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What works best for distance education: synchronous or asynchronous communication?

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Neil Smith
3 April 2011

Communication tools in distance learning can be synchronous, such as a teleconference, or asynchronous, such as an online forum.  What are the pros and cons of each approach?  What technologies are available, and what works best? What are the impacts on workload, understanding and interpersonal relationships? 

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  • Both have pros and cons
  • Both need to be used
  • For DL possibly asynchronous as a dominant mode,  with synchronous in addition
  • Each mode encourages a different ‘flow’ of ideas


  • more conversational 
  • encourages quick thinking
  •  less cautious
  • minimizes the “frustration of waiting”
  • fleeting - points may disappear if not  immediately picked up on
  • more of an 'event'  - book and prepare for
  • motivating to hear / see  colleagues "in real time"
  • useful as "markers to keep everyone on the same time track"


  • Allows “thinking time”   for careful formulation of ideas
  • Thinking time may lead  to better quality / greater depth
  • (also to greater cautiousness ?)
  • More flexible, less constrained by the busy schedules or different  timezones
  • Those communicating in non-native language may find it easier to participate
  • Creates a record,  enabling  to come back to ‘less obvious’ points later
  • Allows ongoing feedback from the tutor
  • Allows sharing of resources relevant to discussion. 
  • Lower bandwidth = potentially wider access
  • Not affected by dropped connections / different speed
  • Gives everyone the chance to participate, regardless of assertiveness / confidence
  • Knowing that others are waiting for your contribution can be motivating

 Still debating (i.e. different opinions expressed in different posts)

  • Does one mode involve more commitment / motivation than the other?
  • Is one mode more influenced by group dynamics than the other?
  • Is asynchronous less “authentic” due to a greater possibility of assuming or projecting a different identity ?


Oksana Fedotova
08:33 on 6 April 2011 (Edited 20:16 on 8 April 2011)

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Neil Smith
4:26pm 4 April 2011

I see benefits in both approaches.

Synchronous communication would be expected to allow a more "conversational" debate, with rapid feedback between participants.  However, some people prefer to think through their responses in more detail, and carefully formulate their ideas before submitting them for criticism.

In addition to allowing "thinking time", Asynchronous communication allows learners to contribute whenever they have time available, rather than working to a strict timetable.  As many distance learners already have full time jobs and other responsibilities to work around, this flexibility can be critical in encouraging life-long learning.

Maria Loizou
4:35pm 5 April 2011

As Neil has already mentioned both types of communication have their pros and also their cons. There is still room for both of them in distance education modules. As long as we know when each one of them should be used they can complement each other.

Asynchronous communication can allow more thoughtful contributions since learners can spend more time preparing their responses. On the other hand synchronous communication minimizes the frustration of waiting for an answer since the whole conversation is completed in real time. 

Synchronous communication makes the participants feel more motivated and more committed.  Asynchronous communication doesn’t constrain the participants as far as it concerns the time they will contribute. They can do it any time they want.

For me, the best form of communication for distance education is the asynchronous communication. This is mainly because the modules are not being taught in my mother language. I need time to write and refine my contributions which is given only by asynchronous communication. If the modules were taught in my mother language I would probably preferred synchronous communication because I am not a very patient person and the communication in real time would not let me wait for answers.

I found some interesting information on the subject in the article written by Stefan Hrastinski. You can follow the link.

Andrew Okoroafo
4:41pm 5 April 2011 (Edited 4:42pm 5 April 2011)

I agree that both types of communication have their advantages however this is a discussion in which I would suggest that the adage ‘context is king’ is very relevant.  I think that we would struggle to find a consensus as to which approach is best for distance education as a whole. If we narrow the discussion to H800 I have found both approaches have been utilized at appropriate points so far in the course. I would suggest that the ability to reflect before answering is a major advantage for asynchronous communication. Synchronous communication is problematic when so many of the students enrolled upon H800 are resident in differing time zones, as was apparent during the Elluminate sessions. If we had to indicate a preference for this particular course (H800) then I would prefer a mixture, which consists of predominantly asynchronous communication.

Matt Cornock
7:59pm 5 April 2011

Maria mentions motivation as a trait of synchronous communication, however motivation is also just as apparent in asynchronous communication where learning activities require the contributions of others in a group and frequent attention of a tutor who will provide ongoing feedback.

