CHAPTER 7: Synchronous and Asynchronous Activities


In the previous chapter, we looked at implementing a blended learning course or programme within a learning management system, and we introduced open educational resources as tools for providing content and supporting learning. In other words, we have so far considered the structure and the fixed elements of our design. But we have not yet asked what our learners will do in our blended course or programme.

In this chapter, our focus will be on the learning activities themselves. An effective blended learning course or programme will include a balance between synchronous (time-coordinated) and asynchronous (time-independent) activities, and we will examine both in turn, including their benefits and their challenges. Finally, we will look at why the careful integration of both forms of activity is essential for effective blended learning and how the Community of Inquiry framework can provide us with a guide to activity design.

Synchronous Activities for Blended Learning

We will begin our discussion by looking at synchronous activities as part of the blend in a learning experience where all students participate in the same synchronous and asynchronous activities. Note that this form of blending is different from having blended students, where some participate online and others participate in person. Blending online and in-person students is more like former videoconferencing models, where the teacher is there in person with a number of students while other students are participating virtually via some type of technology. This is blended participation, but not blended learning! See Wang, Quek and Hu (2017) for more information about designing blended participation environments.

Contemporary blended learning allows the same students in the same course to experience both synchronous engagement, where participants are doing the same thing at the same time, and asynchronous engagement, where students are learning together separately at different times.

Let’s start by exploring the synchronous opportunities of blended learning. Synchronous learning is not the same as in-person learning; synchronous learning activities can be created both in person and online. In fact, we can no longer refer to in-person, place-based learning participation as “face to face” or “classroom based.” We have long been able to be face to face using technology, although expensive videoconferencing equipment was required until Internet software applications became available. Now, virtual classrooms and face-to-face opportunities are readily available at a much lower cost. We no longer have to miss body language and facial expressions when working at a distance.

As defined by the eLearning industry, synchronous learning happens in real time. The learners can meet in person at the same place, or log on to an e Learning platform that offers web conferencing or webinar tools to engage with the instructor and peers. This can be as simple as an online chat room where all agree to meet at a specific time and date, or as complex as a tool that offers presentation space, webcam software, and chat boxes. Some research suggests that distracted or unmotivated learners benefit from the active, collaborative synchronous experience. Self-guided learners may be in less need of remediation but can also benefit from the higher level of immediate support and direction offered in synchronous learning experiences (Pappas, 2015a).

In a blended course or programme, synchronous learning is often in-person, place-based classroom learning. However, blended learning can also mean technology-enabled synchronous learning. In this case, the synchronous engagement may be text based but in real time at the same time. More often, however, it uses technology that provides the full range of visual cues normally available with in-person, place-based engagement, and the communication method is primarily verbal, allowing for dialogue in real time. Some examples of these technologies are videoconferencing, audio conferencing, live web-casting, online chat or instant messaging. Popular but proprietary applications such as Skype, Zoom, Blue Jeans or Adobe Connect offer video, audio and chat; Big Blue Button is an open-source alternative designed for online learning and can be integrated directly into most learning management systems.

Examples of Synchronous Activities for Models of Blended Learning

Synchronous learning has some advantages, whether it is in person or technologically enabled and online. A great deal of research identifies the importance of immediate feedback as learners participate in a learning experience; synchronous learning provides more opportunity for such feedback, allowing learners to make immediate adjustments to skill, knowledge and performance. Group activities such as brainstorming are more easily provided and facilitated synchronously, and they support cognitive presence in the exploration phase or the more difficult analysis and integration phases. The social obligation to be present and participate adds a layer of motivation and enhances social presence, encouraging communication and adding to group cohesion. These in turn can support increased engagement and improve the likelihood of deep, meaningful learning.

Asynchronous Activities for Blended Learning

As the name suggests, asynchronous learning is about learning that happens not at the same time or in the same place. Students learn at their own pace and time from anywhere in the world. Most asynchronous learning environments provide teaching materials online; learners read/view the materials and then participate in online discussion forums. As such, asynchronous learning involves the ability to maintain communication without having to meet in the same place and at the same time. Asynchronous learning networks (ALNs) all have a common conference space (e.g., a virtual blackboard, email, a chat room) available where everyone can post, read or respond to a message, all within the same shared spaced. (Varde & Fogler,n.d.).

Asynchronous activities allow learners to engage in learning activities at their convenience, unrestricted by when other learners or the instructor participate in the course. Each learner decides when and how to engage with the online resources, and the necessary tools and information are available at all times. To provide structure and support, there are deadlines and schedules that learners must follow; some instructors provide maximum flexibility with loose deadlines, while others may require learners to participate and follow timelines more strictly. As we saw in the previous chapter, asynchronous and blended courses usually have a learning management system that provides a common space where learners can socialise, post questions, turn in assignments or engage in suggested or self-directed learning activities.

