Better e-Learning Tools for Combating COVID-19

Combining Synchronous and Asynchronous Techniques

Tom Worthington

Research School of Computer Science, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

For NECTAR Webinar, 2 April 2020, The Australian National University.
Slides and notes:

Description: Tom Worthington has been working since 2013 on better tools and techniques for large scale online learning at research intensive universities, such as ANU. He is currently supervising student research to combine the features we now have in asynchronous tools, such as Moodle (Wattle at ANU), and synchronous tools, such as Zoom and Adobe Connect, into one free open source product. This work started by challenging the assumptions underlying the terms synchronous and asynchronous as used by educators, suggesting they could be united.

Keywords: Asynchronous Learning; Synchronous Learning; Electronic Learning; Web Conference; Videoconferencing; Pedagogy; Massive Open Online Courses, MOOC.

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Tom Worthington FACS CP

Tom Worthington

Tom Worthington is an independent computer professional, educational design consultant and an Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University. A Certified Professional member of the Australian Computer Society, in 2015 Tom received a national gold Digital Disruptors Award for "ICT Education" and in 2010 was Canberra ICT Educator of the Year. Tom previously worked on IT policy for the Australian Government and in 1999 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society for his contribution to the development of public Internet policy. He is a Past President, Honorary Life Member, Certified Professional and a Certified Computer Professional of the society as well as a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Tom has a Masters of Education (specializing in Distance Education) from Athabasca University, a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education from the Australian National University and a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment from the Canberra Institute of Technology. He blogs as the Higher Education Whisperer.


From computing:

“Of a computer or part of one: not operating in accordance with clock signals; (of operations) beginning when the previous operation finishes, rather than occurring at regular intervals of time...” (a. asynchronous, OED)

The term synchronous in everyday use refers to “Existing or happening at the same time ... belonging to the same period” (a. synchronous, OED). Asynchronous is defined as “Not synchronous; not existing or occurring at the same time, not coinciding in time...” (a. asynchronous, OED). The terms were adopted in computing: “Of a computer or part of one: not operating in accordance with clock signals; (of operations) beginning when the previous operation finishes, rather than occurring at regular intervals of time...” (a. asynchronous, OED).

Use of the Terms in e-Learning

Synchronous e-learning emulates a traditional face-to-face classroom.

Hrastinski (2008) defines synchronous for on-line learning using the examples of videoconferencing and text chat. Asynchronous is defined by reference to e-mail and discussion boards and that asynchronous e-learning does not require teachers and students to be on-line “at the same time”. The definition of synchronous on-line learning would appear to agree with the dictionary definition, being concerned with events happening at the same time. However, the second part of Hrastinski's description of synchronous e-learning, provides a different description: “in real time”.

Benbunan-Fich (2012) refers to synchronous and asynchronous modes of education being used “... depending on whether the communication is carried out in real time or in delayed time...” and “... real time (synchronous lectures) or delayed time (asynchronous lectures) ...”. Thus the on-line event emulates a traditional classroom, where the teacher and students are at one location, able to speak to each other and share learning materials.

Synchronized Asynchronous

Large video files sent in advance: synchronized asynchronous?

It should be noted that all communication involves a delay in transmission. This delay is not perceptible in a classroom, but can become significant for on-line distance education. Ibrar (2012) reports that for India's satellite based on-line education, the Round Trip Time (RTT) from ground station to satellite and back to the ground can be 250 milliseconds. If the signal needs to be relayed further, such as through a terrestrial wireless network the delay and be several times this and disrupt normal conversation.

While not directly related to latency, Ibrar also describes overcoming limitations in the satellite system by sending large video files in advance of being used for a class. The interactive part of the class is then delivered via a terrestrial low bandwidth network and the locally stored video played as required. Such computer systems are described as “Store and forward”, the term also used for e-mail and bulletin board system (what in on-line learning is referred to as asynchronous).

The sending of material in advance to be used later at a specific time could be referred to as synchronized asynchronous.