Taking feedback as one strand of a learning process: synchronous discussion, as already mentioned, will require very quick thinking, possibly leading to a lack of depth or detail to feedback provided (either feedback from the tutor or from fellow students). Asychnronous offers us the opportunity to be very precise and go into detail with feedback, with the obvious caveat of time commitment both to write and then read the feedback provided. However, synchronous discussion as a faster-paced communication forces learners to be 'quick thinkers' and many ideas could spring to mind in a shorter space of time. Asynchronous activities allow for reflection, and so the activities that seek a reflective process with carefully reasoned arguments suit this form of activity.

A paper I quickly found on Google by Lloyd-Williams(2007) also talks about the way ideas flow in asynchronous and synchronous activities. A quick glance shows that in asynchronous activities, threads of ideas can run in parallel, whereas in synchronous activities the ideas are chunked in some form of logical progression.

Antonio Palacios
12:04am 6 April 2011

If ideas tend to flow differently, why not combine synchronous and asynchronous? A trivial example is that during an Elluminate/LiveMeeting session, it is possible to use the Q&A system, a wiki or forum. This also helps address the common problem of keeping students focused: since they will usually get distracted during synchronous sessions by asynchronous input (email, Twitter, etc) why not use related asynchronous input to keep them engaged?

Oksana Fedotova
7:38am 6 April 2011 (Edited 8:29am 6 April 2011)

In the 'links' tab I have posted a link to a video where Twitter is used in a classroom - although this a F2F context and we are talking about distance education, it does illistrate the integration of synch and asynch in a pre-designed way with a large group of participants. 

Oksana Fedotova
7:46am 6 April 2011 (Edited 8:35am 6 April 2011)

One of the differences is that asynchronous communication provides a clear record of what's been said.  This makes it easier to refer back, to make a summary of group points, and generally avoid misunderstanding. 

On the other hand, being always 'on the record' may result in over-cautiousness and less authentic expression.    I guess this is 'the other side of the coin'  in relation to greater thoughtfulness / clearer formulation of ideas.

Also, picking up on what Matt said re: different 'flows' - asynchronous may allow a richer overall flow, as various sub-discussions can be developed in parallel to the main flow, with people revisiting the thread later.  Whereas in synchronous, the pressure to stay on topic is far greater due to time constraints.  So a very good point may disappear if not immediately picked up by another speaker. 

(Might group dynamics or personality factors have a greater influence on the synchronous discussion, and does this mean that synchronous is therefore more biased?)

(Side remark re cloudworks:  I am already missing the nested nature of forum replies ... wanted to add a quick agreement to Maria's post re: native language, but could not ... or am I just not seeing it?)

Shaun Harley
12:17pm 6 April 2011

One of the key features of asynchronous communication as a teaching and learning tool has been evidenced time and time again when there has been a sharing of resources to go along with discussion. 

 I have, and I am sure most students in H800 have, spent a lot of 'non commnicating' time to look over video clips, papers, and web sites, in order to review other material suggested by fellow students. I was then 'au fait' with current discussion threads and able to post my observations about a resource having had time to see it.

I felt that this made for a richer learning experience.


Maria Loizou
12:32pm 6 April 2011

Concerning what Oksana mentioned on group dynamics and personality factors, we have read in Week 3 of Block 1 that students tend to change their identity when studying online due to the lack of physical expression. Synchronous communication because it allows the physical expression it also prompts the participants to reveal their true identities, at least most of the times. So I don’t think that synchronous discussion is more biased. I think it is more “authentic” because it is more possible that participants will not be able to totally alter their identity, as they can in asynchronous discussion.    

Sukaina Walji
8:02pm 6 April 2011

From a practical point of view asynchronous also allows for lower bandwidth and therefore wider access at a convenient time. Somtimes trying to schedule a synchronous interaction us stressful and frustrating. Asynchronous distributes the load across the system in terms of time and resources.

Oksana Fedotova
8:08pm 6 April 2011

Good point Sukaina, thanks for visiting our group and contributing :)

Neil Smith
8:31pm 6 April 2011

The main problem I have with synchronous communication is the "being there" part.  As a mobile worker, dialing in from lots of places with limited bandwidth, systems like Second Life are a nightmare, with connections dropping in and out, breaking the flow of conversations.  Elluminate or Sametime work better, but are limited in functionality.  The Lloyd-Williams paper discusses the problems of disjointed conversations due to different connection speeds or typing speeds - to me this is the worst of both worlds.  Synchronous communication is probably better served by video or audio rather than text - I would find it easier to separate who was saying what!

