Asynch, Synch..And the Winner is?

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I will not lie. Not everyone loves e-learning, nor will they. That is reality, but it is not because they find the whole online learning experience to be so distasteful, rather their like or dislike is tied to the way they need to learn.  I stress NEED.

Because if they need to be in a classroom setting or structure, even if they are not paying attention, then they are not true independent learners.  It has nothing to do with face to face interaction. Rather, they feel more comfortable in this type of setting, and any time you feel more comfortable with something, you tend to relax and find it more enjoyable.

This is the essential key to e-learning.  If you are a true independent learner you love it. If you are not a true independent learner, you hate it. 

Face to Face

12 years ago, you could have made the claim that F2F learning was superior to any other type of learning (remember distance via a TV or yikes – reading from a textbook?). 

Thankfully, that is changing. Many people have found and are continuing to find successful learning without the need of F2F.  The key though is inherently tied to the two types of e-learning: asynchronous based learning and synchronous based learning.

Synchronous Based Learning (SBL)

How often have you heard the term “synchronous based learning” and been told it is e-learning?

Well, it is e-learning, but not a good one and definitely not true WBT (Web based training).

SBL Facts

  • Widely used and adopted in education/academia online learning (especially academia) (estimates say over 95%)
  • Rarely used in corporate
  • Courses are typically called online classes, or referred to as classes

Typical Setup

  • Instructor (you can replace it with “teacher” or “professor”) places all notes, materials, information, etc. into the “course” before the course is ever launched.  While this person can continue to add things (files, etc.) – the chunk is placed in there – and trust me, it is not a quick thing to do – it takes considerable time
  • The students follow a linear process – i.e. follows a syllabus or if not a syllabus – a structured environment – do this first, then this..blah blah
  • It is very similar to an ILT (classroom setting), in that everyone goes to the next section or chapter of the syllabus, and then it is discussed, etc.
  • Chunks of the online class are hidden, until they (everyone) goes to that next section
  • Typically has a discussion board or forum – and uses “threads”

Within the discussion board/forum premise – it typically follows this approach (albeit it depends on the instructor and how they set up the policies or rules of the course)

  • Each article, book, video or whatever is viewed or articles/projects that have to be written – people post this information – maybe it is their analysis of the article or book, maybe its an article they write or whatever – bottom line: everyone posts
  • After the person posts, everybody has to read the post and post a follow up comment (and typically it cannot just be, “yeah, I agree”)
  • In some classes – the student has to read all the posts, but can respond to as a little as three
  • The instructor is supposed to read every post and comment on each post – in some cases (depends on engagement by the instructor) post follow ups to other respondents posts

Other standard components of SBL

  • Chat room(s) – often a main one, and then some have group ones – groups play a big role in SBL
  • Groups can be setup and are often used, so you work on your own PLUS have a group – and thus have a group project (or two) and everyone works together on it
  • Some  have file repositories – area to access materials, additional reference area, etc. 0- to view, download, etc.
  • Some instructors actually require the students to buy textbooks – as a companion to the “online class”
  • Some SBL classes have webinar or web meeting like setting so you can see the instructor present on the topic of the day or week
  • Some SBL classes have tests – timed or must be completed by Saturday for example

I have seen SBL courses – i.e. classes used with Lotus Notes, so you do not have to have a LMS to have a SBL.

Is SBL the same as Online ILT?

Success or failure of SBL often lies directly with the faculty member who is teaching the class, because they are teaching, virtually mind you.

