(The Right) Learning Modalities To Deliver Digital Learning: Part 2

Asynchronous And Synchronous Interactions
Summary: This article describes the importance of content and social interactions using asynchronous (self-paced) and synchronous (live learning) tools. It offers an evidence-informed analysis of the main benefits and limitations of asynchronous and synchronous eLearning for better blending.

Asynchronous And Synchronous Interactions

What learning tools do you need to support needed learning interactions in your organization? In Part 1, I discussed tools that support digital learning that are used asynchronously (self-paced, when and where the user chooses) and synchronously (live, at the same time for all users). Both modes of learning support learning, but differently, according to research.

In Part 2 (this article), I’ll analyze how asynchronous and synchronous tools support different types of learning interactions. And I’ll describe the best ways to use asynchronous and synchronous learning.

Some key ideas discussed in Part 1 that are helpful for understanding the ideas in Part 2:
  • Asynchronous tools are self-paced. Common asynchronous elements include recorded audio and video clips, and discussion tools. People use them whenever and wherever they chose.
  • Synchronous tools are used live. Common synchronous elements are live webinars and teaching sessions using webinar and virtual classroom tools. People meet virtually (by means of a computer, over a network) at the same time from different places.
  • Different tool types support different instructional activities. That’s why they are commonly blended. Research shows better outcomes from blending due to valuable interactions and flexibility.
  • You can blend different tools yourself or buy an LMS or online teaching system that provides you with a blend of tools, such as text, videos, downloadable files, live sessions, and discussions. (I use one of these systems to teach because this blend of tools is critical and I don’t want to blend and maintain them myself).


Learning interactions involve mentally processing what is being learned. Moore described the need for both content and social interactions in technology-driven instruction. I’ll be discussing common content and social interactions in this section.

Content interactions prompt participants to interact with the content typically by reading, watching, listening, and doing self-paced activities. For example, common content interactions in asynchronous eLearning are video followed by multiple-choice questions to gauge understanding. The example below shows an asynchronous content interaction that asks the participant to try changing the start date and time.

Example content interaction in an asynchronous course(Example content interaction in an asynchronous course)

Social interactions are interactions between people. They include interactions among participants, such as discussions in an asynchronous discussion forum, and between the instructor/facilitator and participants, such as answering participant questions in chat.

Interactions with the instructor are considered highly desirable because instructors should promote and maintain interest, offer demonstrations and behavior modeling, answer questions, prompt participants to understand and use, assess and fix understanding, support and encourage, and so much more.

In workplace asynchronous learning, where there is often no social interaction, we should consider offering ways to get questions asked, at a minimum. The example below is an asynchronous course that includes a question and answer element.

Example q&a interaction in an asynchronous course(Example Q&A interaction in an asynchronous course)

Synchronous courses using virtual classroom or webinar tools often have integrated chat and question pods where participants can ask and answer questions. These tools can also be used to discuss issues and insights and offer input and support. These outcomes are difficult to gain without these interactions.

Below is a portion of a chat interaction from one of the live sessions in one of my blended online courses. (I changed names to numbers to hide identity.) I asked participants to tell me the most important thing they learned that week. You can see that this deep question helped them remember earlier content and share it with others. It also gave them a chance to let me know what was still confusing.

Example portion of a chat interaction from a live session in one of my blended courses(Example portion of a chat interaction from a live session in one of my blended courses)

Here are some typical and valuable content interactions that are used to help the participant watch, read, and listen to content and prompt deep processing of that content.

Watch, read, listen Prompt deep processing
Narrated slide presentation Scenario and case analysis
Software or product demo Answer questions
Guided tour Perform a task
Stories Game
Insights and resources Simulation


Here are some typical and valuable social interactions among participants and between the instructor and participants.

Among participants With the instructor
Role-paying Question and answer
Group analysis Polls
Personal experiences Deep questions
Insights and resources Check for understanding


Moore tells us it is a mistake to attempt to push everything into a single tool as it may constrain the types and depth of possible interactions. For example, in the virtual classroom, the content is moving at a specific, Instructor-Led pace, it may leave some people behind if they are not able to keep up.

