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A discussion of the best way in which synchronous and asynchronous online discussion can be combined

Page history last edited by Susan Johnson 11 years ago

A discussion of the best way in which synchronous and asynchronous online discussion can be combined to maximise student learning






Student ID

Will Fastiggi


Susan Johnson


Nick Kiley






The Internet, and more specifically Web 2.0, enables not only asynchronous communication, in which students are separated by time and space, but also synchronous communication, in which students can participate simultaneously.


The primary purpose of any online communication tool for education is to provide a means of discussion and collaboration between participants, thereby enabling the sharing of knowledge. For Vygotsky (1962), discussion and collaboration are fundamental to learning because the act of articulating an idea is itself a contribution to what it means to know that idea - this has formed the basis of an approach that is now referred to as "social constructivism" (Laurillard, 2012, p. 49). Swan (2005) summarises the importance of social constructivism for online practices by making the suggestion that “learning is essentially a social activity, [and] that meaning is constructed through communication, collaborative activity, and interactions with others. It highlights the role of social interactions in meaning making... [and] knowledge construction” (p. 5).


Integrating different communication technologies, ranging from asynchronous to synchronous, provides the potential to improve the learning process by encouraging collaborative learning and knowledge sharing. Ashley (2003) suggests that the “integration and synthesis of these tools creates a container that turns out to be far greater than the sum of its parts and can become the single portal for all community activities.” However, as Oztok et al. (2013) state, it is not enough to simply assume that the combination of synchronous and asynchronous media carries the benefits of each type of media in isolation. What is needed then is an understanding of how best to combine these communication methods in online distance education in order to bring forth desirable pedagogical outcomes.

This Paper explores the affordances for the learner of combining both asynchronous and synchronous communication methods in an online environment, and investigates the best way to do so.




Synchronous Communication

The on-going development of Web 2.0 tools has led to an increased focus on synchronous tools as a means of encouraging student online interaction as well as further promoting collaboration. Certainly, people are becoming more used to using synchronous tools. Salmon (2003) points out that “in everyday life, synchronous communication is becoming increasingly important” (p.68), and this engagement with synchronous communication can be seen in its growing application to online learning and education.


This increased attention to the affordances of synchronous communication can be seen in a lot of the recent literature, in particular how it can be used to reflect theories of learning and transfer them from the classroom. Peterson notes that, “The bulk of findings reported in the current literature suggest that real time interaction over networks may support aspects of second language development.” (Peterson, 2006). It is this discussion that seems to be driving an increased assessment of how synchronous interaction can support and build on the asynchronous interaction already occurring online and how it can increase the collaborative nature of online learning.




In distance learning, learners are removed from each other and from the teacher. The increasing range of synchronous tools has helped to reduce this and promote immediacy. As Bates points out, “Synchronous teaching has the benefit of spontaneity and immediacy, provided that it is offered at times and places that are convenient for students. Video-conferencing is a good example of a synchronous technology. Although the learner may be distant from the teacher, both teacher and learner must be present at the same time in video-conferencing.” (Bates, 2005 Chapter 3)


There is a danger in an online environment that the learners can feel that they are alone and learning as an individual. Although asynchronous tools offer an opportunity for students to work together on tasks and discussions, there can be a feeling of being disconnected from the conversation or task as learners have to wait for contributions from others. Clearly the opportunity to work synchronously, whilst maybe not affording the opportunity to reflect and research their contributions, can overcome some of this distance, not only in space but in time and interaction. Salmon highlights this: “The use of synchronous conferencing through the Internet offers participants the feeling of immediate contact, motivation and some fun, which is especially valuable if they are studying largely alone and at a distance, or where there’s a need for them to experience a wide range of learning opportunities.” (Salmon, 2003 p.69). Here she touches on the motivational property of this feeling of immediacy: the idea that the learner is not alone and has shared goals. Another important factor that Salmon touches on here is the need for learners to experience a range of different learning opportunities, an idea that is important if we are thinking about different learner types, where one learner may value the opportunity for reflection that asynchronous tools afford, whereas another may feel that the interaction with others afforded by synchronous tools will promote their learning more.


