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Published on:
February 22, 2022

What Is Synchronous Learning: Definition, Pros & Cons, and More

Synchronous learning has been the way that humans have taught humans for…well since humans decided to teach other humans.


When you gather ‘round to listen to grandma or grandpa share some wisdom, that’s synchronous learning.


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As technology continues to affect every part of our lives, elearning is quickly becoming a popular choice for training at schools and workplaces alike. As a result, synchronous learning as we know it continues to evolve alongside it. 


Online technology has improved to a point where it’s easy to see the benefits of moving to a fully remote workforce, for instance, or providing formal education in an online environment.


Many schools and workplaces have moved or are planning on moving to remote environments, as a result of the pandemic or just to be able to accommodate more students or expand horizons with finding talent for a company.


From online instructor-led training to webinars, there are a plethora of options available for providing a synchronous distance learning experience for students.


In this article, we’ll not only define what synchronous learning means, but we’ll also go into detail about how synchronous learning fits in with the online elearning landscape, as well as its pros and cons.


Let’s get started!

Intro to Synchronous Learning

Intro to Synchronous Learning

It’s probably safe to say that most of us attended either public or private school, where our parents had to wake us up every weekday and drag us out of bed so we could make it to school on time.


Packed lunches and classrooms aside, this meant that we learned alongside our peers, often attending the same classes with the same group of kids for years and years at the same school. 


Synchronous learning is not a new concept, then, when referring to how students or learners absorb new knowledge. Instead, modern technologies are changing the way we think about synchronous learning when it comes to online courses, which are typically thought of as an individual experience. But the truth is we can now practice synchronous learning through an online environment in more ways than we could ever before.

What is Synchronous Learning?

Let’s take a step back and define the meaning of synchronous learning before we move any further.


Synchronous, as a word, means happening at the same time and speed.


When we talk about synchronous learning with regards to teaching and learning, we’re really referring to the traditional classroom— where an instructor and students meet together, and all the students experience learning at the same time.


In other words, anytime you’re going to a physical location to learn (like a school or workplace) or logging into a live, instructor-led course at a specific time to be taught live by an instructor alongside other students (online or offline) you’re experiencing some form of synchronous learning.


Synchronous elearning often contrasts with typical thoughts about elearning, with is often seen as an individual learning experience with little or no live interaction with the instructor or other students. This idea is referred to as asynchronous learning, which we’ll get into later in this article. However, it’s important to realize that e learning provides opportunities for both synchronous and asynchronous learning, albeit virtually.

Benefits of Synchronous Learning

Benefits of Synchronous Learning

When you need to learn new material, there are several benefits that synchronous learning can provide. Most of these benefits, as you’ve likely guessed, have to do with being able to collaborate, talk with, and overall just interact with other students as you absorb information.


The main benefits of synchronous learning include:


  • Real-time student engagement through Q&A
  • The ability for the instructor to adjust lessons on the fly
  • Foster peer relationships
  • Better connection and sense of community
  • Better sense of collaboration

Real-time Student Engagement Through Q&A

When students and instructors are in a face-to-face environment, it’s easier for the student to ask questions and get clarification on different topics and subjects on the fly. Think about it: if you read something in a textbook or slide and don’t understand the information, it’s much easier to ask your teacher questions when they are right in front of you.


Synchronous distance learning courses can also provide an environment where real-time feedback is possible. For instance, live, instructor-led training or webinars where everyone participating is expected to log in at the same time, much like you would be expected to be in a physical classroom when class starts.


Message boards or integrated chat options also give students the ability to quickly ask questions in which the instructor can answer immediately or reserve time later in the course for Q&A.


There are even some LMS like Tovuti that support things like breakout rooms, which encourage students to divide into groups and have one-on-one interactions with each other. The instructor can also visit breakout rooms as needed to ensure everyone is on track or to just be available for questions and feedback.

The Ability for the Instructor to Adjust Lessons on the Fly

The Ability for the Instructor to Adjust Lessons on the Fly

In a synchronous learning environment, whether it’s in-person or online, the instructor has the ability to adjust the session based on the understanding of the students at that particular time.


For example, let’s say that an instructor is teaching an HR concept, like the JD-R model, and it’s becoming quite clear that the students aren’t understanding the relationship between job resources and job demand. 


The instructor can choose to stop and adjust the course material or provide additional resources, explanations, and more to meet the students’ needs immediately, rather than waiting for the students to explain that they don’t understand at a later time through email or otherwise.


This can be accomplished online or in-person, but the key is that the live environment allows the instructor to stop what they are doing and reassess lessons as necessary, based on their students’ current understanding of the material being taught.

Foster Peer Relationships

Learning is always easier with a buddy! 


