. A "wiki" is a place that allows you to build a definition or a series of explanations – much in the way that wikipedia works. You can add text as well as graphics.
  • e-Portfolios: Some online courses utilize special software (such as Mahara) that makes it easy for you to create an online portfolio. E-Portfolios demonstrate your skills and your knowledge of a special topic. They are often assigned as a capstone project in which students combine text, images, presentations, video, audio, links, and a discussion space.
  • DVD/CD-ROM: Some courses provide textbooks that come bundled with DVDs for video and media content. These can be real life-savers where there is slow, limited, or expensive Internet connectivity. They are great ways to let students review the materials offline, and then budget their online time effectively.