As well as immediate contact with other learners, another useful aspect of synchronous tools is the "immediate access to the instructor to ask questions and receive answer" (Skylar, 2009). Receiving an immediate answer can be useful in terms of maintaining motivation and the immediacy of synchronous communication can also give the tutor an indication of the level of understanding of the learners.



Social Presence 

We can see from this idea of immediacy that the concept of presence is important in online learning, and a key advantage of synchronous tools is the ability to increase this feeling of presence. In Skylar's study she found that, "73.2% of the students would prefer to take an online course which uses synchronous web conferencing lectures rather than an online course which uses asynchronous text-based lectures" (Skylar, 2009). So, what lies behind this preference?


If we take the chat function, for example, Paulus and Phipps noted that "Chat has been seen as more social and interactive than asynchronous environments" (Paulus & Phipps, 2008) and taking this even further, they found that, "Participants have been found to contribute more equally to synchronous conversations" (Paulus & Phipps, 2008, citing research by Pena-Shaef, Martin & Gray (2001)). They qualified this by discussing that, "the students were more interactive, participated more equally and socialized in the chat environments, whereas in the asynchronous environments they posted opinions but engaged in little to no interaction." (Paulus & Phipps, 2008). Hines and Pearl also noted that while synchronous discussions are more difficult to implement than asynchronous discussions, “they have the advantages of providing a greater sense of presence and generating spontaneity” (Hines & Pearl, 2004, p. 34). In terms of promoting student collaboration and a constructivist approach to learning, this will clearly be advantageous, if, as Paulus and Phipps suggest, there is an increase in interaction and socialization and learners increase their participation.


In asynchronous communication there is often a large contrast between those learners who post frequently on forums, for example, and those who vicariously interact, but make less contribution, thus making it harder to promote collaboration and constructivist learning. However, we also need to consider whether quieter, more introverted students will benefit more from asynchronous tools such as forums.



Real-time Collaboration 

One of the key challenges of learning in an online environment is trying to replicate this collaborative constructivism that is promoted in the classroom and promote negotiation of meaning when learners are physically remote from each other.


In Skylar's research she found that, "87.8% of the students felt that participating in synchronous web conferencing lectures increased their understanding of the course material." (Skylar, 2009) Whether these benefits were real or perceived, it will clearly have an impact on student motivation and their future willingness to engage in these synchronous activities. However, it can be stated that there does seem to be some improvement in what people learn. Beatty, whilst discussing Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), states that, "Learning during the ZPD depends upon full social interaction. Vygotsky felt that the range of skills that would be developed with teacher guidance or through peer collaboration would exceed those that might be achieved by a learner working alone." (Beatty, 2010) Of course, this teacher guidance and peer collaboration can be achieved asynchronously, but if we take into account all the discussion in the literature about the increase in interaction and social involvement in a synchronous environment, then there should be increased skills development. In fact, Paulus and Phipps noted that in a study of teachers working together online, "Levin, He and Robbins (2006) found higher levels of critical reflection in the tasks which were completed after small groups of preservice teachers discussed the cases synchronously." (Paulus & Phipps, 2008)


Synchronous tools clearly give learners the opportunity to interact and collaborate in this way, thus supporting their opportunities for structured, constructed learning. Paulus and Phipps also noted that in their study, "Participants engaged in negotiation of meaning in the chat in a way that did not occur in the asynchronous forum. This included asking, answering, challenging and responding, moves which are consistent with previous research" (Paulus & Phipps, 2008). Lee, in fact, takes things further and suggests that an online synchronous environment might be even better than face-to-face communication: “self-correction may occur more often through CMC than during face-to-face interaction because all posting messages are displayed on the computer screen, allowing learners to see and check what they have produced, and correct mistakes when necessary.” (Lee, 2002). This allowance for 'on-the-spot correction' could apply to a lot of chat-based interaction, not just language learning, and the ability to reflect on your own as well as others' contributions should be useful in helping build meaning and understanding.



