Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Interaction (Distance Learning)

introduction

The rapid development of technology greatly influences computer-based learning in distance education. One of the most important aspects is interactivity, and this is threefold: student-student interaction, student-instructor interaction, and student-content interaction (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). As distance-education technology increasingly moves toward multimedia-oriented systems, a more effective synergy of synchronous and asynchronous interaction is required. As discussed by Garrison (1990), the quality and integrity ofthe educational process in distance learning largely depends upon sustained, two-way communication. In this article, we will look into the characteristics of both types of interaction and discuss their advantages as well as impact on the three forms of interactions. We will also look at some examples for both asynchronous and synchronous interaction technologies in facilitating distance learning. Finally, we look at some possible future trends in distance-learning interactivity.

introduction

The choice and selection of the most effective delivery system in the learning process is important as it directly impacts the level and quality of interaction. Both asynchronous and synchronous interaction serve to bridge the gap between the learners and instructor and between learners themselves. Online learning environments strive to facilitate a holistic learning experience that takes advantage of technology to make up for lost opportunity in face-to-face learning. McIsaac and Gu-nawardena (1996) recognized the importance ofa more effective synergy of asynchronous and synchronous interaction as distance-education technology is increasingly moving toward multimedia-oriented systems. In an online environment, the level, type, and dynamics of interaction that occur depend on the choice of asynchronous or synchronous delivery (or a combination of both in variable proportions). Researching on the opinions and stands of experts in distance education, Soo and Bonk (1998) found that the experts feel that learner-learner interaction impacts student learning the most (compared to learner-instructor interaction and learner-content interaction). The notion of collaborative learning in an online environment is still quite new and is an area that requires much research.

Although much focus is directed toward the asynchronous mode, it is important to note and acknowledge that both asynchronous and synchronous interaction have their advantages as well as shortcomings. It is also imperative to realize that the selection of delivery systems largely depends on the needs of the students and the nature of the subject matter.

The need for interaction

Undoubtedly, interaction will occur in any learning environment. Wagner (1997) believed that interaction consists of reciprocal events requiring two objects and two actions where interplay and exchange occur and individuals and groups influence each other. Barker (1994) highlights the importance of interactivity as an essential and crucial factor for acquiring knowledge.A virtual classroom environment tries to emulate classroom environments, albeit, with different tools and approaches. In Lynch (2002) it is shown how traditional classroom-based interactions (class discussions, role playing, case studies, question and answer sessions) can be translated into parallel forms of Web interactions using the various communication tools available. Kinshuk and Yang (2003) discussed some of the frustrations and limitations of the learning process in a virtual environment. Some of the major problems noted were the lack of (a) human interaction (learner-learner and learner-instructor), (b) learner support (social and administrative), and (c) contextual interaction (learner-content). Communication technologies, through the use of various tools, must serve to address these problems in order to create an effective and satisfying learning experience for the learners. According to Shelly (1996), the most important factor for successful distance learning is a caring, concerned teacher who is confident, experienced, at ease with the equipment, uses the media creatively, and maintains a high level of interactivity with the students. This reflects the importance of learner-instructor interaction, social support for learners, and effective course-content management by the online instructor.

In discussing online interaction, Bowman (2001) noted that the stages involved in computer-mediated communications or CMCs (socialization, exchange of information, construction of knowledge, and development or application of knowledge) require specific CMC skills, which fall on the responsibility of the online instructor. Bowman reiterated that these skills are crucial for effective encouragement, support, and moderation of online discussions.

Jonassen, Peck, and Wilson (1999) elaborate on an even more important aspect of the usage of telecommunications tools, that is, in supporting, nurturing, and encouraging a collaborative virtual learning community. They discussed the various ways and tools in which technology plays in learning.

Types of online interaction

Online interaction falls into two categories: asynchronous and synchronous interaction.

Asynchronous Interaction

Asynchronous interaction simply refers to interaction that occurs at different times, that is, not in real time. This is the major form of interaction in computer-mediated communications. Often, this form of interaction is closely associated with distance learning as it provides plenty of benefits to the learner and the online learning environment.