However, to succeed – you as the instructor – must do the following: every day

  • Everything must be read – you read everything your students wrote and posted online
  • You post replies to those threads, comments to the original post and then to some of the folks who posted their comments on the original thread.  Thought engagement is crucial.
  • You use projects as a form of assessment, individual first and foremost, and yes group
  • You understand that just as in a classroom, when you assign groups, some members of the group will be more engaged then others, will work more than others, and yes, some members will never show up in their “online group room or meetings”.
  • If you require timed tests or tests due by said date, realize that people will cheat. Cheating may be in the form of them having all their notebooks or whatever visible when they are taking the test, or another window is open and they are chatting with someone who can help them.
  •  We would all love to believe that no one will ever cheat, but you need to be a realist
  •  Even in timed tests or tests that require the person to enter their student ID or driver’s license, prior to taking the exam, someone will cheat.  Seriously, how would you know if it is Dan, who is entering the student ID or his sister who has three doctorates? 


Complaints about the classes/courses are common.  The ones most often stated are

  • Group issues
  •  Lack of engagement by the instructor
  • Students who never post
  • Does not follow the syllabus
  • Assignments are confusing – hard to understand directions
  • Boring

 Have you ever heard these comments before..say in an instructor led training session?  If you say yes, then you can see the inherent issue with SBL.  It is really another form of ILT.  Granted it is online, but its faults are the same faults you find in an instructor led training or instructor led class.

It is not a web based training course, because if you were to really explore the premise of WBT, you will see it aligns more with Asynchronous Based Learning.

Asynchronous Based Learning

What is it?

  • 100% self-contained course – all the scenarios, information, files, practice sessions and yes – even assessments are already in place
  • 100% Non-Linear (a major, major difference than SBL)
  • Can be extremely interactive, with the use of adaptive learning, inc. characters that talk to you depending on what question you ask or select or item or whatever
  • Can be very engaging and brings together a real world experience within it – regardless if it is product training, sales training, leadership development or any other type of training
  • With 100% Flash or HTML5, can add components to enhance
  • Can use skill gap analysis prior and then output recommended sections or pages of the course and hide the others – truly tailored to the learner (SBL cannot be tailored to the individual learner)
  • Courses can be five to 10 minutes in length, or a course can be made up of multiple modules that are five minutes in length
  • Heavily used in the corporate, non-profit, association, non-academia/education world (over 90% and growing)
  • Rarely used in education/academia


  • Too many people are taking the ILT training approach and love of PowerPoint and turning them into ABL courses
  • When they follow the ILT approach, the course becomes linear, which is not ABL
  • Too many courses in ABL are what we call static – heavily text based, with some images, maybe a video clip of audio clip – engaging they are not (another term people often use is “page turners”)
  • Lock-downs i.e. you cannot go to another section of the course is still in existence – again, the whole purpose is non-linear, lock-downs are inherently linear – you can have a compliance course that is non-linear and still achieve the same level of success as one that uses lock-downs
  • Over use of assessments – rather than practice sessions or real world interactive scenarios
  • A video clip that is 30 minutes or longer. Honestly, who is watching this, besides you?

Compare ABL to SBL

  • ABL: Courses can look exactly like the product software or software they need to learn i.e. you can have a MS Excel course that looks just like Excel, and the end user has everything contained, including the premise of “Show me, Help me or Let me do it on my own”
  • SBL does not have all three of those options, heck it rarely has two
  • ABL can be 100% non-linear, and as aforementioned really should be (a peeve of mine, because it is a disservice to your learners)
  • SBL is not 100% non-linear
  • ABL can be quite interactive, engaging and bring in a true real life scenario, which increases synthesis
  • SBL cannot match the interactivity and engagement that is possible in ABL

Bottom Line

When people gripe about what is wrong in education, they will often note as one of their issues, that it does not prepare students for the real world.

If you really examine SBL, it does not prepare students for the real world, because of its limitations. The same limitations that have existed in the classroom, for over 200 years.

What’s holding academia and education back from using ABL?

Those 200 plus years.

E-Learning 24/7

Please note a slight change. Due to my trip, I have been posting on Saturdays. There will be no post next week – due to my travel to Russia. There will be a post the week of the 12th and now, a post the week of the 19th as well as the 26th.


