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Bichronous Online Learning: Blending Asynchronous and Synchronous Online Learning

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As online learning becomes a more common model for higher education courses, institutions and instructors should investigate the benefits of including both synchronous and asynchronous elements in online learning to maximize the benefits of both these environments.

Footprints in the sand
Credit: Edward Cadano / Shutterstock.com © 2020

Although online learning steadily increased in the past decade in the United States, the arrival of COVID-19 has made online learning a common mode of instructional delivery in both higher education and K–12 institutions in several countries across the world. In his definition for online learning, Mohamed Ally emphasizes that online learning involves "the use of the Internet to access learning materials; to interact with the content, instructor, and other learners; and to obtain support during the learning process, in order to acquire knowledge, to construct personal meaning, and to grow from the learning experience."1 While research into and adoption of online learning have increased, this article explores a particular aspect of online learning—the blending of synchronous and asynchronous online learning into what we label bichronous online learning. We contend that the blend of synchronous and asynchronous online learning potentially reduces some of the challenges of asynchronous online learning alone, including a lack of immediacy, community, interaction, and audiovisual communication. To that end, we describe various classifications in online learning; define and discuss advantages and limitations of synchronous, asynchronous, and bichronous online learning; examine research on bichronous online learning; and discuss example use cases involving bichronous online learning.

Online Learning Classifications

Reporting for the Sloan Consortium (now the Online Learning Consortium), Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman classified courses into four types: traditional, web-facilitated, blended or hybrid, and online.2 In the traditional course, 0 percent of the content is delivered online, and in the web-facilitated model, 1 to 29 percent of the content is delivered online using web-enhanced technology. In the blended or hybrid course, 30 to 79 percent of the content is delivered online, and it blends both face-to-face and online learning. In the online course, 80 percent or more of the content is delivered online.

In the initial days of online learning, Carol Twigg classified course redesign into five models: supplemental, replacement, emporium, fully online, and buffet.3 The supplemental model adds technology-based out-of-class activities while retaining the original design and number of class meetings. The replacement model replaces class meetings with online interactive activities. The emporium model provides an opportunity for the learner to choose when to access the course material rather than when the instructor wishes to teach. In the fully online model, the instructor designs and delivers the course entirely online. In the buffet model, students are oriented to the various options to choose the learning material through a buffet structure.

In another categorization focusing on online learning, Florence Martin and Beth Oyarzun classify online courses as asynchronous online learning, synchronous online learning, MOOC, blended/hybrid, and blended synchronous.4 Two other course design models, HyFlex and multimodal, have also emerged recently (see table 1).5

Table 1. Course classification of online and blended courses (adapted from Martin and Oyarzun, 2017)

Course Classification

Description

Asynchronous Online Learning

A course where most of the content is delivered online and students can participate in the online course from anywhere and anytime. There are no real time online or face-to-face meetings.

Synchronous Online Learning

A course where most of the content is delivered online and students can participate in courses from anywhere. There are real-time online meetings and students login from anywhere but at the same time to participate in the course.

MOOC

These are Massive Open Online Courses where an unlimited number of students can access the open source content free of cost.

Blended/Hybrid

A course with a combination of face-to-face and asynchronously online delivery with a substantial portion of the course delivered online.

Blended Synchronous

A combination of face-to-face and synchronously online students in the course.

HyFlex

HyFlex is designed as a model where the student is given the option to either attend on campus or online.

Multi-Modal

Blending with purpose based on learner characteristics.


Bichronous (Asynchronous + Synchronous)

Although the blending of face-to-face and online learning has been researched in many studies, the blending of synchronous and asynchronous online has not been researched to the same extent. Grounding on the term "chronous," which means personification in time, we refer to this blend as bichronous online learning. 

We define bichronous online learning as the blending of both asynchronous and synchronous online learning, where students can participate in anytime, anywhere learning during the asynchronous parts of the course but then participate in real-time activities for the synchronous sessions. The amount of the online learning blend varies by the course and the activities included in the course.

Figure 1 provides our conceptual understanding for bichronous online learning. We conceive online learning as a continuum between synchronous and asynchronous online learning, and we place bichronous online learning between these two extremes to illustrate that many existing online learning courses already embrace aspects from both domains.

Line with an arrow at each end. Line label: Bichronous Online Learning. Left Arrow: Asynchronous Online Learning: Use of tools like email, announcements, discussion forums, quizzes, assignment submissions, recorded video, etc. | Time-Delay.  Right Arrow: Synchronous Online Learning: Use of tools like instant messaging, interactive white boards, polling, video and audio conferencing, etc. | Real-Time
Figure 1. Conceptual model for bichronous online learning

Table 2 provides definitions, advantages, and limitations of asynchronous, synchronous, and bichronous online learning.

