A Quick and Practical Guide to Self-Paced vs. Synchronous Online Learning

This post is inspired by, and partially based upon, a piece in EdSurge that I wrote with Diana Anthony of Figure Eight Investments. That article compares different modes of online learning in “formal” academic learning settings, especially K-12 education. This article delves into the pros and cons of different modalities for adult learners.

The Basics

“Synchronous online learning” refers to live, group learning activities that happen at a set time (often over Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or a similar platform), while “asynchronous online learning” refers to pretty much everything else (completing projects, doing readings, watching videos, etc.). I’ve found that “self-paced” is more terminology for “asynchronous,” because it sums up the nature of most activities that occur in asynchronous online learning. Research studies don’t provide much evidence that synchronous learning universally leads to better engagement and learning outcomes than self-paced learning (or vice versa). It’s worth noting, however, that there just isn’t much high-quality research out there on this topic. Each approach is best suited to different contexts. In particular, the cognitive development and motivation of your learners have profound impacts on their ability to succeed in different online learning environments.

The Heart of the Matter

The table below provides a quick comparison between these two modalities.

SynchronousAsynchronous (self-paced)
Good for– Establishing community and personal connections.
– Lateral exchange of ideas (live discussions).
– Group work (breakouts).
1:1 and small-group coaching.
– Setting and maintaining a regular schedule.
– Real-time feedback and guidance.
– “Synchronicity” (more on this later).
– Teaching “factual” content at scale.
– Learners with high motivation and autonomy.
– Working professionals who need flexibility.
– Assigning pre-work for “flipped classes.”
– Self-paced and mastery-based learning.
– Providing all learners with opportunities to participate.
– Project-based learning.
Look out for– Lecturing for >15 minutes at a time.
– Connectivity and scheduling challenges.
– Video call fatigue.
– Learners who aren’t motivated.
– Learners with deficits in executive function.
– Confusing or unnecessarily complex learning environments.

Many adult learners are intrinsically motivated and used to managing their own schedules in the context of their work; self-paced online learning can work quite well for populations like this. Notably, there are plenty of large and quite successful businesses that sell self-paced online learning for working adults (Udacity and LinkedIn Learning come to mind). If this describes your learner population well, self-paced learning could be a great fit. On the other hand, if you’re working with a population that needs more support and regular check-ins, you might need to focus more on synchronous learning.

Homework: Almost Synonymous with Self-Paced Online Learning

All online learning requires executive function skills, which allow us to plan, work toward goals, solve problems and be creative. Executive function skills continue to develop throughout childhood and adolescence. Young people who are still developing these skills need more support and supervision to complete tasks and structure their learning. Conversely, as executive function develops, children become more autonomous and they require less supervision. There is a direct relationship between executive function development and the effectiveness of different types of learning activities. For example, completing homework requires executive function skills, and research shows that the benefits of homework are greater in older children.

Motivation is another conceptual thread that links online learning to homework. There is a lot of research out there on the role of motivation in learning – more than I care to summarize in this brief post. Motivation can change over time, and there are things that we can do, as educators and learning designers, to increase our learners’ sense of motivation. A more motivated student is more likely to do her homework and also more likely to complete online course work. This is one reason why it is so important to think about incentives and commitment mechanisms when we design online learning experiences – it can be quite hard to stay motivated.

Why Synchronous Classes Still Matter – a Great Deal

There are many situations in which synchronous online sessions are the way to go, even if you work with highly motivated adult learners who have fully developed executive function skills. There is usually less of a human connection in self-paced learning, and that social accountability – “my classmates are there…I need to be there too!” – can be a powerful motivator. There are whole categories of skills and competencies that are harder to practice in a self-paced environment. Timely feedback – which is so essential for learning many of these skills – is just easier to give in a synchronous setting. 

An emerging strand of research delves into some of these nuances around synchronous online learning. It’s a bit puzzling that self-paced online learning seems to provide flexibility for the busy schedules of working adults, yet many adult students prefer to show up to a synchronous class. This is known as “the synchronicity paradox,” and it is completely in line with what we know from education research. What we prefer in learning often has little to do with what actually works. 

Notably, there are a number of situations in which asynchronous online learning just doesn’t catch on. A well-designed self-paced learning experience – one that asks learners to do things rather than just watch things – requires much more cognitive effort than the average webinar. This is why the homework analogy is useful – it is in our nature, as human beings, to take the easy path. Whether we like it or not, it’s easier to attend a one hour webinar than to do an hour of effortful work. If your learners won’t even try, it will never work.

The Take-Home Message

If what you teach requires a lot of coaching and real-time feedback, or its value comes principally from networking and connections, you probably need some synchronous components to your online experience. Self-paced learning can be a great tool for teaching factual content and honing some skills that are critical in the knowledge economy (writing, programming, and any number of project-based activities). Moreover, many adult learners are well-positioned to benefit from self-paced learning experiences. They often have high self-efficacy and fully developed executive function skills. However, even if all the conditions look right, don’t just assume your learners will accept self-paced learning. If homework would be anathema to your learners, self-paced online modules might be off-limits as well.