  1. Craig:

    With respect to your article I offer these comments based on 15 years of experience in onsite university classroom teaching (the latter part of it incorporating computer-based class work) and 7 years on online university teaching, I would observe that online teaching is in no way a paradigm shift; it is simply a different delivery system. In my experience the main differences are that onsite teaching gives professors freedom to approach the topic as they wish, which online learning does not. Professors from a common course shell designed by someone else who has to adhere to a set of prevailing content standards. Second, online teaching offers students asynchronous access but on a draconian work schedule. That also affects professors. Third, in my experience students in onsite and online courses are not fundamentally different. About 20 percent just take up space, 60 percent are partially engaged and the remaining 20 percent are energized, engaged and a joy to teach.

    Looking forward to your posts from Russia. Have a great time and bring back many new insights.

    Mary T.

    1. I think you misunderstood the premise.

      From my perspective to state that ILT and WBTs only difference is the delivery mechanism, I politely disagree. Rather I would say that ILT and SBL are similar (for the most part), with the exception being delivery mechanism, while SBL and ABL are quite different, from a structure standpoint, development standpoint, features standpoint, adaptive learning standpoint and overall capabilities standpoint.

      Regarding the ILT vs SBL angle, if you are an awful teacher or professor in the classroom, it is not going to change because you are heading a SBL course/class. The same goes with being a great teacher/instructor. But, I believe there is more flexibility for ABL then an ILT or SBL class.

      Rather than having multiple deliverable formats for online courses, why not just one? For me, it makes sense that it is asynchronous based learning.

      But, I hear what you are saying, and I do greatly appreciate the comments.

      Very good stuff.

  2. Excellent explanation Craig. I don’t recall ever seeing someone compare and contrast SBL and ABL, thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi Craig – great post… sorry I’m coming to it late.

    Coincidentally I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this topic lately… as I’m currently building SBL for an accredited school of professional psychology after having begun my ID career building ABL for a large retail corporation.

    From that perspective, I don’t disagree with your assessment of SBL’s “failures”… but maybe “vulnerabilities” is a fairer, less fatalistic term. I have worked with a number of excellent instructors who do fulfill their end of the bargain, and (like Dr. Mary Thompson said above) a learner’s intrinsic motivation is always a potential barrier, regardless of the shape of the learning experience.

    Are you proposing that degree-focused academic programs (“education” vs. “training”) would benefit from removing the human instructor and going full-ABL? That’s a pretty radical vision – though I know there have been many critics of the traditional education system (e.g., Roger Schank), maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned and would miss the structured mentoring and network-building that good instructor-led classes can provide, whether on-ground or online. And I’d say you’re right that the adoption of ABL in academia is fighting uphill against 200 years of traditional pedagogy. Fortunately for me, the graduate school that I work for is considered a professional school and follows a “scholar/practitioner” model, meaning that the instructors are all actively practicing professionals in some area of psychology, and the goal is to make coursework as relevant as possible to professional practice.

    But the institution has responsibilities to its accrediting body in order to keep its accreditation, and these requirements mean that the school needs to broadly teach a core of competencies, vs. customizing curriculum for students’ specific learning gaps. You’re right that teaching a classful of students all at once prevents a course from being as targeted and efficient as “if you can test out, you’re free to go,” but I feel there are other benefits to it that compensate, related to the development of a “community of learners,” the beginnings of a professional community, and the opportunity for students more advanced in one area to learn by serving as peer mentors. Also, our courses provide asynchronous discussion threads and “instructor’s choice” assignments (e.g., case studies from his/her own experience) that allow for different styles, emphases, and topical relevance. These allow the voice of the instructor to come through in a way that may resonate with students more than static, pre-built ABL content.

    Of course, I freely admit that I and my institution need to get more creative with our approach to curriculum if we want to take full advantage of e- and mLearning, and I _would_ love to see academia embrace the use of ABL techniques… but I still believe that a “live” instructor/facilitator/mentor – when properly skilled – offers some critical benefits that ABL by itself can’t provide.

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