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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
*Your email address will not be published.
The future of work: how universities can prepare students for an uncertain future
More people than ever are going to university. In the UK, well over a third of all 18-year-olds (37.8 percent) enrolled on a full-time undergraduate course last year, according to UCAS. And, while some students are drawn to higher education to increase their academic knowledge and enjoy the university experience, most will also be looking to improve their employment and earning prospects. Government figures for 2020 show a graduate employment rate of 86.4 percent, with median graduate earnings standing at £35,000 (£9,500 more than their non-graduate counterparts).
Creating a rich social and cultural experience for online degree learners
Much of the discussion around the recent global shift from campus-based to remote-learning models has centred on the quality of online programmes of study – more particularly on how universities can effectively motivate, support, and assess individuals as part of a dispersed student population.
Breaking the bias: addressing the higher education gender pay gap
As participation continues to widen in the UK’s higher education sector with increasing numbers of applications from previously underrepresented sectors, many gender-based anomalies remain. For example, while women are much more likely to go to university than men (as well as to complete their studies and to achieve a good degree), figures show that women graduates cede their professional advantage in a matter of months.
EdTech: How technology is empowering universities to deliver high-quality online programmes
When universities were compelled to pivot from providing primarily campus-based programmes of study to delivering remote-first instruction, teachers and students alike found themselves navigating systems largely designed to deliver a facsimile of the traditional classroom experience, relayed via videoconferencing and other related connectivity tools.
Successful strategies for designing and delivering high-quality online learning
As demand grows for online learning options that are as comprehensive and effective as their campus-based counterparts, forward-thinking higher education organisations are exploring strategies that will help them deliver high-quality, full-featured programmes of study in remote, blended and hybrid formats.
The great unbundling: diminishing or democratising higher education?
Back in 2011, academic eyebrows were raised when news of a ‘no-frills’ higher-education path in an offshoot of Coventry University emerged, offering degree-level qualifications for around half the price of traditional universities. Students at the Coventry University College (CUC) were promised modular study routes in a variety of professional programmes, with part-time, full-time, and accelerated options, as well as the opportunity to pay in instalments.
Taking the lead: tackling the challenges of moving campus-based courses online
Events of the last two years have heralded unprecedented developments in the higher-education sector, forcing organisations to transition to remote learning at a highly accelerated pace.
Aiming high: 10 ways universities can optimise the student experience in 2022
As the Covid-19 pandemic enters its third year, the temporary disruptions that rocked higher-education provision in the early weeks of 2020 have since escalated into the existential challenges the sector is facing today.
University career services: A critical tool in a competitive climate
It’s a tricky time for graduates. As class-of-2021 graduates collide and compete with their 2020 peers, who lost out due to the pandemic-induced suspension of graduate programmes, fewer opportunities are being spread even more thinly across a bumper crop of applicants in super-competitive jobs market – with predictably diminishing returns.
How online learning can support a more inclusive approach to higher education
The challenges presented by the pandemic have prompted a sector-wide re-think of higher-education provision in a radically changed world. It’s also sparked fresh discussions on how universities and other institutions can use what they’ve learned over the past eighteen months to deliver more assertively on access and participation and to accelerate recovery.
Can online education help plug the global skills gap?
Employment rates have been hitting the headlines recently, as businesses everywhere struggle to recruit staff in a number of key areas.
What’s driving universities to go online?
The pandemic pushed distance learning into the mainstream as lockdown shuttered school and college campuses all over the world in spring 2020. Once the province of a relatively small cohort of specialist organisations, online study became the de-facto option for millions of students almost overnight.