October 20, 2021

Why asynchronous learning works

Distance learning isn’t a new phenomenon; universities and colleges have been successfully delivering off-campus classes for decades and research shows that around a third of students already take at least one online course during their academic career.


More recently, though, the pressures of Covid-19 and rapid advances in digital technology have propelled e-learning into a new era. An exponential rise in demand has fostered increased competition among learning providers, driving a dramatic rise in the quality of the user experience. Remote students can now expect an immersive, multi-platform learning process that previous generations could only have dreamed of.


The long-standing question of whether virtual learning techniques can match the learning outcomes of traditional classroom-based methods has been laid to rest by a host of comparative studies – including those collected in a comprehensive research database of more than 300 such reports. These analyses have found no significant difference (NSD) in grades or exam results between traditional and e-learning methodologies. In fact, some research shows that students can retain significantly more material – up to 60% more – through online learning.


Today’s most topical debate pivots on the merits of different types of e-learning rather than the benefits of virtual versus in-person study.


So-called ‘synchronous’ learning delivers a real-time experience, with students simultaneously participating in live sessions – often via webinars or virtual classroom setups – asking questions and contributing to discussions alongside co-learners. The opportunities for funnelling shared insights into a valuable feedback loop make this method a popular choice for corporate training programmes, for example.


By contrast, ‘asynchronous’ learning offers students the chance to complete courses to a more flexible schedule using a variety of channels, including pre-recorded videos, discussion boards and online forums. It is this approach that’s gathering momentum fastest because it places the learner, not the provider, at the centre of the educational journey.

Flexible learning in an uncertain world

The benefits of asynchronous learning are easy to see. It’s an approach that offers a lifeline to learners whose real-world commitments mean they aren’t able to stick to a rigid timetable. But it’s also likely to appeal to a wider and more inclusive range of students because of the opportunity for educators to tailor available resources – and target their delivery – to suit divergent learning styles.


Key advantages include:

  • Learners can engage from any location and time zone.
  • Providers can deliver a high-quality syllabus, regardless of cohort size.
  • On-demand access to course materials offers optimal flexibility.
  • More affordable programmes increase reach and encourage broader participation.


There are, of course, potential downsides – learner isolation and lower engagement levels, for example. However, these can be mitigated through outstanding course content and high-calibre delivery, especially by deploying a learning management approach that incorporates superior levels of communication, interactivity and opportunities for community development.

Motivating learners

Asynchronous learning is effective largely because it allows learners to work at their own pace, though this level of freedom also requires self-discipline to be successful.


Learner engagement is, in fact, one of the biggest hurdles to maintaining focus across all types of e-learning programmes. One recent survey revealed that 71% of 200 respondents from higher education organisations flagged engagement as the number one e-learning challenge.


While learners need to couple curiosity with commitment in pursuit of their goals, the responsibility to make topics relevant, interesting and engaging – and to communicate them in the most effective way possible – rests with the educator. Utilising a wide variety of content delivery platforms not only enables course designers to match the topic to medium, but also gives them the best chance of exciting and engaging learners for longer.


Educators need to move their thinking beyond Zoom sessions and recorded webinars to multi-format learning content in a variety of channels.


An engaged learner who is inspired, motivated and supported to succeed will connect more meaningfully with the subject matter, develop greater autonomy and require fewer touch points to complete modules. They will also become valuable ambassadors, influencing and encouraging others to share their journey.

Leveraging the benefits of asynchronous learning

Importantly, well-constructed asynchronous learning programmes offer valuable benefits for learners and educational organisations alike.


For busy professionals who struggle to undertake a fixed schedule of live sessions alongside work and personal commitments – or who would simply prefer the extra time and practice they need to master their subject – asynchronous learning often represents the only logical route to upskilling. At the same time, asynchronous learning allows educators to align their sights to a key deliverable, expertly guiding the learning experience, while offering access to the most comprehensive resources available, including globally renowned experts.


This level of focus can underpin a more cohesive experience for the learner, making concepts easier to grasp.


Following best practice is crucial. In one academic study – ‘What makes learning networks effective?’ – the authors draw on dozens of papers comparing asynchronous learning to traditional face-to-face courses on the same campus. Overwhelmingly, the evidence shows that asynchronous learning networks are as effective, or more so, than traditional university-level courses – but only if executed to a high standard.


The report outlines the three key elements in successful asynchronous programmes: effective instructor interaction, peer collaboration, and active participation with appropriate software. It found that the best outcomes relied on:

  • Outstanding professor-student communications that developed so-called ‘swift trust’ and led to greater engagement from the outset.
  • Deeply collaborative learning activities that promoted cooperation between faculty and students and created valuable interactions.
  • The use of appropriate tech solutions to facilitate active participation, provide diagnostic feedback and offer ongoing support.


The researchers discovered that expertly-conceived and well-managed technology had a significant impact on students’ performance. Examples include platform access via a wide range of devices, with thoughtful UX and UI design. Establishing clear learning objectives, providing an engaging syllabus that supports modular study, and incorporating regular assessments that enable learners to keep track of their progress were also shown to be important to overall success.


Finally, allowing students to set their own pace, offering prompt, constructive feedback at the end of modules, and providing a variety of opportunities for learners to consolidate and extend their understanding through social and community engagement were key to an elevated learning experience.


However, as many universities discovered during the Covid pandemic, delivering online education to this standard is not easy. And most higher education insitutions are moving into this space from the back foot – it’s a steep climb to the peak of the digital learning industry where tech-fluent incumbents are constantly raising the bar in online education.


E-learning specialists, platform owners, online programme managers (OPM) – these are experts in development, delivery and management, drawing on emergent technologies such as AI, big data, AR and VR. Few educational institutions have the resources or the time to develop equivalent capabilities in-house, or at least not fast enough to close the ever-growing gap between experts and new market entrants.


Nevertheless, raising asynchronous learning quality is becoming a strategic imperative for universities and other higher education providers – it is not a problem that will go away. Those aiming to remain current, competitive and attractive to students will need to consider alternative models to proprietary education – models that rely on collaborative approaches to learning evolution.

What’s next?

The events of the last two years have pushed online learning into the spotlight. Experience has also shown that the best online learning programmes aren’t necessarily the ones that most closely mimic in-person provision but are, rather, those more natively aligned to the unique opportunities and challenges of remote learning. As a result of better course design and delivery, asynchronous learning has become an active choice for many rather than a Covid consolation prize.


As the education landscape continues to evolve, the normalisation of online courses will allow learners to develop critical new skills more nimbly. Flexible asynchronous programmes will help to attract a new audience of learners who may not have time for traditional university courses but who want the chance to master new capabilities, nonetheless. It’s a trend that could transform the way we think about education, opening up fresh opportunities and finally making lifelong learning an achievable ambition for us all.



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