The world of online learning has a variety of methods that can be used (and combined) to deliver content to the learner. Delivery methods can be broken down into two major categories – Synchronous and Asynchronous. While the major distinction between these to methods involves how interaction takes place, other characteristics exist that differentiate one from the other.
The use of synchronous content delivery methods allows for real-time live interaction between all participants: the teacher and the students. Through the use of conference calls, Skype conferences, video chats, and instant messaging, participants are able to feel as thought they are connected to the other participants. This lends itself to creating an atmosphere of support, belonging, and instantaneous collaboration – much like what you would find in a traditional classroom setting. There are some negative aspects of this delivery method. In the regular classroom, the most vocal students seem to dictate the discussions. This is true of the synchronous content delivery method, but it usually involves the quickest thinkers and fastest typists. One of the more onerous aspects of a synchronous model is that it can undermine one of the major positive aspects of online learning – the freedom to learn on your own schedule. Many participants in online learning communities have chosen that format to continue their education because they are working professionals who do not feel they have the time to spare actually sitting in classrooms at specific times. Employing the synchronous method of delivery involves creating a set time for all participants to be online simultaneously for discussions. Too much use of the synchronous method within the scope of online learning could potentially alienate the very learners who benefit most from the online option.
Interaction in asynchronous content delivery methods does not occur in real-time. Rather, students are generally given a time frame during which to complete assignments and discussion posts. This allows for participants to learn according to their own schedules in regard to other commitments such as work and family life. The TOOL platform I am presently completing for Georgia Virtual School is an example of an asynchronous delivery method. In this platform, participants complete assignments, blog, and participate in forums or discussion boards at their own pace. As a full-time teacher, I’ve been very grateful for the flexibility this form has allowed. However, there are certain shortcomings of the method. There is a certain amount of “disconnectedness” that I’ve felt throughout the process. Although I’ve posted my blogs and commented on other blogs, there has been very little real interaction between myself and other participants. Perhaps the best way to describe it is the feeling of too much independence. There have been quests where I have been unsure about the expectations of an end product, but no one is really available to consult with.
In my opinion, the best setup for online learning involves a combination of these two methods. For several years, I have served as an instructor for gifted endorsement certification. This coursework was presented primarily through the use of the online learning platform, Moodle. Course content, assignments, and discussion posts were uploaded through Moodle and completed within a given time frame. Participants could work ahead if they chose. Most of the learning takes place online. Assignments are graded and feedback is attached and sent via email. Participants have emailed or sent text messages to clear up any confusion pertaining to expectations. However, there were also monthly face-to-face meetings which allowed for instructor-student interaction and the presentation of student products (sort of a flipped classroom environment). In addition, participants always had my cell number to call when an email wouldn’t suffice. There was something about being able to contact me in real-time and hear a voice that reassured the participants that they were not in the process by themselves.