Watts (2016)

Watts, L. (2016). Synchronous and asynchronous communication in distance learning: A review of the literature. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 17(1), 23-32.

In The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, Watts (2016) performs a literature review of articles on the topic of asynchronous versus synchronous communication in online courses. The author examines 70 articles and includes 24 in her review, and chose to use Moore’s (1973) theory of “transactional distance” as a touchstone from which to examine the articles’ arguments. According to Watts (2016), the “theory of transactional distance is based on the premise students experience a psychological and communications gap in the online environment. Moore posited students must interact with their peers, instructors, and the content to decrease that distance” (24). In order to decrease this “transactional distance,” students must interact with the content because this gives them an opportunity to hold “an internal dialogue where they think, discuss, and examine the content with themselves” (24). Students must interact with the instructor because they need to learn from the instructor’s expertise, and lastly, students must interact with each other because it will help them more effectively learn the content and help them to learn about group dynamics (24).

In this literature review, Watts (2016) found these to be the benefits of asynchronous communication in the online learning environment: (1) flexibility for students, (2) gives students time to consider their thoughts carefully and be more reflective, (3) lets students “engage with the content more deeply,” and (4) helps students to “feel a part of the learning community” (27). Some of the studies indicated (4) was not always met with an asynchronous forms of communication. In my opinion, none of these 4 benefits listed are particularly surprising. With asynchronous communication, students have the opportunity to participate anytime and anywhere. This is beneficial not just from a practical time-management standpoint, but also because it allows them to take their time to consider and respond more intentionally rather than having to come up with something “on the spot” as in a face-to-face course or synchronous forms of communication.

Watts (2016) found these to be the benefits of synchronous communication in the online learning environment: (1) instant feedback for student participation, (2) being able to “see” your classmates, which increases feelings of class cohesion, and (3) the “ability to monitor classmates’ reactions during discussions,” which motivated students to “continue engaging with their peers” (28). The drawbacks were (1) student frustration with scheduling and (2) student frustration with the learning technologies. Again, I did not find any of these findings to be particularly revolutionary. The overall findings were that most studies showed synchronous interaction resulted in more collaboration, which in turn led to higher project grades, course grades, etc. One study suggested the reason: “the richness of synchronous technologies enhance the learning environment by decreasing cognitive load and lessening ambiguity” (29). However, another study found that only 23% of students felt asynchronous interactions (email and discussion boards) were useful and increased their learning, and 42% felt the same way about synchronous interactions (29).

While this article does not offer any new research or even significant new insight, I do still think it has value. Again, as in the article I reviewed last week, I appreciate that the article’s starting point is that interaction (defined as “decreasing transactional distance” in this review) is important in the online learning environment. Now, what form should that take? Since asynchronous and synchronous are the two broadest categories for interaction, I think it was appropriate for Watts to focus on these in her review of the literature. While it would be nice to finish this review with a conclusion that one form of communication is always preferable above the other, it is not surprising that Watts was not able to do that. Real life instruction is too complicated to tolerate one-size-fits-all approaches, so I appreciate that her review reflects this truth.

One of Watts’s findings was particularly interesting to me, and that is the high value that students placed on “seeing” their classmates, which Watts interpreted to be an argument in favor of synchronous communications. However, I disagree, as there are many ways to integrate “seeing” into asynchronous communications as well. In that regards, I think the studies reviewed by Watts failed to capture the fact that these categories of “synchronous” and “asynchronous” may not be as mutually exclusively as they used to be. Asynchronous can involve “seeing” – video discussion boards, Flipgrid, VoiceThread, etc. Conversely, synchronous could involve “not seeing” – real-time instant message chat, or a “whiteboard” session with an instructor in which students never see each other. As we seek to categorize these two types of communication in the online learning environment, it is important to consider all of the various forms they could take. This is particularly true as educational technologies continue to develop.

Lastly, another factor not addressed by the studies in Watts’s review is the relationship between student expectations and the success of a particular type of communication. Marketing a course as fully “online” and then requiring synchronous participation can make students feel a little “duped.” What should students be able to expect when they sign up for an “online” course? Just that they will never have to “go” to class? Or, that they can always complete the coursework completely according to their own schedule? At the very least, synchronous components in a course will be more successful if all synchronous requirements are explicitly announced to students before a student signs up for a class, or even better, if online programs as a whole have transparent policies about whether or not students can expect synchronous requirements as they work through their program. This could help mitigate student frustration over the scheduling of synchronous components.

Overall, I agree with Watts’s primary conclusion, which is that, “Research has provided support for both types, and instructors must take into consideration the motivation and needs of their students, the specific demands of the course content, and the available technical support before deciding what method of interaction is appropriate for their courses” (31). (23). As mentioned, though, I would also add that instructors should be encouraged to think about all of the different options available for both asynchronous and synchronous communications, and should also seriously consider their students’ expectations if they plan to include synchronous components in their course.