Technical Issues 

Paulus and Phipps noted that there are several potential disadvantages to working synchronously: "Inconvenience, technical difficulties and incoherent conversations were the greatest drawbacks to the chat environment." (Paulus & Phipps, 2008)


One clear disadvantage of synchronous communication is the potential for technical difficulties. Even students in the same location working together online can experience difficulties on the technical-side. In Paulus and Phipps' study they reported on some of the participants feelings: "Participants reported several technical difficulties. Jean shared, 'The first time we all decided to meet Mary and I were the only two that could get on . . . we waited for an hour to see if they would join . . . The second time we all got in but one of the group members [Robert] kept getting kicked out . . . I say, chat stinks.'" (Paulus & Phipps, 2008). Wang and Chen also reported from their study that, “some participants were frustrated by sound quality and technical problems”. (Wang & Chen, 2003). We can see from both of these examples that there can be a frustration in trying to communicate synchronously, and potentially this could lead to the learners developing a negative affective filter and getting less from the experience. This frustration can be overcome by combining synchronous and asynchronous devices so that learners can maintain social presence in synchronous forms but the asynchronous tools can help circumvent the difficulties demonstrated here and promote reflective, higher-level interaction.




If learners are not in the same location, this can also cause problems. "Synchronous chat environments provide place-independent opportunities for conversation, but they are not time-independent as everyone must be logged in at the same time." (Paulus & Phipps, 2008). The very advantage of being able to be in different places whilst working together can be overridden by the need to be online together, and depending on distance and so on, this can be difficult. The problems can be confounded further if some participants do not have Internet access at home, as can be seen in the study from Paulus and Phipps and the response of a participant: "Ann explained in her reflection, 'Not having the Internet at home, I don't like the fact that we all have to be on the computer at the same time. It's really hard to have 4 people at a computer at the same time when we all have different schedules.'" (Paulus & Phipps, 2008).



Managing Interaction 

One of Paulus and Phipps' participants commented that, "'The chat was ok but it was hard to keep track of what everyone was saying. We were all typing at the same time.'" (Paulus & Phipps, 2008) Another noted that they, "'found it to be very difficult to keep up with the flow, due to the other group members moving ahead to a different topic too soon, or not being able to type what I wanted to say fast enough.'" (Paulus & Phipps, 2008). These issues could then make it difficult for learning to take place as learners, even though they have the text available, lose the opportunity to interact and engage with the issues. This comes up frequently in the literature: “we also have to take into account the influence of typing speed and ability, which increases the lag time between thought and comment.” (Lloyd-Williams, 2007, p. 6). This need to try and keep up with the conversation can then lead to a reduction in engagement, as noted by Warschauer: “Discussants can be so overwhelmed with messages that they ignore what others write and the conversation devolves into monologues (Moran, 1991).” Warschauer (1997).


There is also the potential here that vicarious learners, or those students who are more introverted and prefer to think through their contributions before posting, could quickly become excluded from the conversation. These are the people who may then find asynchronous tools such as forums a more viable tool for reflection and interaction.


We can see from these examples that it is then important for the teacher to be careful in the setting up of the activities: "Lack of explicit requirements for participation can result in little to no discussion." (Paulus & Phipps, 2008)




Asynchronous Communication

Asynchronous communication allows communication that “takes place outside of real time”, where there is a "time lag" between the writing and reading of messages (http://academictech.doit.wisc.edu/ideas/otr/communication/asynchronous-synchronous). Examples of asynchronous communication tools include discussion boards, wikis, and email (http://www.asaecenter.org/Resources/articledetail.cfm?itemnumber=13572).




Where synchronous communication tools offer the immediacy of response, it can be argued that asynchronous communication offers students flexibility in their response. According to Murphy:


“The online asynchronous, text-based discussion … provides benefits that result from freedom from temporal and spatial constraints.”

(Murphy, 2004)


This provides advantages for distance learning courses, where students can be spread across locations, time zones, and/or have limited time windows for learning – for example, due to work commitments. Therefore, a positive feature of online, asynchronous, discussion tools is that they “provide learners with a flexible environment” (Skylar, 2009, p. 70), where “learners are not restricted to a set day/time for communicating” (Skylar, 2009, p.70).


Skylar also points out that asynchronous communication “allows students more time to prepare a response to a set of directions or questions” (Skylar, 2009, p. 70) – providing learners with the time to formulate their ideas. Without the immediacy of response that may be required in a synchronous communication context, the learner has the time to reflect on peer comments, read related literature, and develop their ideas before posting their own contribution. In regard to the use of online discussion boards, Lloyd-Williams argues that they allow:


“students to create longer, more reflective comments as well as digest the comments and ideas of their peers and tutors.”