Examples of Asynchronous Activities for Models of Blended Learning

The online learning management space for asynchronous learning activities is a complex space with many activity opportunities. Learners will often be in the space alone, yet through their engagement with the written discussions, artifacts and other traces of activity by the instructor and other learners, the space can feel active and dynamic.

To encourage learners to be present as whole persons and not just students, create a “social café” for them to stop in and share personal and social aspects of their lives. Individual students can decide how comfortable they are with sharing personal information, or rules can be discussed and laid out by the group. There can also be a “news” forum, where interesting events or applications related to the subject of the course can be identified and discussed. The mainstay of asynchronous learning is a weekly discussion board, where weekly content is presented and discussion questions are raised. Discussion boards can be led by instructors, or students can be assigned topics to facilitate throughout the course. Audio and video clips, visuals, graphics and links to other collaborative spaces or information are provided in all these spaces.

Balancing the Practical Implications of Synchronous and Asynchronous


So how much synchronous engagement should be included in our blended learning design, and how much should be asynchronous? Of our synchronous activities, how much should be in person and place based, and how much can be offered through virtual tools?

Synchronous opportunities must first be considered and weighed against the more convenient and accessible asynchronous learning. Secondly, once the amount of desired synchronous learning is determined, the choice between in-person and online synchronous learning must be considered. Throughout, the learner must remain at the center of our decisions. As we saw in Chapter 2, the Complex Adaptive Blended Learning System emphasizes close alignment between technology and learners.

For some learners, limited network bandwidth or the greater complexity of synchronous technologies may create obstacles for synchronous learning. The long-standing use of asynchronous learning in distance education also means that asynchronous tools outnumber those for synchronous learning and can be as simple as some form of text-based chat. Asynchronous learning provides flexibility and convenience, without the travel time or costs of in-person synchronous learning or the bandwidth demands of technology-based synchronous learning. There are also training implications of additional technology usage: blends that include technologically enabled synchronous learning must include the support needed to adjust to the new learning environment.

On the other hand, while synchronous learning may impose restrictions for both teachers and students in terms of accessibility, convenience and flexibility, particularly with respect to time, the benefits of traditional classroom engagement and immediacy are difficult to achieve with asynchronous learning.

Here are the most critical questions to review when deciding how much synchronous learning to include in your blend:

  1. What are the costs to learners of being required to engage synchronously?
  2. Do the benefits of increased immediate support and dialogue outweigh the costs of being required to engage synchronously?
  3. Are the costs of travel and time to be present in person greater than the costs of having to ensure the necessary bandwidth and the skill development to participate synchronously online?

The following table outlines some of the advantages and disadvantages of synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Table 7.1. Advantages and disadvantages of synchronous learning



  • Discussion and collaboration in real time
  • Immediate feedback
  • Time and cost savings
  • Instructor assessment of learning via observation
  • Increased engagement and motivation via social presence
  • Requirement to participate in the same place at the same  time
  • Can require advanced technical infrastructure and skill
  • Quality of engagement depends on facilitator skill
  • Learner  self-pacing  less  available


  • Anytime, anywhere learning
  • Convenient access to course process and materials
  • Time for research and reflection before  responding
  • Instructor assessment of learning via reflection and thoughtful response
  • Written expression more thorough and detailed
  • Potential for feelings of isolation, lack of  connection
  • Self-pacing requires increased levels of self-direction
  • Quality of engagement depends on facilitator skill
  • No immediate access to instructor


Preparing to Design for Learning through Synchronous and Asynchronous


Now that you understand the affordances and possibilities of each, Table 7.2 presents some examples of how to use synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities.

Table 7.2. Using synchronous and asynchronous learning



  • Reflecting on complex issues
  • When synchronous meetings cannot be scheduled because of work, family or other commitments
  • Discussing less complex issues
  • Getting acquainted
  • Planing tasks


  • Students have more time to reflect because the sender does not expect an immediate answer
  • Students become more committed and motivated because a quick response is expected


  • Use asynchronous means such as email, discussion boards and blogs
  • Use synchronous means such as videoconferencing, IM and chat, and complement with face-to-face meetings


  • Student expected to reflect on a course topic and maintain blog journal
  • Students may critically assess their peers’ ideas through a discussion forum
  • Students expected to work in groups may be advised to IM as support for getting to know one another
  • Instructor wants to present concepts from the literature in a simplified way by giving an online lecture using videoconferencing

Source: Hrastinski (2008)

Note that the blend of activities includes different roles for both instructor and learner, and that synchronous learning includes more verbal engagement while asynchronous activities are more text driven and production based. Social, cognitive and teaching presence will be part of both synchronous learning (whether in person or online) and asynchronous learning.

