The Case for Asynchronous Online Courses: How Do Students Benefit?

16 Dec 2021 6:45 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Lynne N. Kennette

Durham College

Phoebe S. Lin

Framingham State University

Students who take at least one online course during their program are more likely to complete their degree (Wavle & Ozogul, 2019). Recently, various different types of e-learning have been implemented, but online education existed before COVID-19. Unlike synchronous online courses where live instruction occurs on a weekly basis (much like a traditional classroom), asynchronous courses provide students with added flexibility as there are no daily/weekly time-specific attendance requirements. In this way, students still encounter the weekly content provided by faculty (by way of recorded lecture, activities, videos, etc.), but at the time of their choosing (though most have regular, usually weekly deadlines for students). This asynchronous online learning environment is what we are referring to in this article. When we are discussing asynchronous online learning, we frame it as learning that occurs within a specific semester at an institution, with weekly/bi-weekly deadlines, and not the open ended, self-paced courses, like some massive open online course (MOOCs) where you can enroll whenever and end whenever (we also recognize that the grading is often quite different in these courses compared to a more traditional asynchronous online course).

Although not all students will benefit from the asynchronous online learning environment, many do, and many students prefer it (Cutherell & Lyon, 2007) for various reasons (including some of the benefits we discuss herein). Below, we propose that online asynchronous courses provide several benefits for students including physiological ones. Additional benefits include removing barriers, motivation, flexibility, and time for reflection.

 

Physiological Benefits

The two major physiological benefits of asynchronous learning are more sleep and less stress. First, because the class work can be completed at any time, there is no need to wake up early to get to class, or earlier to have enough time for a potentially long commute. Second, asynchronous learning affords students benefits that can help lower stress. For example, saving money on parking and commuting costs (gas, transit pass, etc). Additionally, some of the daily life stressors (e.g., traffic, line-ups at the coffee shop) can be reduced or eliminated. Daily stressors such as these, as well as long commutes, are linked to higher levels of stress and high blood pressure (Antoun et al., 2017; Hoehner et al., 2012).

 

Removes Barriers

Other benefits revolve around the theme of removing barriers. For example, some aspects of universal design for learning (UDL; CAST, 2018) are easier to implement online (e.g., closed-captioning, larger font size, etc).  Therefore, students may not need to self-identify their need for accommodations, at least in instances where the online course is designed following the principles of UDL. By increasing accessibility, this reduces or eliminates unearned advantages of more privileged students, such as able-bodied privileges, cultural privileges in language fluency, etc. This then would allow students who could be at a disadvantage in traditional face-to-face classrooms to thrive and achieve improved learning outcomes.

Another example is that, in some cases, financial or family limitations may make it necessary for someone to choose a program at a school that is nearby rather than a program that they are actually interested in, regardless of where they are located (Pastore et al., 2009). Additionally, a woman needing to share personal information related to morning sickness/pregnancy, miscarriage, etc. can be avoided as can other ailments that can affect both sexes (e.g., injury). Further, asynchronous learning in a remote environment can benefit pregnant students by eliminating potential bias from the instructor given that findings show pregnant individuals are negatively stereotyped as less capable and less committed to their work (Morgan et al., 2013).

Additionally, non-traditional students may also benefit in unique ways (some of which are discussed in later sections, such as due to the added flexibility). In some cases, asynchronous learning levels the playing field by providing fewer status cues and providing some reassurance with some anonymity in the online environment (Hachey, 2017; Melkun, 2012). Thus, students of underrepresented groups may feel more at ease knowing that these environments can reduce the likelihood of encountering microaggressions (subtle or indirect forms of prejudice) tied to identity such as race/ethnicity, gender identity, age, etc. (Sue, 2010).

 

Community/Comfort

Knapczyk et al. (2005) found that students felt a strong sense of community in asynchronous classes and that students may feel more comfortable expressing themselves in an asynchronous format due to the anonymity it provides (especially for non-traditional students), leading to better dialogues, including among students who may not typically participate in a face-to-face class (Hachey, 2017; Melkun, 2012). Another benefit is that this could lead to increased representation of voices from marginalized groups, who are often hesitant to speak out due to anxiety associated with the risk of being stereotyped, further oppressed, encountering racial gaslighting, or reluctance to offer a counter-perspective that differs from White peers in a predominantly White setting (Fries-Britt & Turner, 2002; Walls & Hall, 2018).

