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Today's workforce is expected to be highly educated and to continually improve skills and acquire new ones by engaging in lifelong learning. E-learning, here defined as learning and teaching online through network technologies, is arguably one of the most powerful responses to the growing need for education.1 Some researchers have expressed concern about the learning outcomes for e-learners, but a review of 355 comparative studies reveals no significant difference in learning outcomes, commonly measured as grades or exam results, between traditional and e-learning modes of delivery.2
For e-learning initiatives to succeed, organizations and educational institutions must understand the benefits and limitations of different e-learning techniques and methods. Research can support practitioners by studying the impact of different factors on e-learning's effectiveness. Two basic types of e-learning are commonly compared, asynchronous and synchronous. Until recently, e-learning initiatives mainly relied on asynchronous means for teaching and learning.3 However, recent improvements in technology and increasing bandwidth capabilities have led to the growing popularity of synchronous e-learning.4
My work has focused on the benefits and limitations of asynchronous and synchronous e-learning and addresses questions such as when, why, and how to use these two modes of delivery. Many organizations and educational institutions are interested in using and developing both asynchronous and synchronous e-learning, but have a limited understanding of the benefits and limitations of the two. I began with a view of learning as participation in the social world,5 which implies that learning is a dialogue carried out through both internal and social negotiation.6
An ongoing debate addresses the usefulness of asynchronous versus synchronous e-learning. Asynchronous e-learning, commonly facilitated by media such as e-mail and discussion boards, supports work relations among learners and with teachers, even when participants cannot be online at the same time. It is thus a key component of flexible e-learning. In fact, many people take online courses because of their asynchronous nature, combining education with work, family, and other commitments. Asynchronous e-learning makes it possible for learners to log on to an e-learning environment at any time and download documents or send messages to teachers or peers. Students may spend more time refining their contributions, which are generally considered more thoughtful compared to synchronous communication.7
Synchronous e-learning, commonly supported by media such as videoconferencing and chat, has the potential to support e-learners in the development of learning communities. Learners and teachers experience synchronous e-learning as more social and avoid frustration by asking and answering questions in real time.8 Synchronous sessions help e-learners feel like participants rather than isolates:
Isolation can be overcome by more continued contact, particularly synchronously, and by becoming aware of themselves as members of a community rather than as isolated individuals communicating with the computer.9
Haythornthwaite12 argues that three types of communication in particular are important for building and sustaining e-learning communities: content-related communication, planning of tasks, and social support (see Table 1). Firstly, communication related to the course content is essential for learning. Just as in traditional education, e-learners need to be able to ask questions and share information and ideas. Secondly, support for planning tasks is essential, especially when learners produce some kind of product, such as an assignment, in collaboration with peers. Finally, social support relations are desirable for creating an atmosphere that fosters collaborative learning.
In my PhD thesis,13 I compared asynchronous and synchronous e-learning. In this article, I focus on the analysis of asynchronous and synchronous online seminars held as part of two e-learning classes. The first class included 3 females and 5 males with a mean age of 38 years. The second class included 14 females and 5 males with a mean age of 43 years. Both classes studied knowledge management at the master's level. Potential differences might arise because of the different group sizes (8 versus 19), but only a few such differences were evident in the data from this study.
To understand student opinions of asynchronous and synchronous e-learning, I also conducted 12 half-hour telephone interviews. Four of the interviewees were enrolled in the first class and eight were enrolled in the second class. The interviews, which I recorded and transcribed, were conducted within one month after the seminars concluded.
In the online seminars, I suggested questions for the class to discuss and also asked learners to submit questions about the course literature for discussion. The synchronous discussions were conducted by chat and scheduled for three hours. The asynchronous discussions used a discussion board and were scheduled over a week. I chose two asynchronous and two synchronous discussions from the middle of each course for further analysis. The classes used the same literature and the suggested questions were of similar character, designed to stimulate reflection and sharing of personal experiences relating to the literature in both the asynchronous and synchronous settings. After the online discussions concluded, I classified every written sentence according to the three types of exchanges described in Table 1. Some sentences included more than one type of exchange and were counted in more than one category.
The studies reported here were conducted in a specific context and with a small sample size. However, the key arguments are also supported by theory, as will become evident. I did not use learning outcome measures because only two pass/no pass grades were given in the courses, making it difficult to identify statistically significant differences given the small populations. Instead, this article relies on measures and perceptions of communication, which have been shown to have a positive effect on perceived learning, grades, and quality assessment of assignments.14
The cognitive model of media choice proposed by Robert and Dennis17 theorizes that asynchronous communication increases a person's ability to process information. The receiver has more time to comprehend a message because an immediate answer is not expected. My interviews support this argument, as illustrated by the following quote:
In fact, according to Kock's estimate,18 an exchange of 600 words requires about 6 minutes for complex group tasks in face-to-face settings, while exchanging the same number of words over e-mail would take approximately one hour.
Kock's media naturalness hypothesis19 predicts that synchronous communication increases psychological arousal. Similarly, Robert and Dennis's20 cognitive model of media choice predicts that synchronous communication increases motivation. Kock argues that each element that characterizes "natural" media (for example, the ability to convey and observe facial expressions and body language) contributes to psychological arousal. If these elements are suppressed, however, a decrease in psychological arousal can be expected.
The interviews revealed that many e-learners felt that synchronous communication was "more like talking" compared with asynchronous communication. It seemed more acceptable to exchange social support and discuss less "complex" issues. Consequently, the higher sentence counts when communicating synchronously (see Table 2) can be explained by the fact that the e-learners felt more psychologically aroused and motivated, since this type of communication more closely resembles face-to-face communication. This finding was especially evident in the smaller class.
Synchronous communication enables monitoring the receiver's reaction to a message, which makes the receiver more committed and motivated to read and answer the message.21 The interviews conducted as part of my empirical studies supported this argument:
In the previous section, I suggested that synchronous communication makes it possible to monitor the receiver's reaction to a message, making the receiver feel more committed and motivated to read it. When communicating asynchronously, however, the receiver has more time to comprehend the message, since the sender does not expect an immediate answer. Thus, synchronous e-learning increases arousal and motivation, while asynchronous e-learning increases the ability to process information.
The concepts of personal participation and cognitive participation describe the dimensions of learning supported by asynchronous and synchronous e-learning (see Figure 1). Personal participation describes a more arousing type of participation appropriate for less complex information exchanges, including the planning of tasks and social support. Cognitive participation describes a more reflective type of participation appropriate for discussions of complex issues. I suggest that, other things being equal, synchronous e-learning better supports personal participation and asynchronous e-learning better supports cognitive participation.
The research discussed here demonstrates that asynchronous and synchronous e-learning complement each other. An implication for instructors is to provide several types of asynchronous and synchronous communication so that appropriate means are available for different learning activities. The combination of these two types of e-learning supports several ways for learners and teachers to exchange information, collaborate on work, and get to know each other.22 As stated earlier, many learners enroll in online courses because of their asynchronous nature, which needs to be taken into account. For the discussion of complex issues, synchronous e-learning, by media such as videoconferencing, instant messaging and chat, and arranging face-to-face meetings as a complement, may be essential as support for students to get to know each other and for planning the tasks at hand. However, when discussing complex issues, in which time for reflection is needed, it seems preferable to switch to asynchronous e-learning and use media such as e-mail, discussion boards, and blogs. Table 3 summarizes when, why, and how to use asynchronous versus synchronous e-learning.