Students with similar learning goals interacting with each other is a good way to facilitate further learning, meaning that these students can ask each other questions, play off of each other’s ideas, and overall develop relationships. Sometimes these relationships can continue outside of the classroom, becoming professional contacts or at the very least aiding in professional networking, which is touted as very important for anyone’s career.


Synchronous learning also promotes group dynamics, which refers to the natural roles that people fall into when assigned to a group, and also how students in that group interact with one another. When people get together that naturally sync with each other, it not only helps students build lasting relationships, it also fosters more effective learning.

Better Connection and Sense of Community 

It’s no surprise that synchronous learning provides a better sense of connection and community among students — after all, they get to learn together in real-time, sharing the learning experience. 


Seeing the same people on a regular basis, whether that’s in-person or online, contributes to a feeling of belonging, which increases students’ engagement levels and motivation for learning.


Obviously, if it’s a virtual synchronous learning environment, steps need to be taken to ensure that natural collaboration happens. It isn’t always as easy as setting up a webcam and talking, providing a good synchronous distance learning environment needs the instructor to consider how students will collaborate, how to keep class engaging, ways to combat awkward silences, and more. 


There are tons of different ways to do this, but one example would be to get students to share their thoughts on a recent topic discussed in a lecture on a message board and have students reply to other students’ thoughts as part of their grade. 

Better Sense of Collaboration 

When students are able to collaborate with each other and the instructor in real-time, it encourages them to learn. While collaboration typically happens organically in a physical classroom environment, online synchronous learning can provide collaboration opportunities as well.


For instance, simple activities like helping students learn each other’s names through icebreakers and small group activities can go a long way for helping your students get to know each other. Creating collaborative spaces, like group problem solving or workshopping, is another way to foster collaboration between students. Finally, creating spaces where students can naturally interact with each other, like message boards or group video chats is another way that students can connect.

Challenges of Synchronous Learning

Challenges of Synchronous Learning

While synchronous learning is something that has been practiced by humans since the beginning, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Like with any type of learning, whether it’s online or offline, synchronous learning comes with its challenges. 


Here’s a quick rundown of the potential challenges that can happen with online synchronous learning:


  • Relies on internet connection
  • Time zone barriers
  • Local time barriers
  • Instructor preparation time and social skills
  • Lack of in-person interaction

Relies on Internet Connection 

Having a steady internet connection might not seem like a big issue if you live somewhere with consistent internet access, but believe it or not, regular internet access isn’t as common as one might think.


Even in countries like the United States where internet connectivity is pretty widespread, rural areas and even some cities are actually pretty unequal — leading to issues where students can’t connect to online synchronous learning classes properly, or even at all.


While the collaboration and connect factor underneath virtual synchronous learning is beneficial, internet connection issues can pose a big problem for students that are trying to engage in this style of online learning.

Time zone barriers

Another challenge that online synchronous learning can present is time zone accommodation. If students are distributed across the world in different time zones, it can be difficult to find a time that everyone can commit to, and isn’t having some students logging in at unreasonable hours.

Local time barriers

In addition to time zone barriers, the time zone difference of the school or workplace’s instructor versus the students could also pose a problem for virtual synchronous learning. If the instructor’s time zone happens to be several hours difference when compared to the majority of students, suddenly the instructor has to widely adjust their workday or the students simply don’t show up for class, which can drastically affect learning outcomes.

Instructor preparation time and social skills

Developing virtual synchronous learning classes can be challenging for an instructor who isn’t used to using e learning course tools or doesn’t have the proper equipment or resources to maintain a stable online learning environment.


In addition, course material might already be developed to suit an in-person classroom, meaning that further time and effort would have to go into redeveloping the material to work for online synchronous learning. This can put undue financial and time strains on a workplace that is already stretching its dollars, or a school that doesn’t have wiggle room when it comes to using a pre-determined budget.


An instructor that is used to teaching in the classroom might also have a difficult time adjusting to talking to a camera or a screen instead of actual people. This means that while the course content might be good, the quality of delivery of said content can suffer, affecting the learning outcomes of students.

Lack of in-person interaction

Lack of in-person interaction

While synchronous e learning technology provides a ton of ways for students to interact with each other online, when we look at online synchronous learning versus in-person synchronous learning, there is a definite lack of that physical, personal interaction that humans need with the former.


Looking at the pandemic as an example, many in-person schools were forced to switch to online learning at the drop of a hat. While some students saw benefits in the switch, others missed the hustle and bustle of a school environment rather quickly, feeling like they were missing out on seeing their friends and teachers and participating in school activities. While elearning provides many benefits, we can’t ignore that some people really do need in-person interaction when it comes to learning.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous (Asynchronous) Learning 

When discussing learning environments, synchronous learning and a synchronous learning are often compared. The differences between these two learning styles are discussed in more detail below.

What is Asynchronous Learning?

A synchronous learning allows for a more individualized learning experience, where students complete courses on their own time. Instructors typically provide all course material all at once so students can learn at their own pace. 


