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Asynchronous learning is a current development in teaching and learning provision that exploits the affordances of contemporary educational technologies, yet that also links with long-standing interest in the learning advantages of facilitated reflection. From this perspective, asynchronous learning brings education and technology into productive alignment, to the potential benefit of learners and educators alike. At the same time, critiques of asynchronous learning highlight concerns that it is not sufficiently engaging and rigorous for higher education (Reese 2015). Certainly, as with all forms of educational provision, the success of asynchronous learning depends on the active engagement and wholehearted commitment, as well as the sustained self-discipline, of both learners and educators. More broadly, certain critiques reflect the residual assumed primacy of face-to-face, real-time interaction to which some educators still adhere, and that position asynchronous learning as being deficit and deficient. Accordingly, discussions of the effectiveness and utility of asynchronous learning encapsulate wider debates about the interplay between education and technology and the relative influence of each on that interplay.
Characteristics of Asynchronous Learning
Hiltz and Goldman (2005) asserted baldly that “Asynchronous Means Anytime, Anywhere” (p. 5), and they contrasted asynchronous communication with “…real-time chat or face-to-face meetings…” (p. 5). Accordingly, the defining feature of asynchronous learning is this separation between teaching and learning, whereby educators and learners interact with each other in different places and at different times, which in turn is why asynchronous learning is sometimes called “location-independent learning.” This interaction is a key characteristic of asynchronous learning, and is contrasted with individuals using self-paced instructional materials such as language learning software independently, with no support from teachers and not as part of formally credentialed courses.
Although asynchronous learning is defined literally by not being synchronous learning, in practice synchronous and asynchronous learning often occur in tandem in particular courses and programs. For example, simultaneous teaching and learning sessions might focus on discussing materials that students have previously read individually (as occurs with flipped classrooms), or alternatively simultaneous lectures might explain information that is subsequently tested through students’ individual completion of online quizzes.
As is elaborated below, another characteristic of asynchronous learning is its reliance on the application of educational technologies that facilitate students’ access to learning materials, and that enable their interactions with educators in the courses that they complete. At their best, these technologies provide students with opportunities to receive high-quality information that is presented efficiently and engagingly, and that also help to build their sense of connectedness with the course teachers and with their fellow students, including through sustained collaboration on learning activities and assessment tasks. At their worst, these technologies can foster students’ sense of alienation and isolation, which in turn can increase their disengagement from their learning.
A further characteristic of asynchronous learning derives from its association with the proposition of being able to learn anywhere and at any time by virtue of the disruption of the requirement for learners and educators to be together at the same time. While this proposition sometimes functions rhetorically and superficially, thereby lending itself to being coopted to support a marketing agenda for commercial purposes, the idea(l) of being able to learn in places and at times convenient to learners is a distinctive attribute of asynchronous learning that accentuates its transformative potential. Of course, the realization of this potential depends on the availability of sustained support for learners that gives life to the asserted affordances of asynchronous learning.
Affordances of Asynchronous Learning
Education affordances refer to the specialized advantages arising from the distinctive features of particular learning strategies. These contended advantages are more definitive and significant benefits than merely claiming that certain educational approaches have the same effectiveness as the generally assumed default modes of provision, such as face-to-face, real-time instruction. Consequently, such advantages help to move the discussion beyond a reductionist comparison of competing approaches to a discourse that values diverse and heterogeneous teaching and learning techniques. This discourse was distilled in the self-confident assertion: “Asynchronous distance education provides an opportunity to create meaningful learning which is not feasible in a traditional classroom, provided that communities of learners that encourage knowledge building and social reinforcement are specifically created” (Moller 1998, p. 115).
Jaffee (1997) presented one of the earliest recorded assertions of the distinguishing educational features of asynchronous learning from the perspective of his teaching discipline of sociology: “…asynchronous online instruction provides the opportunity for the realization of highly desirable pedagogical practices and processes that are difficult if not impossible in a conventional classroom course” (p. 262).
Some of these “…highly desirable pedagogical practices and processes…” that are likely to be applicable in disciplines beyond sociology are centered on the capacity of asynchronous education to facilitate authentic learning activities and critical reflection strategies. This capacity derives from the obligation for learners’ immediate responses to instructional stimuli generally associated with real-time learning being superseded by opportunities to generate more considered and reflective engagement with such stimuli after additional thinking and further reading by learners. This approach is considered to be more lifelike in terms of the professional contexts in which learners are likely to be required to engage with their occupational tasks. Similarly, the asserted affordances of asynchronous education include the encouragement of experiential learning, as well as opportunities for increased sharing of experiences and ideas among students, thereby enhancing collaborative rather than competitive approaches to learning. Paradoxically, asynchronous learning can be more personal and personalized than its synchronous counterpart, depending on the contexts and conditions of the learning environment.
