Strategies for transformation 2: from synchronous to asynchronous

In the next six posts, I explore six ways in which learning professionals can realise a transformation in the way that learning and development occurs in their organisations. It builds on my previous six posts in which I set out the six major elements in a vision for change, i.e. learning that is alignedeconomicalscalableflexibleengaging and powerful.

The second step on the route to transformation is a shift from interventions that are synchronous to those that are asynchronous. In case you’re not familiar with the jargon, ‘synchronous’ learning activities happen in real-time – they are ‘live’. The most obvious examples are classroom courses and on-the-job training sessions, but also in this category we must place the use of the telephone and live online tools, such as instant messaging, Skype and virtual classrooms. The defining characteristic of a synchronous activity is that all the participants have to be available at the same time.

Asynchronous activities, on the other hand, are self-paced; they allow the learner to determine when and for how long they undertake self-study activities or communicate with fellow learners or trainers. Reading a book, watching a video, listening to a podcast, surfing the web or interacting with an e-learning programme are all asynchronous; so is communicating by post, by text messages, by email or through forums, blogs, wikis and social networks.

Like each of the recommendations in this series, the change from synchronous to asynchronous represents a movement of a slider, not a switch on or off. Every organisation is different and needs to find its own balance.

The argument for being synchronous

There is nothing inherently wrong with synchronous communication. It gets things done quickly. It allows a learner to get speedy answers to questions and to obtain quick feedback on their performance. It makes it possible for learners to work together on practical activities such as role-plays. It allows for free-flowing discussions and is altogether more relaxed and sociable.

Synchronous events also act as milestones in a blended solution. Because they are scheduled to happen at a particular date and time, they get blocked out in the diary and are less likely to be put off to another day. They also act as a convenient deadline for activities which are self-paced.

All in all then, it’s good for a proportion of any programme of learning to be synchronous.

So, if it ain’t broke, why try and fix it?

Although synchronous learning events, such as classroom courses, have their benefits, they also have some snags:

  • Having to organise dates and times which suit everyone is tiresome and time-consuming. In some situations, in which learners are based in different time zones or have all sorts of existing commitments, it can sometimes prove impossible.
  • Waiting for a date and time can hold you up from learning that you want to do right now.
  • Synchronous events can be more stressful, because you will often be put under pressure to make quick responses to questions and discussion topics. You also have no control over the pace at which you learn, which is a particular problem if you start with less prior knowledge than your colleagues.
  • An important element of learning is reflection and that’s not easy to accomplish when you’re under time pressure.
  • Every learner is different in terms of their needs, prior knowledge and preferences. Live events are simply not flexible enough to cope with all these differences.

The benefits

So what effect does pushing the slider from synchronous to asynchronous have on the six elements of our transformation vision?

Aligned: There’s no real change here, because synchronous and asynchronous activities can be equally well-aligned.

Economical: There could be some benefits here, particularly in terms of the amount of time consumed by the learning activity. Generally self-paced learning is quicker, as much as anything because learners can access the material they want and ignore what is less relevant. There’s also the possibility that learners can get faster to competence, because they are not having to wait about before receiving the training they need.

Scalable: Here’s a real plus, because many more people can be learning at the same time.

Flexible: This is an obvious one. The main purpose of increasing the asynchronous component is to improve flexibility.

Engaging: You might lose something here, because live events will, for most people, be more urgent and engaging.

Powerful: Asynchronous events are not inherently more powerful, but having a better balance between synchronous and asynchronous elements is likely to show performance benefits, if for no other reason than learners have more time to reflect.

Coming next: Strategies for transformation 3: from compliance to competence
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