Synchronous Learning

Important educational interactions:

  1. Asynchronous
    • learner – learner(s)
    • teacher – learner (“Learning to teacher”)
    • learner – material (“Learning to content”)
  2. Synchronous
    • teacher – learner

Soo (1998) and Anderson (2008).

Information diffusion analysis or Quantitative Data Analysis (QDA) of student discussion? (Agrawal, et al 2012 and Dreon and McDonald 2012).

Much of traditional education is synchronous, in the dictionary meaning of the word: students are provided a timetable of what they need to do and when. Students then synchronise their activities by reference to a calendar and clock, without the need for high speed electronic communications. Also many classroom activities are asynchronous, in that individual students, or groups, are performing different activities at the same time, or the same activities at different times.

Soo (1998) explores the concept of “interaction” in on-line distance education, using the Delphi technique with a group of education experts. Eight categories of interaction were identified, being permutations of synchronous/asynchronous, learner/teacher and material/self reflection/learner. The Delphi process found the important educational interactions were Asynchronous: learner – learner(s), teacher – learner and learner – material. The next most important was Synchronous teacher – learner. The least important were Synchronous learner interactions.

Anderson (2008) emphasizes the learner centric and social nature of on-line learning. However, their arguing that the on-line environment is a unique cultural context is overstating the case. Academics have used written communication for a culture of scholarship, long before the invention of the Internet.

In defining on-line learning, Anderson highlights the importance of "Interaction", with the "Educational interactions" model proposed identifying “Learning to content”, “Learning to teacher”, “learner to learning”, amongst other interactions. However, a simpler model could have just people communicating with each other, via any available media (such as a computer bulletin board, or a book).

Siemens (2005) equates three learning terms with epistemological terms:

  1. Behaviorism to objectivism: What is produced with education is an observable change in student behavior, as part of objective reality.
  2. Cognitivism to Pragmatism: Learning comes from doing practical exercises and thinking about that experience, not just abstract study of concepts.
  3. Constructivism and Interpretivism: The learning takes place when the student builds their own internal model of the topic of study.

Principles of connectivism are listed, including diversity of opinions, connecting information sources, Capacity to know, continual learning, and decision-making as a learning process. One principle which appears at odds with the others is: "Learning may reside in non-human appliances".  Coward (2009) reports how investigation of the physiology of the brain provides insights into how the brain works as well as a way to emulate it in software. This may provide new insights which could be applied to education.

Kop and Hill (2008) ask if learning theories, and connectivism in particular, meet the needs of learners and will do so in the future. The role of the " learning community" in connectivism is  emphasized. The paper goes on to describe "Epistemological Frameworks for Learning" and "Compatibility of Connectivism and Formal Education". The paper concludes by suggesting a "radical discontinuity" due to a flood of new on-line sources of information, which be particularly problematic for schools, which are less Connectivist than higher education.  The paper ends by suggesting a "paradigm shift" may be occurring, but does not say what it is.

The flood of new on-line information source's predicted by Kop and Hill has occurred, but without the predicted paradigm shift. The news media on-line sources mimic traditional broadcast and print publications. The limited interactivity provided is similar to the store and forward forums provided in educational software. On-line learning communities use software which supports a similar mode of interaction and appears conventional in format. This may be because on-line educators and tool developers are limited in their thinking by the synchronous/asynchronous dichotomy.

Information diffusion analysis has been applied to investigating how rumors spread through social networks (Agrawal, et al (2012)). The same analysis techniques could be applied to on-line student discussion, to identify what roles students (and the tutors) play in information diffusion in the class. This information could be used to identify when information has spread through the class. This electronic document is a “live” template and already defines he need for a formal test. The result would be a form of synchronization of the asynchronous learning process, identifying when the class has reached a level of understanding of a topic, so they can move on to the next.