Bernard’s meta-analysis supports my assertion that the right kinds of content and social interactions help participants mentally engage with the content in order to substantially improve learning outcomes.

A critical outcome from deeply processing the content is "changes to memory," which is needed to learn, remember, and apply. Furst explains that deep processing supports:

  • Knowing
    Where new concepts are added to what is already known in long-term memory.
  • Understanding
    Where we create associations between what we already know and new content, so we know how to use them.
  • Using
    Where the additions and changes to memory are made available for use.

According to Clark and Mayer, the mental activity used in deep processing is what leads to learning so they cannot be considered optional. When people mentally process movies, books, and podcasts, for example, it is not the content that leads to learning but the mental processing of that content. Whether the content is passive or active is not the primary issue: We can and do learn from both. The primary issue is the depth processing that occurs.

Deep processing is critical to move use from simply knowing to ability to use. Asynchronous and synchronous tools provide different means for supporting these deep processing interactions.

Asynchronous Versus Synchronous Interactions

In the previous section, I described the need for content and social interactions. Various asynchronous and synchronous tools support these interaction types. Below, are typical content and social interactions for learning that occur in asynchronous and synchronous tools.

We can promote important mental processing using a variety of interactions. Here are some of the interactions that research points to as especially effective to encourage deep mental processing.

  • Restate important insights using your own words
  • Organize content to show how concepts relate to each other (using outlines, mind maps, etc.)
  • Answer important questions (“When should we…?”)
  • Solve relevant problems
  • Analyze which principles apply
  • Use needed resources and tools

Selecting Asynchronous And Synchronous Tools To Support Learning

We can use asynchronous and synchronous tools to facilitate needed interactions, but some tools are clearly better suited for some interactions and less suited for others. The evidence described by Anderson, Hrastinski, Kask, Offir, and others makes clear the best uses and limitations of asynchronous and synchronous learning. The following table merges what evidence shows. It isn’t meant to be complete but rather show some of the primary advantages and limitations which can help you make good choices about when to use each.



Asynchronous Learning (self-paced) Synchronous Learning (live)
Advantages Flexibility
  • Different times and places
  • Use as/when needed
  • Meet varying needs
  • Incorporate multiple media
  • Work at own pace


  • More mental processing time available
  • Allows needed time for deep processing
  • Allows more time for practice
  • Allows more time to read and respond to discussions and contributions
Social interaction
  • Real-time social interaction for support, communication, discussion, sharing, and insights
  • Increased communication cues: expressions, tone


  • Immediate answers and feedback are possible
  • Real-time guidance, help, and feedback are possible
Limitations Isolation
  • Perceived distance
  • Unavailable or delayed support, help, clarification, and feedback
  • Many self-paced courses have no access to support, help, clarification, and feedback
  • Decreased communication cues: expressions, tone
  • Easier to delay participation and communication
  • Same time for all
  • One speed may be too slow or too fast for some
  • Reduced time for contributing, processing, and practice


  • Disruptions from bandwidth and technical problem
  • Often requires advanced technical skills by participants and instructors

(Advantages and limitations of asynchronous and synchronous learning)


I rolled up the best use cases for asynchronous and synchronous below (widely adapted from Hrastinski, adding insights from other research).

Summary of best use cases for asynchronous and synchronous eLearning. Asynchronous=mental participation and synchronous= social participation



One of the best ways to use the information in this article to make decisions about asynchronous and synchronous tools is to analyze the following:

  • Where would flexibility and time to process be most beneficial?
    Select asynchronous tools that allow for flexibility and processing time. Example tools include online and downloadable content and asynchronous discussion forum.
  • Where would immediacy and social interaction be most useful?
    Select synchronous tools that allow for immediate support and feedback as well as sharing insights and resources. Examples include virtual classroom tools that allow for live video, audio, and chat.

Consider signing up for my email list (top of www.pattishank.com) as I hope to hold free live sessions to discuss the content in Part 1 and Part 2 and answer questions about how to apply it to your situation. I’ll notify everyone on my list about these sessions shortly.

In Parts 3 and 4, I’ll go into more detail about asynchronous and synchronous learning.


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