From a different but in some ways related perspective, asynchronous learning environments, when designed and implemented effectively, have been asserted as affording opportunities to democratize such environments by creating a different interaction architecture from that obtained in face-to-face situations. Kanuka (2008) noted the aspirational “…ability of asynchronous communication technologies to give students equal opportunities to contribute,” as well as the asserted capacity to generate “…a democratic learning environment for all students”, and to “…facilitate a learner-centred environment” (p. 104) effectively.
Relatedly, asynchronicity has been associated with valuable strategies of self-affirmation and of helping to clarify one’s values and worldview in social networking sites, with potential and positive applicability for formal learning environments. Other claimed beneficial links include developing self-regulated learning behaviors and acquiring technological self-efficacy.
Constructivism and Asynchronous Learning
Most if not all of these asserted affordances of the distinctive educational advantages of asynchronous learning depend on learners and educators’ active and wholehearted commitment and contributions to learning and teaching for success in asynchronous learning environments. While all learning paradigms can potentially be deployed to enhance such commitment and contributions, there is a powerful association between asynchronous learning and constructivism, the theory that learners make connections between their experiences and ideas in ways that extend and sometimes challenge their developing knowledge frameworks that support them to understand and engage with the world.
For instance, Robinson and Martin (2015) argued that “The communicative affordances of asynchronous learning provide new ways to adopt a social constructivist approach to teaching and learning…. It is this type of environment where discussion, social interaction, collaboration, peer feedback, and group projects can be adopted as teaching and learning strategies to provide the learner with every opportunity for success…” (p. 12).
Similarly, greater academic success and enhanced knowledge construction were associated with students’ greater preparedness to contribute deeply and proactively to asynchronous discussion groups, and also with positive attitudes to online learning environments (Schellens et al. 2007), as well as with highly developed task orientation, thereby accentuating the educational value of asynchronous environments when linked with constructivist teaching and learning. This research finding resonates with the potential of such environments to foster the collaborative rather than competitive approaches to learning and knowledge construction noted above.
There are important program design considerations if asynchronous environments are to be aligned effectively with constructivist principles to foster enhanced learning outcomes. These design considerations include selecting and deploying educationally appropriate technologies; logically sequencing and structuring stimulating instructional materials; creating relevant and transparent individual and group activities for learners; facilitating meaningful and productive student interactions with instructors, fellow students, and learning materials; incorporating both proactive mentoring and active monitoring of discussion fora by instructors; and instituting assessment tasks that allow students to demonstrate their collaborative, engaged, and strategic learning approaches and outcomes.
While constructivism might be assumed to be particularly beneficial for adult learners, inquiry approaches that build on the affordances of asynchronous environments can also be effective in facilitating constructivist approaches for children. Similarly, opinions vary about whether mandating certain forms of overt participation in asynchronous environments is consistent with the principles and values of constructivism, or alternatively with practices of control and normalization that run counter to such principles and values.
Educational Technologies and Asynchronous Learning
As was noted above, there is a crucial and interdependent relationship between asynchronous learning and educational technologies. When this relationship is functioning productively, several educational benefits have been noted as occurring. These benefits include the development of a sense of community and of communities of learners, the enhancement of cognitive learning, students’ perceptions of technologies playing a supportive role in relation to their learning outcomes, and greater information access and communication.
For these distinctive benefits to be realized, educational technologies need to work effectively in facilitating students’ access to high-quality learning materials, and also in supporting those students’ multiple forms of interactions with the instructors, fellow students, and learning materials in the courses that they undertake.
Voting to direct or focus the discussion on areas of group differences and to allow for dynamic (ongoing) changes in evaluation of contributed material [supporting students’ interactions with instructors]
Scaling to promote collective understanding of the group’s views, degrees of agreement, and shared meanings [facilitating students’ interactions with fellow students]
Hypertext (the two-way linking and typing of both links and nodes) to allow the construction and expression of complex relationship structures and individual and collective cognitive maps [facilitating students’ interactions with learning materials]
Visualization to develop the functional equivalent of the periodic table of elements for all other fields of human endeavors [facilitating students’ access to high-quality learning materials]
Communicating protocol structuring to allow for equality of participation by type of communications structuring [supporting students’ interactions with learning materials]
Content structuring to allow asynchronous contributions to be automatically categorized and organized and to facilitate individual problem-solving within a group process [supporting students’ interactions with fellow students] (Hiltz and Turoff 2005, p. 61)
The types of educational technologies that can help to facilitate asynchronous learning in these kinds of ways are as diverse as the contexts of such learning. These technologies include blogs, computer-mediated communication, e-portfolios, hyperlinks, learning management systems, online discussion boards, podcasts, remote access laboratories, reusable learning objects, virtual reality, and wikis, as well as various kinds of social software applications. These technologies are increasingly available in developing as well as developed countries, although their effectiveness depends on the reliability of wide-scale technical infrastructure that is not always present in regional and rural areas of both developed and developing nations. This variability highlights the complex interplay between the educational technologies on which asynchronous learning depends and broader cultural, political, and socioeconomic forces.
