Understanding Online Degrees – Synchronous vs. Asynchronous
Keeping in mind that each client’s situation is different, here are a few things we consider when we evaluate synchronous vs. asynchronous programs.
What does “synchronous” look like?
Most of us know how an asynchronous online course works. Your class syllabus will include deadlines for activities during the week, including discussion group posts, readings, writing papers, projects, watching videos, etc. The emphasis on each area will depend on that instructor’s syllabus.
In a synchronous course, students meet at a specific time once or twice per week, usually in the evenings. You’ll login to an online class which might look like a corporate video conference call where you would see the instructor and other students.
The course is typically a video lecture, ideally with interactive graphics and content along with the ability to raise your hand and ask/answer questions via video or chat. In pretty much all cases the class is recorded for later viewing.
Colleges are getting much better at developing live online courses with higher production quality and improved technical tools. The goal is to not only mimic the traditional classroom but improve upon it using the myriad of technologies available. , A good example of where the production quality could be headed for higher ed are the on-demand courses at Masterclass. Even though it’s not a LIVE class (Masterclass provides non-degree “training” on popular topics), the cinema-level production is a worthy goal. Here’s a sample of learning to play tennis from Serena.
Synchronous and Degree level
In our work we find that the higher the degree level the more often live courses may be a part of the curriculum. Bachelor’s degrees rarely require a live presence in an online class, we definitely see them more often with Master’s and Doctoral programs. At these levels the group dynamic is much more important, particularly if it’s a cohort program (the same students in the same classes from beginning to end). The complexity of the subject matter in a grad degree may make live learning more useful, and some institutions want to try to mimic a work environment by emphasizing live collaboration.
Even within a degree program there can be a mix of synchronous and asynchronous courses. In this case some courses require live attendance, while others allow students to either join live or review the recording. This is a key area we include in our analysis so there are no surprises for clients!
Pros and Cons
That being said, a synchronous program can work well for certain students. The biggest consideration is learning style – if you learn better in a traditional, interactive manner and need that instant feedback then synchronous is a great option.
If you’re in a cohort program and/or a program with a lot of team projects, then a synchronous environment – either in classes or group conferences – can be a plus. This is common in many MBA programs for example.
The negative perceptions of online learning are less of an issue these days as online classes are becoming a norm in higher ed, but those perceptions are still a reality in some situations. If you feel you need to emphasize the “rigor” of a program – to an employer or in your industry – then live courses may help alleviate those concerns.
When choosing a synchronous program, it’s important to remember that the weekly 3-6 hours (or more) spent in the live class is a fraction of the weekly work required to succeed the course. Be prepared for a lot of offline work each week of the course.
Whether it’s a fully or partially synchronous degree program, this type of virtual classroom environment is a crucial factor that we consider when investigating degree programs for clients.