MOOCs and Time – Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning

I’ve been thinking a lot about time over the last several weeks (and not just because my kids have been yammering on since January about the new Dr. Who episodes that started last Saturday).

For time is one of those key elements to learning that needs special attention in this age of new, technology-driven supplements or alternatives to the traditional brick-and-mortar college experience.

So I’m going to focus on time-related issues this week, starting with a look at synchronous vs. asynchronous online learning.

“Synchronous” is usually used to describe communication people experience together in real time (such as a conference call, live Webex presentation or online chat) while “asynchronous” usually refers to communication people can drop in on or contribute to at different times (such as a recorded talk, blog comment section or social media page).

I realize that these distinctions can get blurry when you talk about transient communication vehicles such as Twitter, but for purposes of this discussion I’d like to use these terms to describe the two most popular modes of MOOC or MOOC-like delivered education:

  • Synchronous courses which adhere to a specific schedule (such as courses delivered by edX, Coursera and Canvas that have established start and end dates and weekly delivery of new lectures and assignments)
  • Asynchronous courses that students can start at any time and take at their own pace (such as courses from Udacity, or recorded lecture style classes from places like iTunes or Great Courses)

Synchronous classes obviously adhere to the model used in traditional classrooms where a syllabus outlines subjects to be covered in lectures, associated readings and schedules for tests, papers and other assignments with both the teachers and students adhering to this schedule throughout the length of the course.

In the context of the higher-ed subjects studied as part of this Degree of Freedom project, asynchronous classes include courses designed around teaching models more associated with online training (such as Udacity classes which break teaching into very small increments punctuated with assessment questions that force students to demonstrate their knowledge before they can continue with the class).

But they also include classes that are built around a traditional syllabus (such as iTunes recordings of actual college lectures) where this syllabus (as well as other non-lecture content) is not normally part of the course package.

While the ability to learn when you like would seems to give the edge to asynchronous classes in an age when people use technology to make learning compatible with complicated life schedules, there is a psychological benefit of having schooling parsed out to you in scheduled increments.

To take one example, I have generally kept up with all of the requirements for Professor Michael Roth’s The Modern and the Post Modern class, a Courera course that dedicates weekly lectures to a single philosopher or writer (Freud last week, Virginia Woolf this week).   So just as I dutifully read Freud’s Civilization and its’ Discontents last Wednesday, I am currently working my way through Woolf’s To the Lighthouse right now in anticipation of listening to Professor Roth’s lecture before the end of the week.

In contrast, while I’ve made it a point to do some of the reading associated with Shelly Kagen’s class on the philosophy of Death (available on iTunes, with a syllabus that includes associated readings here), it’s been much easier to skip over those readings and just listen to the next lecture (much like I used to do when listening to similar courses during my morning and afternoon commutes).

Now on one level, I’m letting myself off the hook with that iTunes course (compared to students who take Kagen’s class live who presumably do all the reading before they come to a lecture).  But, at the same time, I’m making this sacrifice in order to learn more from this instructor more quickly (fitting twice as many hours of lectures into less than  half the number of week’s I’m committing to my synchronous Modernism class).  So which case can truly be described as the “lighter” learning experience?

This issue of synchronicity vs. asynchronicity is likely to become more important once current synchronous course providers amass enough material to allow them to explore a “go-at-your-own-pace” option that allows students to join and participate in a course at their own leisure.

And given that communities of learners are sprouting up around all of these new sources for free education, it might just be a matter of time before constructing an optimum schedule around an online class becomes a project for individuals or teams of grassroots learners, rather than just course providers.

And what might such an optimum schedule look like?  That will be the subject of discussion over the next few days.

Next – Paying Attention in Class

, ,

5 Responses to MOOCs and Time – Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning

  1. Dave Crusoe April 1, 2013 at 2:40 pm #


    Do you feel yourself paying attention, differently, to an asynchronous course?

    I wonder, for example, about the differences between attention & memory as they relate to focus and recall of course content for synchronous vs. asynchronous online classes.

    In the same light, I’d be curious to know if the discussions you might be having with classmates (in forums) is serving to deepen your learning, despite its asynchronous nature…?

    • DegreeofFreedom April 1, 2013 at 3:52 pm #

      I’ll be getting into some of your questions as I look at issues related to time (which is really about maximizing quality time – i.e., time spent with the right attention and memory required for learning).

      I think modality (synchronous vs. asynchronous) is a factor, but so is scale (especially with regard to what type of discussion and assessment is practical in a class with tens of thousands of students enrolled).

      Consider whatever is left unanswered as fodder for future postings (or discussions over beer).


  2. Eric April 1, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    I recently took Programming Languages by Dan Grossman on Coursera and considered it one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Each week I was proud of what I accomplished, and excited for what was coming next. I enjoying the fixed schedule because it wash pushing me to work faster than I would have otherwise.

    Then just over 2/3 the way through the course I lost internet for a week (I live in Africa). I spent a couple days trying to catch up in the class but wasn’t able to complete the assignments on time, and was surprised at how demotivational that was. I ended up not finishing the course because the continuity of my progress was totally disrupted, and I was no longer able to participate in the peer reviewed assignments.

  3. aprender un idioma May 31, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

    This will create better understanding of the material.
    Attempt to have fun: a crucial approach to acquire some proficiency is also to have
    fun. You don’t even have to wait to see if you passed as the results are immediate and you can even print
    your own certificate.


  1. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) | Maysa Almani - April 27, 2013

    […] […]

Leave a Reply