This table explains the differences between synchronous and asynchronous learning:

Synchronous Learning

Asynchronous Learning

  • Similar to an in-person classroom environment, but online
  • Typically uses video conferencing
  • All students and instructors meet online at a scheduled time
  • Instructors typically have scheduled “office hours” where they are online and available for extra help or questions
  • Students are held accountable for learning through pre-scheduled online course times
  • Instructors provide all course material in advance, including pre-recorded lectures
  • Students can learn on their own time and schedule
  • Requires the student to be individually accountable for their learning
  • Focus on less immediate communication methods, such as email, messaging, and social media


Aside from the differences between synchronous learning and asynchronous learning, it’s important to remember that an online learning environment doesn’t have to be one or the other. In fact, most online education provides some aspects of both learning styles.


For example, a student attends a live lecture, but completes course material on their own time, while using email, social media, and messaging to ask the instructor questions and connect with other students. 


While an online course could be designed to be almost completely asynchronous, it’s more typical that a course will have some aspects of both synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Examples of Synchronous Learning

When creating a virtual synchronous learning environment, it’s essential to consider how you’re creating your e learning courses to support those live sessions. 


 Let’s explore a few examples of online synchronous learning:

Example 1: Live Workplace Training

Let's say a telecommunications company needs to train front-line sales reps on a piece of software that, at least until now, was only used by the company’s call center staff. Previously, sales reps would use a completely different piece of software to complete customer transactions, and it didn’t have the capabilities of the call center software. This meant that customers would often be frustrated that sales reps couldn’t make requested account changes, and in contrast, call center staff wouldn’t understand why sales reps couldn’t just complete changes themselves. 


Getting everyone to use the same software creates alignment between the two teams, with the goal of providing better customer service.


Cool, that sounds great, so how can this be accomplished through online synchronous learning?


One way would be to have a senior employee that knows the call center software will be the instructor and set up live sessions where sales reps can use the software under supervision in a demo environment. This means that the senior employee can come up with scenarios and offer hands-on training that mimics real-world situations the sales reps would face with customer accounts.

Example 2: Blending Virtual Synchronous Learning and Asynchronous Learning

Occasionally there are situations where a complete virtual synchronous learning environment isn’t possible for adequate training. First aid, for instance, is often offered as a blended learning course, where the theory portion of the course is taken online and the student demonstrates their skills in a classroom setting later. 


The online portion of the first aid course is often taught asynchronously, where the student can complete the modules on their own time and schedule, before enrolling in classroom training when necessary.


A blended learning environment provides several benefits, like limiting the amount of time students spend in the classroom together (good for situations like the pandemic), providing more flexibility with training completion, and saving time and money on travel expenses and instructional time for the classroom portion of the training.

Example 3: Scenario-Based Training

A virtual synchronous learning environment is a great choice for scenario-based training, which is often used for compliance training, procedural training, and interpersonal skills training.


  • Compliance training is typically something that is mandated by law or policy that every employee working in a particular job has to have, including certifications. WHMIS, anti-harassment, and workplace safety training are a few examples.
  • Procedural training teaches the exact steps and instructions that an employee needs to complete a certain task. For example, to prevent the spread of infection in a healthcare environment staff must follow a specific handwashing procedure.
  • Interpersonal skills training refers to relationships and interacting with others. Examples include leadership training, how to motivate employees, and working in a team environment.


For instance, police officers often have to deal with individuals who are causing panic, mischief, or otherwise disturbing the peace in a public place. An elearning course with virtual scenarios that have the officer make decisions on how to proceed with a particular situation can go a long way in training them in the most effective way to deal with a situation.


For example, a video where an officer has to de-escalate a person through conversation, through selecting appropriate responses as the conversation progresses. 

Conclusion

It’s clear that online learning is what companies and schools alike are gravitating towards when it comes to teaching students. While in-person training may never completely go away, as humans have the natural need to interact with each other, we are moving in a direction that suggests virtual synchronous learning is the way of the future.


After all, as our world continues to become more and more connected, and online technology allows for better communication and synchronous e learning experiences, there may even come a time where all workplace and formal education takes place online.


Getting started with creating your own online training courses is easy. Tovuti’s LMS platform provides the perfect combination of features and ease of use, making it a breeze to get your content up and running for your students.


Discover how Tovuti can help you make training zenfully simple. Watch our demo today!

Author:
Tyson Chaplin

Tyson Chaplin earned his Master of Educational Technology degree from Boise State University in 2014. He also earned a graduate certificate in Technology Integration and holds teaching certificates in online teaching, special education, and history.

Tyson is an Idaho native who is passionate about technology and how it can help all people learn and better themselves. He has worked in both public and private sectors. Tyson enjoys cooking and traveling with his wife, Malia, and restores vintage video game systems in his free time.

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