Besides the practical implications described above and the additional learning involved in the expanded use of technology itself, research provides evidence that the blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning increases the quality of student–student and student–teacher interactions, encourages expanded and increased student engagement, and may improve learning outcomes (Hastie, Hung, Chen and Kinshuk, 2010).

However, there are pedagogical advantages and disadvantages to both types of activities. Some learners like synchronous learning because in-person and/or face-to-face instruction provides a human connection still unavailable with just voice or text interaction. For others, asynchronous online learning environments provide more thinking and reflection time, allowing for greater precision and direct responses to complex questions. By deliberately including supports for these multiple activities, well-designed blended learning opportunities increase the likelihood that all learners will benefit to a greater or lesser extent from all types of learning activities, making the development of learning competence a further outcome of blended learning.

The Community of Inquiry theoretical framework can guide, support and direct your design of blended teaching and learning activities. The framework is particularly valuable here because it places at its core the active presence of a teacher working toward the active cognitive and social presence of all the participants. Unlike the lecturer transmitting accepted knowledge in traditional face-to-face teaching (the sage on the stage), or the role of instructor in traditional distance education (a guide on the side), the teacher in a blended environment is collaboratively present in designing, facilitating and directing the educational experience.

The chart in Figure 7.1, adapted from Vaughan, Cleveland-Innes and Garrison (2013), provides examples for creating a learning climate in your blended design.

INTRODUCTORY LETTER OR VIDEO CLIP Consider composing a letter or creating a YouTube video clip that welcomes students, briefly describes your teaching philosophy and suggests the role you envision for students in the course. This letter or video clip can then be posted to an introductory discussion forum in a learning management system, where students can comment on your introduction and also introduce themselves.
POWERFUL LEARNING EXPERIENCE DISCUSSION On the first day of class,engage your student in an exercise  where they each reflect back on an event that was a very powerful learning experience for them — it might or might not have been school related. Have the students first individually record their reflections and then form small groups to share their learning experiences and discuss why they were powerful. Debrief as a whole class about what makes learning experiences powerful, and relate the discussion to the blended teaching and learning approaches that you have envisioned  for
your course.
LEARNING PREFERENCES INVENTORY Ask students to take a learning preferences inventory (a number of them can be found on the Internet) and to reflect on their individual results. Ask them to answer: “What specific learning strategies and study behaviors will help  me succeed in this course?” Individual written reflections can be turned in, posted to a discussion forum or shared in small groups.
DISCUSSION WITH PREVIOUS STUDENTS Invite a couple of students from a previous class to attend the introductory Face-to-face session or to join an online discussion to talk about the nature of the course as they experienced it. They can share study approaches they found helpful and generally give suggestions about how best to take advantage of the blended learning environment to succeed in the course.

Figure 7.1. Activities in blended learning


Effective blended learning requires the careful planning of both synchronous and asynchronous activities. In this chapter, we have reviewed both forms of learning, paying particular attention to the practical and pedagogical implications of each.

We saw that synchronous activities, where participants learn together by doing the same thing at the same time, offer a degree of human connection, engagement and immediacy that is difficult to achieve through asynchronous learning, but they also have significant practical implications that can limit their flexibility or accessibility. We further saw that asynchronous activities, where students learn together but at separate times and in separate locations, may feel more isolating for learners; conversely, they can allow learners to achieve deeper reflection and greater precision when confronted with complex  problems.

To find the right balance of synchronous and asynchronous activities for your own blended learning course or programme, keep the learner at the center of your decisions, including the additional technological demands and support that may be required. The Community of Inquiry framework provides a particularly valuable guide for designing integrated blended learning experiences that include social, cognitive and teaching presences for your learners.

With this chapter on activities for your blended learning course or programme, our journey through the design and implementation of blended learning is almost complete. In our next chapter, we will look at the evaluation of your design, including a review of all the design steps we have taken so far.


  1. Online learning now can be face to face and in real time. What do you think are the main challenges of online synchronous activities?
  2. Consider the similarities and differences between meeting face to face in person and face to face online. In your current education environment, how will you balance these two face-to- face opportunities in your blended course design?
  3. How do you currently create a good learning climate in your courses? How will this change in a blended design?

Resources for Further Reading

To consider synchronous and asynchronous learning in the context of digital education broadly, we recommend a recent book by Dr. Tony Bates. It is an excellent reference, freely available via the Internet:

Bates, T. (2015). Teaching in the digital age. BC Open Textbooks. Retrieved from


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