Advantages of Asynchronous Interaction

The widespread use of asynchronous tools is testimony to its importance. The advantages of asynchronous interaction are as follows.

Flexibility

It allows access to the learning material at anyplace and anytime (provided the necessary equipment and technologies are available) from home or workplace. Learners choose to participate when and if they want to.

Time to Reflect

There is no need to give immediate response. It gives the opportunity for learners to think, research, reflect, formulate, and back up their ideas and thoughts in a more coherent and concise manner. Learners can always access archived discussions to follow the flow of discussion in a constructive manner (Sproull & Kiesler, 1991). In other words, they have the records of what has been discussed and how they have been discussed. Learners can wait and input their ideas when they are comfortable with the discussion.

Anonymity or pseudonymity

This encourages learners’ participation in discussion as it provides a democratic atmosphere where learners are more comfortable in giving their input. Learners feel more confident and contribute more as there is less pressure (Chester & Gwyne, 1998). This is especially true for learners who tend to be shy or laid-back in classes.

No Time-Zone constraints

Global communication and participation is available at the time convenient to learners around the world (Johansen & O’Hara-Devereaux, 1994). This is particularly important in the present international education scenario where learners in an online environment come from different countries.

situated Learning

It provides opportunities to integrate ideas being discussed in the course with experiences on the job or home front.

cost-Effective

Text-based systems like e-mail require little bandwidth and low-end computers to operate and thus provide equitable access for learners.

examples of asynchronous interaction technologies in facilitating distance learning

There are numerous tools that can be utilized in asynchronous interaction. These include the following.

1. CD-ROMs – interactive disks that can store a substantial amount of information, which may contain an archived home page of the online university, course materials (e.g., notes, exercises, and assignments), graphical or animated representations of concepts and ideas discussed in the course, and relevant supporting material (e.g., reading suggestions).

2. E-mail - by far, the most common and used tool for asynchronous communication. Electronic messages, with or without attachments, are sent by senders and received by intended recipients.

3. Listserv - a group of e-mail addresses for a group of people with common or shared interests where discussions and information exchanges occur and questions are raised and addressed (e.g., the listserv for members of the World Association of Online Education is views@waoe.org).

4. Bulletin boards - allows users to post and read messages in a public forum environment.

5. Newsgroups - allows users to exchange news, opinions, and so forth. Information is collected in host computers called newsfeeds.

6. Web pages - Users can search, browse, retrieve, download, or save information, which comes in a variety of forms (texts, graphics, video, sound).

7. Computer conferencing - for example, through WebCT, WebBoard, or Lotus Learning Space, which facilitates collaborative activities.

8. Fax - allows exact copies of documents to be sent and received in a short time.

9. Audiotape/Videotape – Lectures and presentations, for example, can be prerecorded and sent to learners who can listen or view it anytime.

10. Collaborative work spaces - contains files or folders that are accessible to multiple individuals, for example, the shareware system Basic Support for Collaborative Work (BSCW).

11. Blogs (Weblogs) - The term Weblog was coined in 1997 by Jorn Barger to describe a form of online journal or diary where users can publish their personal thoughts and experiences, commentaries, and so forth. This technology is increasingly popular and is a promising avenue for innovative ways in collaboration and communication (see, e.g., http://www.weblogg-ed.com/).

Impact of asynchronous learning

Learner-Learner Interaction

The accessibility to chronicled, archived information where retrieval can be on demand gives more opportunities for learners to participate in an ongoing discussion as they get more comfortable with the topic of discussion. Learners also use the communication tools available such as e-mail to establish and maintain social and emotional support amongst them, thereby fostering a sense of community and decreasing the feeling of isolation. The quality of interaction improves because learners have time to reflect on and research their ideas before responding. Meyer (2003), for example, reported on the evidence of higher order thinking skills occurring in threaded discussions. Collaborative work and group discussions are also encouraged in a more constructivist environment where the learners cannot afford to be passive.