Student Engagement and Asynchronous Learning
There is also a complex interrelationship between asynchronous learning and various manifestations of student engagement. A seminal theorization of this interrelationship that remains influential was developed as a community of inquiry model by Garrison et al. (1999). This model posits that student engagement in online learning environments, including asynchronous environments, entails three forms of presence: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence. While the first and the third of these relate directly to teaching strategies, and accordingly are elaborated in the next section of this text, social presence depends both on instructors working to establish productive interactions that are conducive to successful learning and on students responding to those opportunities by exhibiting their own strong and sustained presence in asynchronous environments, reflected in their active participation in learning activities and assessment tasks.
Students working in asynchronous learning environments demonstrate a range of approaches to developing and exhibiting their social presence. For example, students vary considerably in the length and number of posts that they submit to online discussion boards, prompting instructors to adopt equally varied positions about whether such posts should be optional or mandated in terms of formative and summative assessment. Instructors vary also in their perceptions of students who demonstrate lurking – the set of student behaviors associated with presumably reading the instructional materials and other students’ posts without making regular and substantial posts of their own. Some educators see lurking as denoting lazy and disengaged learners who are exploiting the hard work of other students; other educators perceive lurking as reflecting introverted personalities and/or strategic approaches to engaging with asynchronous learning environments.
The potential associations between students’ social presence in asynchronous environments and other dimensions of learning have been explored extensively in the scholarly literature. For instance, learners’ engaged social presence in such environments can contribute directly to intercultural education and social interchange, and also to helping them to apply their growing identities as successful learners to enrich nonacademic aspects of their lives. At the same time, these outcomes are neither automatic nor easy, but depend instead on the design and enactment of carefully considered teaching strategies.
Teaching Strategies and Asynchronous Learning
As was noted above, the community of inquiry model (Garrison et al. 1999) assigns particular responsibilities to educators working in asynchronous environments related to the development of cognitive presence and teaching presence, in addition to their requirement to facilitate effective social presence by students. Cognitive presence connotes sustained and systematic design and planning of teaching and learning activities and assessment tasks that foster the growth of high-level critical thinking and related skills linked with the particular content of the respective courses and programs. Teaching presence, responsibility for which rests formally with instructors but can be assumed partially by students, refers to the selection and structuring of instructional materials with which students engage in order to maximize their learning outcomes.
A widely diverse range of particular teaching strategies has been developed to build on the distinctive affordances of teaching in asynchronous environments. These strategies include the provision of audio feedback to augment written feedback to students, building respectfully and rigorously on students’ posts to online discussion boards to deepen their engagement with learning materials, exploring the educative possibilities of role-playing and scenario deconstruction arising from virtual worlds, and devising assessment tasks that mobilize the affordances of critical reflection attendant on asynchronicity, as well as the insights gleaned from elaborating the sociomaterial relationships that abound in asynchronous learning environments (Burcks et al. 2019).
A similarly wide range of criteria has been applied to evaluating the success or otherwise of specific teaching strategies in asynchronous learning environments. These criteria include the clear communication of the course’s learning objectives, helping to develop students’ motivation and self-regulated learning capabilities, the degree to which genuinely deep reflection by students and instructors alike is promoted, and the opportunities to promote student interactions with the course that are simultaneously engaged and independent, thereby contributing actively to learners’ continuing growth of maturity and understanding.
At its best, asynchronous learning exploits the distinctive affordances of location- and time-independent learning to extend students’ knowledge, understandings, and self-regulated capabilities by maximizing their opportunities for critical reflection, by drawing on the benefits of constructivism and the productive features of educational technologies, and by promoting student engagement and thoughtful teaching strategies. At its worst, asynchronous learning perpetuates learner alienation and disengagement. Students and educators alike share responsibilities for helping to achieve the former, rather than for being complicit in bringing about the latter.
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