Stefaan Vande Walle
1:13am 7 April 2011


Sukaina: Good point, Elluminate has kept me frustrated a few times because of dropping out  a few times, not being able to use the microphone etc.

On the other hand, for me the synchronous sessions do present a kind of event, that you book in your agenda and prepare for, since you don't want to be the only one who hasn't read the paper yet.  It's also nice and motivating to hear your fellow learners and tutor "in real time".


Neil Smith
7:27am 7 April 2011

Why not just do it face to face?  The answer to that is quite simple for our group - we have members in different countries who could find the cost of travelling around the world for tutorials prohibitively expensive.  However, there is nothing to stop us all booking the same two hours on our calendar for a teleconference. 

There are two issues here for distance learning - the physical distance and the temporal distance.  Although I like being able to join a forum whenever I like, there are limits.  If someone restarts a forum discussion several weeks after everyone else has left it, do we leave them to it or do we all go back a few weeks?

I think the synchronous learning points - tutorials or team discussions - are very useful as markers to keep everyone on the same time track.  It would be impossible to have any kind of meaningful group learning if everyone was at different places in the course material.

Oksana Fedotova
8:07am 7 April 2011

Thanks for popping in and contributing Stefaan and Joseph, will add your points to the summary after work!

Neil Smith
10:20am 7 April 2011

The 3am wake-up is a good point Joseph, but some of us still remember the bad old days before the internet when most OU lectures were on BBC2 at around the same time!

I travel globally for work, about 3 weeks in every 4, which makes asynchronous ideal for me.  However, I really don't think I "connected" with my fellow learners until we had a synchronous Elluminate meeting.  Hearing their voices, and conversing in real time, made a real difference to my understand of, and relationship with, my fellow leaners.  We can miss this with asynchronous-only learning.

I'm making asynchronous learning work for me (I did about three weeks of my current course with nothing but my iphone) but I'm working with a great tutor group.  They are worth getting up at 3am to speak to - just maybe not every day ;-)

Oksana Fedotova
10:33am 7 April 2011 (Edited 10:33am 7 April 2011)

Joseph -  not at all, it is good to have more participants, so please post away!  We'll try and reciprocate on yours :)

Matt Cornock
3:39pm 7 April 2011

I have to echo both Stefaan's and Neil's comments about the way synchronous activities punctuate a scheme of work. These 'highlights' in the module calendar do enable a group to focus attention around one particular topic/paper, in depth and at the same time. This is good for the group, in terms of motivation, and good for the tutor in terms of 'temperature checking' the group's understanding. In synchronous discussions, the tutor can bring in different contributors more readily and probe more effectively than can be done in an asynchronous forum which is dependent on return visits and reading of responses (possible repeatedly if the initial question is misinterpretted).  This is why we still have tutor phone calls...

Claire Sellwood
7:45am 8 April 2011

I personally prefer asynchronous communication, mainly because it gives me a chance to think about the content and suits my learning style and character - I don't say a lot! It also gives those with not so much confidence the chance to speak. Synchronous communication, if not managed, can be dominated by stronger characters. Forums, wikis etc give everyone the same opportunity to contribute.

Asynchronous can be as motivating as synchronous. This activity is an example of this. Knowing that others in the group need you to participate in a group activity in order for the activity to work is motivating.


Patricia J Taylor
7:10pm 13 April 2011

Speaking of asynchronous communication: if H800 was purely synchronous I would have been left behind whilst I was away. as it is, though everyone has moved on and I am catching up, I can still read this discussion and add my belated comment, for my benefit if no-one else's. So, one of the big advantages to me for distance learning is its asynchronicity; otherwise I might as well sign up for a local, classroom based college course instead.

Having said that, I do enjoy the Elluminate discussions, though noticing the timing problems; and in real life I like to communicate face-to-face or at least by phone. So I think there is a place for both; it's my preference for primarily asynch though.

Rehana Awan
8:42pm 19 April 2011

'Flexibility of time, pace and place' - asynchronous communication certainly allows for this and synchronous communication fulfills the need to be part of a collaborative learning environment.

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