Table 2. Asynchronous, synchronous and bichronous online learning

Type of Online Learning

Definition

Advantages

Limitations

Fully Asynchronous 100 percent asynchronous

Anytime and anywhere online learning

  • Learn at own pace
  • No scheduling conflict
  • Delayed time
  • Lacks immediate feedback
  • Low level of participation

Fully Synchronous 100 percent synchronous

Real-time online learning in which students can participate from anywhere

  • Immediate feedback
  • Enhances interaction
  • Audio-visual communication
  • Increased accountability
  • Opportunity to structure time
  • Stay motivated and on task
  • Scheduling conflict
  • Access to internet and computer at specific times
  • Possibility of technical issues
  • Discussions being too fast

Bichronous asynchronous + synchronous

Blending of both online learning types, where students can participate in anytime, anywhere learning during the asynchronous parts of the course but then participate in real-time for the synchronous sessions

  • Both learn at own pace as well as immediate feedback and interaction available
  • Opportunity for audio-visual communication
  • Scheduling conflict
  • Possibility of technical issues

Research on Bichronous Online Learning

Although a number of studies compare synchronous and asynchronous online learning, more studies are needed to examine using synchronous tools within asynchronous online course and integrating some asynchronous elements within a synchronous online course. Research has supported the inclusion of synchronous elements in an asynchronous course. Jesslyn Nicole Farros found that adding synchronous discussions in an asynchronous course might improve learning outcomes—students who participated in any amount of synchronous sessions performed better in the course.6 Rachel Fowler found that when synchronous online course orientations were integrated in online biological science courses instead of asynchronous online orientations, student success (measured by grades) was higher; meanwhile, the withdrawal rate was 25.5 percent for courses that used asynchronous online orientation but just 9 percent for online courses that used synchronous orientation.7

When examining student attitudes, Noura Badawi found that more than 50 percent of online students in their study were in favor of incorporating synchronous events into online courses.8 The students found these real-time sessions to be valuable for office hours, guest lectures, exam reviews, orientations, and team projects. When examining synchronous and asynchronous discussion, other researchers found that synchrony positively affects students' perceptions of belonging, positive affect, and cognitive processes, while asynchrony negatively affects the relationship between cooperative goals and cooperative perceptions.9

In another study, Robert Zotti found that the concept of mixing real-time and time-independent interaction was highlighted by several instructors who emphasized the importance of being flexible but at the same time including a few synchronous sessions.10 Another student in the study referred to the blending of synchronous and asynchronous as a happy medium—to have sufficient flexibility to participate in the online course but with some live sessions since they stressed the importance of needing both. Lisa Yamagata-Lynch recommends that to meaningfully integrate synchronous learning environments into asynchronous online learning, "the instructor/designer needs to balance the tension between embracing the flexibility that the online space affords to users and designing deliberate structures that will help them take advantage of the flexible space" because "synchronous online whole class meetings and well-structured small group meetings can help students feel a stronger sense of connection to their peers and instructor and stay engaged with course activities."11 Overall, research shows that when synchronous communication features are integrated with asynchronous features, the online course is more engaging, increasing learning outcomes, positive attitudes, and retention.

Use Cases for Bichronous Online Learning

Following are three cases that illustrate the use of bichronous online learning and its benefits.

Preparing Elementary School Teachers

In a teacher education program, learners who are earning their initial teacher certification might complete six bichronous courses, each lasting eight weeks. Within the program, learners would take a course on how to teach mathematics to elementary school students. In the course, learners would complete seven online asynchronous modules, which take about three hours each to complete. Learners would also complete two hours of synchronous course meetings, which accompany four hours of preparation and follow-up for the synchronous experiences.

The asynchronous modules could include opportunities for learners to solve mathematical tasks, learn content through videos and readings, and complete activities related to planning mathematics lessons and assessing students through examining samples of student work and data sets. The synchronous work might feature small group sessions of five to seven learners at a time and include opportunities for learners to collaborate on tasks and provide feedback to each other in real time while the course instructor provides feedback and responds to questions about the activities and the course in general. The synchronous work could also provide experiences for learners to design lessons and practice teaching their peers in a videoconference setting. In the course evaluations, learners might comment about the benefit of the practice teaching and immediate feedback from their colleagues and the instructor. Learners might also observe that the asynchronous modules were valuable and that they did not desire more synchronous sessions.