Learner-Instructor Interaction

Learners have 24-hour access to their instructor, which means questions can be raised anytime of the day and learners can wait for the instructor to respond. This means an increase in the response quality as the instructor would then have more time to give a more elaborate and accurate response. Opportunities for individual attention are also increased, and with the discussion focused, it increases the chances of learners’ contextual understanding of the discussion. There is also room for emotional support and social interaction between the learners and instructor.

Figure 1. Comparison between asynchronous and synchronous interaction

Asynchronous Interaction

Synchronous Interaction

Strengths:

Strengths:

Can be accessed anytime,

Visual and auial cues are helpful

 

anywhere

Immediate feedback to comments

Fits into learners’ own schedules

 

or questions

Encourages shy students to

Most people have experience, thus

 

participate

are more comfortable and

Builds a sense of community

 

natural in participation

More individual attention for

Limitations:

 

learners

Problems in scheduling due to

The flow of discussions can he

 

time-zone constraints for learners

 

retrieved

 

from different geographical

Limitations:

 

locations

Lack o f visual or aural cues

Some learners maybe present but

Reading and writing skill s affect

 

passive

 

communication effectiveness

Harderto manage the interaction

Delayed feedback to comments or

 

processes in larger groups of

 

questions

 

learners

* The delivery of an online course would usually use a combination of media, focusing on the strengths of each type of interaction, to maximize instruction effectiveness.

* The delivery of an online course would usually use a combination of media, focusing on the strengths of each type of interaction, to maximize instruction effectiveness.

Learner-content interaction

The archived materials, especially the continuity and context of discussions, can be invaluable to learners as they have a record of what has been going on and in what stage the present discussion is (e.g., Thompsen & Foulger, 1993; Turoff, 1991). Learners have time to review, research, and validate the ideas and comments as the discussion is progressing. The stored materials, in other words, serve as online notes with all the dynamics of the discussion preserved and in which learners can add to from time to time. The instructor would also get a clearer idea of what the learners understand and how the learners approach an issue.

synchronous interaction

Synchronous interaction involves the parties (learners and instructor) being online at the same time and communicating in real time. The teaching and learning process is considered as synchronous when both the instructor and student come together at the same time. Synchronous interaction is not appropriate for every situation, but it is the only solution when live interaction is essential. For example, synchronous interaction technologies cancel the advantage of time independence, and finding common times for online meetings may be difficult. However, immediate feedback can be expected from the learners since it allows real-time interaction.

advantages of synchronous interaction

stimulate Motivation

The benefits of synchronous interaction are that since most people have experience with synchronous interaction, it helps to stimulate motivation. It provides distance learners to keep up with their peers and continue with their studies. Learners can see each other’s eyes, facial expressions, and body language, or hear voice inflections and tones during communication. As Samans (2003) points out, a teacher can only know how to provide extra help to a student if he or she notices the student’s participation during the class.

Interactive participation

Learners can participate in activities in laboratories and studios under the direction of the instructor. With synchronous technology, learners are able to follow the instruction step by step. It provides a situated learning experience that enables learners to contribute their ideas. As discussed by Beller and Or (1998), the synchronous mode provides the extra benefits of presenting a difficult concept and clarifies the complexity of the topics by providing real-time interaction and allowing interaction among students. Driscoll (2002) noted the speakers will be able to use graphics and interactive images effectively from anywhere on the Internet and intranet with the given real-time audio and video technologies.

Immediate Feedback

The opportunities for learning and the immediacy for feedback are unique strengths ofthe synchronous interaction. Feedback to questions and issues raised in class is immediate; face-to-face interaction with no delays in communication occurs in this form of interaction. Moreover, it brings learners together from different places in real time for discussion, brainstorming of ideas, case-study analysis, debates, and project work. Synchronous interaction technologies allow immediate response from the students during the case-based learning activities that will enhance the virtual learning atmosphere. Slavin (1995) claims that efforts using case or problem based learning activities to enhance student-student classroom interaction increase student achievement and also rates of completion and enjoyment.

user-Friendly Technological Tools for Effective Learning

Technical skills with a microcomputer and related software are not needed except when they relate directly to course material. Students can easily learn the realtime, user-friendly, interactive technological tools to participate in a real-time discussion.

costs and Time savings

For the organizer, synchronous interaction provides considerable savings on costs and time of travel. The instructor need not meet the students at the physical place but do it virtually online. This could ease the scheduling problem, and all virtual class hours can be done in a shorter period of time without considering the venue of the class.

examples of synchronous interaction technologies in facilitating distance learning

Examples of synchronous interaction technologies in facilitating distance learning include the following.

1. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) – a real-time-based system for conferencing that involves a set of rules and conventions and client-server software that allows users to exchange text messages or join a private chat room.

2. Instant messaging - an online system that enables the instructor to easily see whether a chosen learner is connected to the Internet and exchange text messages with them.

3. Real-time audio - real-time, audio-based conferencing that enables the instructor and learners to talk to one another.

4. Application sharing - enables learners to work collaboratively on software applications. It is frequently done in combination with other synchronous interaction tools. Learners can add, delete, or make changes with other learners on the shared application in real time.

5. Voice and videoconferencing – Learners can call a meeting with two or more people in different geographical areas in real time by using a network or the Internet to transmit audio and video data.

6. Shared whiteboards and live presentation tools - Learners can write, draw, and paste items on the whiteboard which simultaneously can be viewed by all participants’ screens.

7. Live assessment testing and voting – Learners can participate in an online testing or voting at the same time at separate locations in a given time frame.

8. Audience control tools (including hand raising, approval feedback, and audio and video control) – enables learners to respond promptly to the real-time learning environment.

impact of synchronous learning

Learner-Learner interaction

The degree of interactivity among students might be less with a larger audience. Students will not have much opportunity to participate in a larger group setting. All students must be online at the same time, which may be disruptive to those in widely dispersed time zones.

However, there are more opportunities for one-to-one interaction in synchronous learning. Students must participate in a smaller group setting and this will give them chances for contributing more ideas in the discussion.

Learner-instructor interaction

The degree of interactivity within an actual live session is controlled by the instructor and will be limited for a larger audience as the interaction processes become harder to manage. In a larger group setting, the aim should be to use the synchronized communication tools essentially as a broadcast session rather than one that is highly interactive. According to Fillicaro (2002), the potential for interaction decreases as the number of students increase in a virtual classroom. She argues that only the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy can be achieved in such a learning environment. Lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy refer to thinking skills at the knowledge, comprehension, and application levels, whereas higher level thinking skills require analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Hence, the success of the interaction will be very much dependent on the size of the audience and the bandwidth issue.

On the other hand, as discussed by Driscoll (2002), instructors must take note of the factors that might influence the interaction in class. According to Driscoll, these factors are Internet lag times, learners who step away from their computers during class, and confusion caused by the interface. To solve the problem, he feels that instructors should continually gather feedback by asking learners to summarize the points.

Learner-content interaction

Synchronous interaction makes it difficult for nonnative language speakers to participate in real-time discussion. The learners may have difficulty in understanding the subject material due to the cultural context. For example, certain terms used for discussion may be unfamiliar to a nonnative language speaker. Some learners might not be able to respond to the content immediately since they need to research and review the content a number of times. The design of the content materials must be highly structured with support from the faculty or mentor and the interactive technologies itself. Students in this case need to become an active learner, participant, and contributor.

technology for asynchronous and synchronous interaction

There are various online course-delivery tools that are on the market. The most popular of these is WebCT, a Web-based course package developed by the University of British Columbia in 1995. WebCT contains many useful features that facilitate course development and maintenance, formative and summative assessment, collaborative activities, and management of student information, among others. For a list of institutions that implement WebCT widely, see WebCT’s commercial Web site at http://www.webct.com/institutes. To get a glimpse of the features of other online course-delivery software products (e.g., Blackboard, TopClass, eCol-lege, The Learning Manager) and a comparison of these, see http://www.marshall.edu/it/cit/webct/com-pare/comparison.html.

future trends in distance learning activity

As we work toward the new technological age, we should see the increase of interactivity between learners and instructor, learners and content, and among learners themselves via computer-mediated communication. Hartley (2002) foresees that it will become more important to teach people the skills of gathering and using information than providing information overload to learners. There will be wider usage of two-way, interactive real-time capabilities of audio and video with more user-friendly and affordable multimedia Internet technologies. It is important to have suitable learning designs with faster communications technology and wireless and handheld computing to succeed in distance learning.

