Last year I completed my MA in Digital Technologies, Communication & Education with the University of Manchester. Living in El Salvador had made it necessary to study this course by distance, and I was very satisfied with the guidance, course materials and teaching that I received online. As a result, I enjoyed the whole course from start to finish, as it was challenging and kept me engaged all the way through. I credit much of the success of this course to be down to the right combination of asynchronous communication, in which students are separated by time and space, and also synchronous communication, in which students can participate simultaneously.
Using Google Docs and Google Hangout, I discussed with two of my fellow students, Susan Johnson and Nick Kiley, who were based in Ireland and Latvia respectively, what is the best approach to delivering a distance learning course. Together we wrote a Paper titled, The Best Combination of Asynchronous & Synchronous Communication. I include an abridged version of our Paper below:
The primary purpose of any online communication tool for education is to provide a means of discussion and collaboration between participants, thereby enabling the sharing of knowledge. For Vygotsky (1962), discussion and collaboration are fundamental to learning because the act of articulating an idea is itself a contribution to what it means to know that idea – this has formed the basis of an approach that is now referred to as “social constructivism” (Laurillard, 2012, p. 49). Swan (2005) summarises the importance of social constructivism for online practices by making the suggestion that “learning is essentially a social activity, [and] that meaning is constructed through communication, collaborative activity, and interactions with others” (p. 5).
Both synchronous and asynchronous tools can serve to promote an exchange of ideas between participants. However, the nature of the ideas exchanged varies according to the communication tool used. Synchronous communication brings a much greater level of social presence onto an online course, which helps to maintain student motivation and engagement. Asynchronous communication on the other hand, by having a time lag between responses and thus allowing thinking time, can facilitate deeper understanding of the subject matter. By combining the two modes of communication in the right way therefore the benefits of both modes can be maximised, and the potential pitfalls minimised.
In order to strike the best balance in the complementation of these two distinct modes of communication, my peers and I came up with a sequence to follow for when to use the different modes of communication. This is because we believe that the best way to combine synchronous and asynchronous communication tools to maximise student learning should be determined according to the stage in which learners find themselves on an online programme.
Without conducting research to test our hypothesis, it can be argued that, although rooted in a review of relevant literature, the effectiveness of the above outline is based on conjecture. However, the outline attempts to establish a sequence that most effectively balances the positive and negative features of synchronous and asynchronous communication, to determine the best way to combine these modes.
At the beginning of an online learning programme, the first type of interaction between participants should be synchronous in the form of a video chat in order that faces can be put to names and to enable a learning community to be created. After this stage, we suggest that the subsequent progressive stages should alternate from asynchronous to synchronous communication and then back again. The asynchronous communication, be it in the form of discussion boards, emails, or wikis all serve to afford the learner time to process information in which to plan, coordinate and share ideas with others. Intermittently, synchronous communication should be used, which by this stage can be video chat again or an instant messaging tool. This type of communication then offers the benefits of immediacy for the learner, enabling the learner to collaborate in real-time and therefore receive instant feedback from the instructor and peers. When used in this way, synchronous communication also helps to maintain learner engagement and motivation by maintaining a sense of social presence, which can be particularly important for many learners.
We acknowledge that flexibility needs to be afforded to online learners, due to the diverse range of personality types that come onto a course, ranging on a spectrum of extroverts to introverts. Given the myriad of different factors then that can affect a learner’s preference for either synchronous or asynchronous communication, as well as the apparent benefits of combining both, it is our conclusion that following the sequencing pattern presented in this paper is the best way to combine asynchronous and synchronous tools, in order to encourage collaboration, cognitive processing, and engagement – and therefore maximise student learning.