(Lloyd-Williams, 2007, p. 10)


Therefore, the loss of immediacy is arguably compensated by an opportunity for deeper learning. It can also be suggested that asynchronous communication tools offer flexibility in discussion format, where there is no fixed order of response or “requirement for turn taking” (Murphy, 2004), as learners can respond at “their own pace” (Murphy, 2004).



Social Presence 

However, where synchronous communication offers a social presence, it can be said that this is sometimes missing from asynchronous communication. Murphy (2004) refers to “the challenges of communicating without visual cues” (Murphy, 2004), particularly in relation to a communication method that relies on written text:


“Participants characterised the text-only medium as one that presents opportunities to misinterpret and to be misinterpreted.”

(Murphy, 2004)


The lack of social presence, however, could be considered a positive feature for the more reserved or shy student – providing an environment that can encourage participation from those reluctant to engage in a synchronous session:


“Slavit (2002), examining asynchronous discussions ... found that students who would not normally participate in the classroom did so more frequently online.”

(Paulus & Phipps, 2008, p. 4)


This suggests that “the relative anonymity of online presence encourages the lowering of the usual inhibitions that surround face to face or communication” (Lloyd-Williams, 2007, p. 4). However, in a wider Web 2.0 context, this can bring problems in the form of “flaming” (Lloyd-Williams, 2007, p. 4). According to Lloyd-Williams, however, “flaming is less prevalent on academic discussion boards” (Lloyd-Williams, 2007, p. 5) as students do not have anonymity and can be “be held to account” (Lloyd-Williams, 2007, p. 5) for their online conduct. Nevertheless, Lloyd- Williams (2007) argues that establishing etiquette for discussion forums can help reduce the anti-social elements of online discussion:


“Much of the literature concerning online discussion groups highlights the need for a clear set of rules and standards of online behaviour, to curtail such activities as “flaming” and “lurking”. “

(Lloyd-Williams, 2007, pp. 8-9)


It can be argued that by combining asynchronous online discussion with synchronous methods, social presence in the learning environment can be established, anonymity removed - both in terms of students being identified by the institution and recognised among their peers - and a safe platform generated that encourages student participation.




Although asynchronous online discussion can encourage the participation of students who may not engage in synchronous sessions, this medium brings its own forms of apprehension to contribution that can inhibit collaboration:


“Feenburg (1989) speaks of “Communication Anxiety”, highlighting the individual’s concern that their posting may get no response. However, what became evident through these discussions was a second form of anxiety, namely, the individual’s concern that they are not offering original comment in their postings. There was an evident unease in just agreeing with the points raised beforehand.”

(Lloyd-Williams, 2007, p. 3)


Therefore, although the student has more time to respond, this may bring associated concerns through the perceived “pressure to post original comment and ideas” (Lloyd-Williams, 2007, p. 4), and trepidation in terms of peer reception to their contributions. If online discussion prompts such anxieties, it may require the support of an e-moderator - in monitoring and contributing to discussions - to ensure these concerns do not become a barrier to participation.




A positive feature of asynchronous communication tools is that they offer flexibility through the time delay afforded between responses. Lloyd-Williams argues that “using discussion boards allowed the students to create longer, more reflective comments as well as digest the comments and ideas of their peers and tutors” (Lloyd-Williams, 2007, p. 10). However, the opportunity – afforded by time – to formulate longer responses can have a negative association for other students:


“Asynchronous discussions are often time-consuming to read, often with much lag time, making it difficult for participants to remain engaged (Levin, He & Robbins, 2004; Rourke & Anderson, 2002).”

(Paulus & Phipps, 2008, pp. 5-6)


According to Murphy (2004), the “length of the postings presents challenges to the quality of the discussion” due to the time required by students to read posts. It could also discourage students from posting their own thoughts and ideas, if they feel there is an expectation of producing a large quantity of long posts. This can take the online discussion away from a ‘discussion’ to a board of posts where, similar to the finding of Moran (1991) on chat within synchronous online discussion, the “conversation devolves into monologues (Moran, 1991)” Warschauer (1997).