Dreon and McDonald (2012) discuss the use of Quantitative Data Analysis (QDA) for a systematic analysis of the discussions in on-line courses to look at the development of critical thinking skills. However, such analysis has up to now only been a research activity, as it required the manual categorization of audio discussions and sufficient computing power for analysis of large amounts of text chat. With advances in transcription software and processing capacity this could now be done in real time, with the tutor (and perhaps the students) receiving an analysis of the discussion.

Combining Synchronous and Asynchronous Techniques

Learning Management (LMS) systems for both at ANU:

Oliver (1999) describes three aspects of what they term "Conventional Teaching": content, activities and implementation. The content is characterized as fixed, linear and structured. The activities are characterized as fragmented, with a lack of context and abstracted. Implementation is said to be teacher as expert, individual learning and discrete assessment.

Oliver contrasts conventional teaching with "Contemporary Teaching", having the inverse characteristics: flexible, unstructured, teacher as coach, outcomes oriented collaborative learning. Oliver was writing from the perspective of 1999. In 2012 post-secondary education, practices have moved toward the contemporary approach envisaged. However, Oliver's view of technology providing flexibility has mixed results. Learning Management (LMS) systems, such as Moodle, reinforce a fixed, linear and structured approach, by offering the course designer only one layout with a list of topics and set dates.

The lack of direct support for real-time learning in the LMS has encouraged a fragmented approach with the class having to switch software packages to move from store-and-forward to real-time mode.

With Oliver's third element "implementation", LMS have had more success, encouraging student discussion forums with the "teacher as coach", facilities for easily creating on-line groups encourages collaborative learning and the ability to easily mark digital artifacts encourages integrated assessment.

An example is the use of Moodle at the Australian National University (ANU). The same LMS is used to teach Sanskrit to small group (Taylor and Beckmann, 2009) and engineering to large classes (Johnson, et al, 2011). The Sanskrit class emphasizes individual performance by the student, in small group, with personal involvement of the teacher as coach. The ANU engineering approach is for a more highly structured courses delivered to large classes of engineering students.

A concept of "asynchronous learning within a synchronous framework" is used by the ANU engineering department. While not mentioned by the authors, this approach may have been inspired by engineering practice, which has regular check points in work, to monitor performance of a system or project. While this project was using "blended" learning (the synchronous components being face-to-face), the same approach should be applied to a pure on-line course which used a combination of synchronous and asynchronous tools.

Async-Sync Learning System Project

"Modify existing free open source educational software to combine the features of Asynchronous and Synchronous learning delivery." (Async-Sync Learning System Project, ANU, 2019)

Small proof-of-concept (Worthington & Wu, 2015).

New student project 2019-2020 to test the concept with students.

Being reformulated for COVID19 Response

The idea of a system combining synchronous and asynchronous features was explored in a series of student projects at ANU. This included a small proof-of-concept (Worthington & Wu, 2015). The latest project is to "Modify existing free open source educational software to combine the features of Asynchronous and Synchronous learning delivery." (Async-Sync Learning System Project, ANU, 2019). This is being reformulated to specifically address the needs of millions of students now studying on-line during the COVID19 emergency.


Worthington, T. (2013). Synchronizing Asynchronous Learning: Combining Synchronous and Asynchronous Techniques. In Proceedings of 2013 8th International Conference on Computer Science & Education (ICCSE), 26 Apr - 28 Apr 2013 , Sri Lanka. URL: (Preprint available)

Worthington, T. & Wu, H. (2015, July). Time-shifted Learning: Merging Synchronous and Asynchronous Techniques for E-Learning. In Computer Science & Education (ICCSE), 2015 10th International Conference on. IEEE. (Preprint available)

More Information

  1. Presentation notes available
  2. Async-Sync Learning System Project, ANU, 2019
  3. Tom Worthington

Acknowledgment: This work started in 2012 as a literature review for the University of Southern Queensland course "Online Pedagogy in Practice" (EDU8114). My thanks to Dr Petrea Redmond of the USQ Faculty of Education, for her patience in helping a computer programmer with pedagogy.

Version 1, 2 April 2020, Tom Worthington

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