Preparing Nurses to Become Nursing Faculty

Cynthia Foronda and Christine Lippincott researched a bichronous program designed to prepare registered nurses to become qualified to teach and serve as nursing faculty.12 The program included four courses, each lasting seven weeks. During the asynchronous portions of the program learners interacted with videos and readings housed on a learning management system. Learners engaged in weekly synchronous sessions, which included interactive activities to reinforce the asynchronous content. The capstone synchronous experience included learners taking on the role of faculty as they taught content to their peers, who served as students. An analysis of data from focus groups indicated that learners enjoyed the weekly synchronous sessions and the opportunity to connect with the instructor and their classmates. Learners also mentioned the flexibility of learning content through the asynchronous modules.

Preparing MBA Students' in an Accounting Course

Keith Duncan, Amy Kenworthy, and Ray McNamara have researched learners in a bichronous accounting course. Learners' experiences were focused on synchronous activities, as learners had two-hour meetings each week in which they watched a one-hour lecture then engaged in follow-up activities with the instructor for an hour after the lecture. Learners participated in an online synchronous chat during the lecture and the follow-up activities. Asynchronous activities for learners during this course focused on reading texts, re-watching lectures from the synchronous sessions, and completing weekly discussion board posts. The researchers found that the number and quality of interactions and posts on the discussion board and in the chat room were significant predictors of learners' grades. They also realized that the synchronous involvement in the chat room had more influence than engagement in asynchronous modules.13

Closing Remarks

Just as blended learning affords instructors and designers the opportunity to make use of the best of both online learning and face-to-face learning (e.g., flipped classrooms), bichronous online learning offers us the opportunity to integrate the best of both asynchronous and synchronous online learning experiences. As educational institutions (both K–12 and higher education) grapple with delivery models during the COVID-19 pandemic, we offer bichronous online learning as a method to address the evolving nature in education. Our hope is that future research and practice will integrate both asynchronous and synchronous online learning experiences to offer new models of effective learning for all students.

Notes

  1. Mohamed Ally, "Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning," in Theory and Practice of Online Learning, ed. Terry Anderson (Edmonton, Alberta: Athabasca University Press, 2004), 15–44.
  2. I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, "Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011," Sloan Consortium, January 2011.
  3. Carol A. Twigg, "Improving Learning and Reducing Costs: New Models for Online Learning," EDUCAUSE Review 38, no. 5 (September/October 2003): 28–38.
  4. Florence Martin and Beth Oyarzun, "Distance Learning," in Foundations of Learning and Instructional Design Technology, ed. Richard E. West (EdTech Books, 2017).
  5. Brian J. Beatty, Hybrid-Flexible Course Design (EdTech books, 2019; and Anthony G. Picciano, "Theories and Frameworks for Online Education: Seeking an Integrated Model," Online Learning 21, no. 3 (2017): 166–90.
  6. Jesslyn Nicole Farros, "Online Learning: The Effect of Synchronous Discussion Sessions in Asynchronous Courses," PhD dissertation, Endicott College, 2019.
  7. Rachel C. Fowler, "Effects of Synchronous Online Course Orientation on Student Attrition," PhD dissertation, University of South Carolina, 2019.
  8. Noura Badawi, "Undergraduate Student Attitudes Towards Synchronous Events in Online Instruction," PhD dissertation, Argosy University/Phoenix, 2017.
  9. Amy T. Peterson, Patrick N. Beymer, and Ralph T. Putnam, "Synchronous and Asynchronous Discussions: Effects on Cooperation, Belonging, and Affect," Online Learning 22, no. 4 (2018): 7–25.
  10. Robert Zotti, "The Implementation of Web Conferencing Technologies in Online Graduate Classes" PhD dissertation, Stevens Institute of Technology, 2017.
  11. Lisa C. Yamagata-Lynch, "Blending Online Asynchronous and Synchronous Learning," International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 15, no. 2 (2014): 189–212.
  12. Cynthia Foronda and Christine Lippincott, "Graduate Nursing Students' Experience with Synchronous, Interactive Videoconferencing within Online Courses," Quarterly Review of Distance Education 15, no. 2 (2014).
  13. Keith Duncan, Amy Kenworthy, and Ray McNamara, "The Effect of Synchronous and Asynchronous Participation on Students' Performance in Online Accounting Courses," Accounting Education 21, no. 4 (August 2012): 431–49.

Florence Martin is Professor of Learning, Design and Technology at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.

Drew Polly is Professor of Elementary Education at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.

Albert Ritzhaupt is Associate Professor of Educational Technology at the University of Florida.

© 2020 Florence Martin, Drew Polly, and Albert Ritzhaupt. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 International License.