Synchronous and Asynchronous Online Learning

What is Asynchronous Online Learning?

Asynchronous learning means that the instructor and the students in the course all engage with the course content at different times (and from different locations). The instructor provides students with a sequence of units which the students move through as their schedules permit. Each unit might make use of assigned readings or uploaded media, online quizzes, discussion boards, and more. The instructor guides the students, provides them with feedback, and assesses them as needed.

What is Synchronous Online Learning?

Synchronous learning means that the instructor and the students in the course all engage with the course content at the same time (but from different locations). The instructor interacts with students in real time by means of tools such as WebEx to livestream audio, video, and presentations, Bongo Virtual Classroom to hold live classes or meetings, LEARN’s chat feature to engage in live conversations, Google Docs to simultaneously edit documents, and more.

Which one should you use?

Synchronous and asynchronous online learning each have their place, depending on what an instructor is trying to achieve. For example, a synchronous (live) presentation allows students to ask questions while the presentation is in progress; an asynchronous (recorded) presentation allows students time to deliberate and reflect before asking their questions (in, say, an online discussion group). Live chat office hours (synchronous) allows the instructor and a student to have an interaction that resembles a real conversation; using a discussion board (asynchronous) to collect and respond to questions works better for students whose schedules wouldn’t permit them to engage in a live chat.

Generally, synchronous online learning tends to be used sparingly because of potential scheduling and technical challenges. An online course might not provide students with any synchronous learning opportunities, or only occasionally. Typically, online courses rely mostly on asynchronous learning opportunities.

Here is a more complete account of the advantages and disadvantages of synchronous and asynchronous learning:




  • Live lectures allow students to ask questions in real-time, as the lecture is proceeding.
  • Live lectures allow the instructor to gauge the students understanding in real-time, and adjust the lecture accordingly.
  • Live lectures allow for an increased sense of the instructor actually “being there” – that is, more social presence and instructor presence.
  • Live chats allow for real-time interaction, like a conversation.
  • Not equitable: some students will not be able to participate at the required time due to technical or scheduling problems.
  • AODA (accessibility) requirements may be more difficult to meet -- for example, providing captioning for a live presentation. 
  • Some students might be in different time zones than the instructor – for example, the instructor’s 2:00 pm live presentation might be 1:00 am for a student residing in Australia.




  • Asynchronous (recorded) lectures allow students time to digest the lecture content and/or conduct further research before posing questions (in a discussion group). This is better for more deliberate thinkers and also, in some cases, for students whose first language is not English.
  • Students can access the course content, and interact with the instructor and their peers, whenever it suits their schedule.
  • Students can re-watch recorded lectures to deepen their learning, or to review content prior to a final exam. Students can likewise review threads in a discussion group, long after those discussions have taken place.
  • More democratic: during a live lecture, only a small number of students will be able to ask questions; in an online discussion group (following a recorded lecture) all students can pose questions or make comments.
  • Allows students to work around unanticipated challenges such as falling sick for a week, or dealing with a family emergency.
  • Students might feel less connected to an instructor when they are watching a recorded lecture.
  • Students might put off engaging with a recorded lecture because they can always “do it later.”
  • Asynchronous learning requires more “staying on task” skills – that is, it requires a higher level of commitment and independent learning skills.

System Requirements

Educational tools can be construed in two ways: in terms of their immediacy and in terms of their bandwidth.

  • Immediacy means how quickly the participants in an interaction can respond to one another. A conversation between two people sitting at a table is extremely immediate; a conversation taking place via an online chat tool is nearly as immediate. Email is less immediate – someone might take hours or days to respond; likewise with online discussion groups. Prerecorded video is very low immediacy: there is no interaction between the instructor and the student unless it takes place by email or in a discussion group after the student has watched it.
  • Bandwidth refers to the rate of data transfer, similar to how much water can travel through a hose. Tools that require low bandwidth are ones that are text-based like email, chat, discussion groups, and so on. Tools requiring medium bandwidth are those that are audio-based like podcasts and mini-lectures or discussions that make use of audio but not video. Tools that require the highest bandwidth are ones that employ video. Moreover, live video requires a more “robust” bandwidth than recorded video, which makes it more prone to “freezing” and dropping out than recorded video.

Both immediacy and bandwidth should be considered when choosing an online tool. Using limited or compromised bandwidth – for example, a data plan on a smart phone – students will be challenged to participate in a live video presentation. A recorded version might be preferable. If an online meeting with a student doesn’t require video, use just audio. If  the student needs to see something the instructor is doing during the meeting, and needs to be able to ask questions while it is taking place, then live video will be the best option. The chart below will help you think through the dimensions of immediacy and bandwidth (a larger version is also available as a PDF). 

Tools in the green (lower left) quadrant are the “unappreciated workhorses” – they’re not fancy, but get the job done. The blue (lower right) quadrant represents tools that provide practical immediacy; the yellow quadrant (top left) includes tools that provide audio and video on demand (yellow); and the red quadrant (top right) represents tools that emulate face-to-face conversations, albeit with high bandwidth demands.

The blog post Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All offers more insight on teaching with low-bandwidth tools.

Waterloo’s Centre for Extended Learning explains the principles and process by which they develop their online courses in How People Learn, Abridged Version.

Using Bongo and WebEx for Synchronous and Asynchronous Teaching

Bongo Use Cases:

  • Real-time classroom and seminar meetings (synchronous + asynchronous recording

    • Instructors can post lecture slides, create break-out rooms, and record meetings, among other features

  • Video and multi-media assignments (asynchronous)
    • These are assignments in which the final Product created by the students is a video or audio recording, such as student presentations, creative assignments, interviews, and role playing
    • Instructors can create either individual or group assignments
    • Students can create videos with Bongo or upload video or audio that they’ve create separately
    • Students can combine video segments into a continuous final presentation
    • Students can coordinate group projects and schedule their own real-time meetings in Bongo
    • Students can record their own Bongo meetings and submit them to the assignment
    • Assignments can be peer-reviewed via rating scale r rubric, along with comments
  • Video question and answer activities (asynchronous)
    • Instructors create short video or audio question prompts; students respond by video
    • Students can be given time t respond to prompts, or be asked to respond “on the spot” with camera activating automatically
    • Has been used successfully in spoken language courses and other settings where spur-of-the-moment question responses are helpful to promote learning.

Learn More:

WebEx Use Cases

An audio and video conferencing solution designed for group collaborations and meetings, or large-scale web-based events. WebEx includes features such as:

Accessibility Considerations for Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning

Record and Post Live Content

  • Record all live lectures and post the recording so that students can view and review the lecture later. 

  • The quality of audio and absence of background noise is important.  

  • Post content for live lectures in advance of the live lecture so students who need to review the material using assistive devices can do so before the lecture.

  • For live and recorded video, captions should be provided for the audio. Many online video tools do this automatically.

Provide Alternatives

  • Synchronous discussions can pose barriers for students who have difficulty entering, following, and keeping up with the discussion. Grading for these types of activities is not recommended, unless there are alternatives. For example, you can summarize the live discussion and students can participate asynchronously over a period of time. Another example would be asking students to read something during the synchronous session and participate in a live discussion based on what they’ve read.

  • Make PowerPoint slides accessible


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.


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