Also, although asynchronous communication tools accommodate for the flexibility of time, online discussion threads can still be time-bound, as a result of the tutor’s course design – where discussions are linked to a unit of work or assessment. According to Lloyd-Williams, “there is little to be gained from fixing rigid time frames to the duration of discussions” (Lloyd-Williams, 2007, p. 9), as he found that:


“Many of the discussions … continued regardless of the provisional weekly time scale allotted to them.”

(Lloyd-Williams, 2007, p. 9)


However, although asynchronous tools offer the opportunity for discussions to continue after the expected time period if students are interested in the topic and continue to share ideas – it could arguably be a natural sequence for discussions to become time-bound, if they are linked to a specific week of work and the focus of study moves on to a new topic.



Managing Interaction 

Asynchronous communication offers a “shift in locus of control in favour of the learner with less domination of the discussion by the teacher” (Murphy, 2004). It enables student-to-student discussion and collaboration, with the teacher - or e-moderator - taking a secondary role in the discussion thread.


However, it can also be argued that:


“the shift in control away from the instructor is not necessarily a beneficial one but simply a different and possibly more complex and frustrating form of control and domination of communication and interaction”

(Murphy, 2004)


The volume and length of posts can discourage some students from participating, where the discussion board could be interpreted as being dominated by a small number of students. In this instance, the e-moderator role is one to encourage students to participate, respond to their threads, and use techniques, such as weaving - to “pull together the participants’ contributions” (Salmon, 2011, p. 46) - or summarising, to keep discussion threads on track. According to Salmon:


“The design and support to create feelings of tying time into collaborative activity and of being in a ‘shared space’ are two of the most important e-moderating tasks.”

(Salmon, 2003 p. 64)


However, by offering a platform that supports both reflection and discussion, asynchronous communication tools provide an environment suitable for student collaboration:


“Asynchronous communication inherently provides for both reflection (constructivism) and discourse (collaboration). The challenge for the teacher is to know when to emphasize one or the other.”

(Garrison, 2011)




Best Way to Combine Asynchronous and Synchronous Communication

Taking into consideration the positive and negative features of each format, it can be argued that incorporating both asynchronous and synchronous communication in an online learning course is the most effective means to maximise student learning. Using a combination of synchronous and asynchronous tools to facilitate online discussion enables the development of social presence among the student community, and also the scope for deep engagement with the learning content.


The best way to combine these tools may be dependent on the appropriateness of their application to both the subject of study and course design, in order to find the right balance of communication methods to meet defined learning objectives. The following is our suggested example:



Communication Type





Video chat

  • The purpose of using video as the opening sequence is to establish social presence. 
  • The intention is to allow students to see and verbally engage with their classmates, putting ‘faces to names’, so removing anonymity among the peer group.
  • This begins the process of building a community among students, which according to Motteram (2001) is vital to the education process.




Discussion board

  • Once a community is formed, asynchronous communication alone is enough to maintain an effective group. Garrison (1997) states that asynchronous communication is so successful at this stage precisely because it is written down. 
  • The class is expected to use the discussion board to form groups without the intervention of the e-moderator.
  • The purpose of creating small groups is to address issues of lurking - by reducing the group size, thereby creating a stronger expectation for students to contribute, and removing the option of hiding in the crowd.
  • The reduction in group size from the overall class is also intended to encourage students who may be reluctant to participate in front of a larger group, and also to address potential issues of small numbers of students dominating a discussion.




Video chat

  • A break out session for individual groups.
  • The smaller number of students in the group is intended to again address social presence, but also to provide students with more confidence to contribute.





  • The group uses email to coordinate tasks and communicate their assignment plans.
  • During a period of independent study and research, email among the study group maintains a link between the students.





  • A Wiki, in this example*, is used to create the student assignment.
  • The online editing facility of this tool enables all students in the group to contribute.
  • The comments section enables students to discuss their work. 


* This could be an alternative online document and editing tool, such as Google Docs.



Video chat

  • A wrap up session using video conferencing.
  • Video is used in this instance to make the experience personable, to ensure there are “visual cues” among the students to prevent students closing out from the assignment with the possibility of misinterpretation from a text only environment.