Recognizing the strengths of both asynchronous and synchronous interaction, the current trend of interactivity development is showing signs of the creation of efficient and holistic hybrid systems. Institutional examples that use a combination of media include the following, to name a few.

1. University of Twente, The Netherlands (http:// www.to.utwente.nl/ism/onlie96/campus.htm)

2. Online Education, University of Paisley, Scotland (http://www.online.edu/online/online.htm)

3. George Washington University, Washington, DC (http://gwis.circ.gwu.edu/)

4. Nova Southeastern, Florida (http://alpha.acast. nova.edu/)

5. Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts (http://web. mit.edu/sloan/www/)

6. The Open University of Catalonia, Spain (http:// www.uoc.edu/web/eng/index.html)

7. The Fuqua School of Business, Duke University, North Carolina (http: //www.fuqua. duke. edu/pro-grams/gemba)

There are also efforts to create synchronous instruction that can be converted to asynchronous delivery (e.g., Boora, Davis, & Montgomerie, 2003, on the Rural Advanced Community of Learners Project; Watt, Walther, & Nowak, 2002, on asynchronous videoconferencing). In this case, real-time interaction can be accessed and manipulated in nonreal time or, using terms used by Watt et al., store and forward and retrieve on demand.

The evaluation of interaction in determining the quality and level of the interaction will also gain prominence. Some research questions that have cropped up are the following.

1. How do we compare between different user-system interactions?

2. How do we evaluate the interaction in collaborative environments where the users are multiple and variable in terms of, for example, interaction preference, usage patterns, and system familiarity?

Some researchers have begun to address the problem of evaluating interaction, as in Roblyer and Ekhaml (2000), where they constructed a rubric to assess interaction using four categories: (a) social rapport-building activities created by the instructor, (b) instructional designs for learning created by the instructor, (c) levels of interactivity oftechnology resources, and (d) impact of interactive qualities as reflected in learner response. Bodomo, Luke, and Anttila (2003) conceptualized a Conversational Learning Community (CLC), which consists of instructors, learners, course materials, and links to remote experts and resources, to describe online interactivity. They view the pedagogical process as taking place in an interactive CLC and evaluate interactivity quantitatively (e.g., log-on statistics) and qualitatively (e.g., student initiative in interacting).

Certainly, a proper evaluation of interaction is crucially required to determine the success of online interaction processes and dynamics.

conclusion

In this article, we have discussed the characteristics and advantages of asynchronous and synchronous interaction in online learning environments. Examples of each type of interaction have been given, and their impact on interaction between learner-learner, learner-instructor, and learner-content has been outlined. We have also considered some of the possible future trends as well as open questions in interactivity.

KEY TERMs

Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC): Communication that is facilitated by computer applications, for example, e-mail, bulletin boards, and newsgroups.

Interaction: Usually refers to reciprocal communication between two (or more) parties where there are feedback, comments, suggestions, and so forth. It can also be one way, for example, in learner-content interaction, where the interaction is reflective in nature.

Interactivity: Functions and operations available to the learner that involve, engage, and motivate the learner to interact in a computer-based environment.

Internet Lag Time: The delay in transmitting the signals from users’ terminals to the Internet server and back due to congestion of the Internet link connecting the two.

Learner-Content Interaction: Learners “talk to themselves” about the information or ideas contained in the material.

Learner-Instructor Interaction: Interaction between the learner(s) with the instructor.

Leaner-Learner Interaction: Interaction between a learner and other learners in one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many settings.

Private Chat Room: A virtual private place for authorized users to communicate with each other in real time via the computer while connected to the Internet.

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