 

Flexibility

The flexibility provided by an asynchronous course is unequalled in any other learning modality (Pastore et al., 2009). Learners have a great deal of control and flexibility around how and when they complete their learning, which means they can schedule their learning time based on whatever need (work, children) or preference (early birds vs night owls) are relevant to them at that time (and easily adjust if those needs change). This may be especially beneficial to non-traditional students who often have to balance multiple competing responsibilities such as long work hours, being a caretaker for a family member, etc. (Hachey, 2017).

Its convenience also lets students learn to manage their own time (Pastore et al., 2009), which gives them a chance to practice/learn soft skills (time management, etc). They can also develop their autonomy and self-regulation (Vonderwell et al., 2007). By refining their time-management skills and increasing self-reliance, this can lead to greater discipline and work ethic, well-preparing them to enter the workforce when they have completed college.

 

Deeper, More Reflective Engagement with Content

When learning occurs asynchronously, students have more time to reflect on the content (Driscoll, 1998) which may lead to deeper discussions about the content (Hara et al, 2000). Because of this deeper engagement, as well as problem-solving, and engagement with peers, students are more likely to engage in critical thinking in asynchronous online discussions (De Wever et al., 2010).

With asynchronous learning, this could also encourage students to discuss the course material with someone not enrolled in the class (romantic partner, family member, roommate, etc.) when trying to understand a difficult concept. Engaging with course material more deeply, by elaboration, or making connections to other content through a discussion with another person, facilitates the new information being transferred to long-term memory and is more easily retrieved at a later time (Baddeley, 1997; Craik & Lockhart, 1972). Further, the asynchronous format increases the opportunity to teach the content to a non-expert (again, someone not enrolled in the course), which can also improve understanding; this is because teaching someone requires that we retrieve the information from memory, which we also know improves retention and later recall (Koh et al., 2018; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006).

By removing the opportunity to receive immediate clarification from the course instructor when a question arises, asynchronous learning can also encourage students to independently research a concept and look up additional information independently. Doing so can increase engagement with the material and drive intrinsic motivation to master the information using self-reliance rather than dependence on the instructor. Research has indicated that the more time and effort invested in a task, the greater the value we place on the outcome (Aronson & Mills, 1959). Thus, if students make a greater effort to independently seek clarification when a question arises, this could increase their motivation to obtain high achievement in the course by increasing the perceived value of their learning outcomes.

 

Motivation

One of the major challenges experienced in any classroom is the lack of student motivation, particularly intrinsic motivation. Pink (2009) proposed that one of the internal drives that help develop greater intrinsic motivation is autonomy- having a sense of control over our work and personal lives. The freedom afforded in asynchronous courses is motivating and may allow students to be more creative as well (Pink, 2009).

Further, motivation to attend synchronous sessions can be difficult, especially in the context of Zoom fatigue (Bailenson, 2021). Therefore, allowing the lecture to be watched when they haven’t been in front of a screen all day or to access sections of the lecture spaced out over time, where learners really do control the pace at which they receive information, is advantageous to students. Past research has also shown that there is a cost to using video such that synchronous zoom-type meetings increase cognitive load (Hinds, 1999). Related, by giving students the option to learn the material in multiple study sessions rather than in one attempt, the spacing effect will likely improve retention of the material by allowing more information to be processed, reflected on, and encoded into long-term memory (Ebbinghaus, 1885).

 

Conclusion

Although we have focused on benefits for students, there are also benefits for the faculty teaching these courses (see Kennette & Lin, 2021, for a discussion of the benefits of remote work for employees). When employees benefit, it should come to reason that the educational experience can be better for students as well. Of course, not all courses are created equal (regardless of delivery mode), so, much like there can be less effective in-person courses, so too can there be ineffective asynchronous online courses. But in the case of well-designed, asynchronous courses, students do report greater satisfaction and perceived learning, especially when students were more active in the course and had more (asynchronous) interactions with classmates and/or instructors (Swan, 2001). Well-designed online asynchronous courses provide a consistent course structure, not too many modules, frequent interactions with the instructor and other students, and lively discussions (Swan, 2001). In these instances, some research has shown that students tend to prefer to receive information asynchronously rather than synchronously (Cutherell & Lyon, 2007), so for some students, this approach is appreciated.

Regardless of preference, in many cases, asynchronous courses really are the best of both worlds with synchronous meetings possible with faculty or among students, either during virtual office hours or other scheduled times or to work on group projects (see Lowenthal et al., 2017 for some considerations). So, institutions should see asynchronous online classes as a valid approach to education, which may provide opportunities that are valuable to many groups. By expanding learning/classroom formats, higher education can become more accessible to a greater number of learners, increasing equity in society.

 


 

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