As technology evolves, the ways to present online learning increase. If the sheer number of approaches seem confusing, you may find it helpful to think in terms of two simple categories—synchronous learning and asynchronous learning.
As a first step, determine whether your audience members must participate in a learning event at the same time (synchronous learning) or whether they can participate at different times (asynchronous learning). This will lead you down two different paths, described here.
When an online course includes a real-time event with an instructor or facilitator and a group of learners or participants, it is synchronous learning. Unlike a physical classroom the audience members are not in the same location. This virtual classroom is a great way to present instruction or information to a geographically dispersed group. It allows the audience to view the same visuals and hear the same audio simultaneously and to virtually interact with the instructor. In turn, it allows the instructor to “read” the audience and to hear their questions, opinions and perspectives.
Organizations often use synchronous online learning to teach internal staff how to use a new piece of software, to present new organizational policies and to discuss strategies. Companies may use synchronous learning to provide customers with training for products they have purchased.
Synchronous approaches are also useful for extending instruction, allowing participants to discuss a topic or to find help after taking a course. For best practices in virtual classroom training, check out The eLearning Coach Podcast Episode 6: Creating Virtual Classrooms and Webinars.
See product links at the end of this article for platforms that support synchronous learning.
When audience members partake in online learning at different times it is considered an asynchronous learning event. You may hear this referred to as web-based training (WBT), eLearning (spelled many different ways) or online courseware. Some advantages to asynchronous learning are that it allows for flexibility in the learner’s schedule, it can provide information and training at the moment a person needs it, it typically allows learners to go back and review as needed, and people can learn at their own pace.
Asynchronous learning courses are usually developed by internal HR/training departments or eLearning development companies. These groups produce custom-designed online training to meet the specific needs of an organization. You can also purchase a wide range of eLearning courses on general topics that are commercially available.
Software that is specifically made for developing eLearning programs is often called authoring software. Some authoring products for developing eLearning courses include Captivate, Presenter and Lectora. And there are many others. These programs allow users to build a course from text, graphics, audio, and video and to add interactivity. They then convert the course into an Adobe Flash format (.swf) so it can be viewed on the Internet. These tools require a minimum to moderate level of technical knowledge. A more sophisticated approach that requires programming skills is to use Flash itself for creating eLearning courses. Flash offers greater flexibility but is more difficult to learn.
See product links at the end of this article for tools that create asynchronous learning.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses. Synchronous learning allows for human interaction, can create a sense of community, is less expensive to implement and is as flexible as the instructor. On the other hand, learners have little control over the pace of the instruction, they are tied to a fixed schedule. Best practice: record the webinar so learners can go back and review.
Asynchronous learning is self-paced, accommodates a busy schedule, allows people to learn at their own pace, provides consistent instruction to very large audience sizes, and is available for review. It does have it’s weaknesses, however. There is no interaction with an instructor or peers, the content is fixed and doesn’t change with the interests and levels of the group and it is more expensive to develop. Best practice: use social media to provide pre- and post-interaction opportunities. For more best practices, check out my interview with Jane Bozarth: Using Social Media For Learning.
Making the Decision
When you want to create an entire eLearning curriculum or just a single course, there are many factors to consider. Determining whether the synchronous or asynchronous approach is most advantageous, is a big step forward. Keep in mind that you are not limited to one approach. You may find that a hybrid solution—using both synchronous and asynchronous learning—works best for you.
Synchronous Learning Platforms
Asynchronous Development Tools
All of these can be downloaded for a free trial period.
Further Reading and Listening