Without conducting research to test our hypothesis, it can be argued that, although rooted in a review of relevant literature, the effectiveness of the above outline is based on conjecture. However, the outline attempts to establish a sequence that most effectively balances the positive and negative features of synchronous and asynchronous communication, to determine the best way to combine these tools. It uses video sessions as a contact point - as despite the potential technical issues, it can help establish social presence and offers the immediacy of response, while the flexibility of asynchronous methods offers the time for deeper engagement, reflection, and ideas development.


The purpose of smaller groups is to address concerns of “domination” (Murphy, 2004) by a small number of students, and to encourage the reluctant contributor to feel more comfortable in taking an active role in online discussion. In this sense, it’s not just the combination of methods, synchronous and asynchronous, that is intended to maximise student learning, but the design of their application. By providing large and small group environments, this proposed sequence attempts to cater for the different learning styles and preferences of students.


Oztok et al. (2013), who investigated the combined effects of both asynchronous and synchronous modes of communication in the same learning environment, support this approach. Specifically, Oztok and Zingaro examined relationships between students’ use of asynchronous discussion forums and synchronous private messages (PM). They assert that the two modes serve ‘complementary roles’, as the most active synchronous students in their study were also the most active asynchronous students. The authors go on to argue that if students are willing to engage in both modes, then this affords increased opportunity for meaningful learning to occur.


Some existing studies do suggest the combined benefits of both modes, generally with encouraging results. For example, Ligorio (2001) studied the use of synchronous chat and asynchronous discussion in a multi-school online collaboration. He described a qualitative analysis of activities undertaken in a virtual world called Euroland. Communication formats available in Euroland included synchronous chat, asynchronous discussion and visuals (e.g., virtual objects and photos). Analysis of visual/iconic versus text-based communication and synchronous versus asynchronous communication suggested that an integration of modes provided for mutual enhancement of tool use. “Once this complex reciprocal influence is activated, the community is able to undertake new activities combining and integrating the various communication tools available and thereby utilize all input available during each interaction” (p. 122). The findings ultimately showed that students’ interactive use of both modes increased over time, and that each mode served a distinct and (once again) complementary purpose. Ohlund, Yu, Jannssch-Pennell and Digangi (2000) also found that individuals who used both synchronous and asynchronous forms of online discussion were the most likely to complete required course activities.


As Johnson (2005) points out, recent analyses do suggest interplay between synchronous and asynchronous online discussion formats. Using research from Ligorio (2001) and Ohlund et al. (2000) in particular, it can be suggested that combining synchronous and asynchronous online discussion results in higher levels of student satisfaction and mastery of course requirements than implementation of either mode in isolation. The pivotal suggestion Johnson makes however, is that communication tool effectiveness is mediated by individual personality variables (i.e., 'introversion-extra- version and stability-neuroticism'). This being the case, the combined use of computer mediated communication tools may be required at any rate in order to meet the needs of all learners.





Synchronous and asynchronous tools can be used to promote an exchange of ideas between participants. However, the nature of the ideas exchanged varies according to the communication tool used. Synchronous communication brings a much greater level of social presence to an online learning course, which has been found to help maintain student motivation and engagement. Asynchronous communication on the other hand, by having a time lag between responses and thus allowing thinking time, can facilitate deeper understanding of the subject matter. By combining the two modes of communication in the right way therefore the benefits of both modes can be maximised, and the potential pitfalls minimised.      


Undoubtedly, synchronous and asynchronous tools should be complemented in an online learning programme. In order to strike the best balance in the complementation of these two distinct modes of communication, we have outlined a suggested sequence to follow for when to use the different modes of communication. This is because we believe that the best way to combine synchronous and asynchronous communication tools to maximise student learning should be determined according to the stage in which learners find themselves on an online programme, as outlined in the table presented earlier.


We acknowledge that flexibility needs to be afforded to online learners, due to the diverse range of personality types that come onto a course, ranging on a spectrum of extroverts and introverts right the way through to vicarious learners. Given the myriad of different factors then that can affect a learner’s preference for either synchronous or asynchronous communication, as well as the apparent benefits of combining both, it is our conclusion that following the sequencing pattern presented in this paper is the best way to combine asynchronous and synchronous tools, in order to encourage collaboration, cognitive processing, and engagement - and therefore maximise student learning.





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