Synchronous learning is a general term used to describe forms of education, instruction, and learning that occur at the same time, but not in the same place. The term is most commonly applied to various forms of televisual, digital, and online learning in which students learn from instructors, colleagues, or peers in real time, but not in person. For example, educational video conferences, interactive webinars, chat-based online discussions, and lectures that are broadcast at the same time they delivered would all be considered forms of synchronous learning.
Digital and online learning experiences can also be asynchronous—i.e., instruction and learning occur not only in different locations, but also at different times. For example, prerecorded video lessons, email exchanges between teachers and students, online discussion boards, and course-management systems that organize instructional materials and related correspondence would all be considered forms of asynchronous learning.
Before the development and widespread adoption of interactive, internet-based technologies, synchronous learning was more commonly called distance education or distance learning—and these terms are still used today. While distance learning took many different forms, instructional interactions were often conducted over radio and, later on, closed-circuit television systems. The televisual systems were comparatively expensive, since schools needed classrooms outfitted with a variety of audiovisual technologies—video cameras, microphones, televisions, etc.—and instructional interactions could only occur between properly equipped classrooms that used compatible systems. While distance learning was used in a wide variety of educational settings, it was often employed by smaller schools, rural schools, and other education programs that did not have the funding or resources needed to hire teachers in specialized areas or provide a broad selection of specialized courses—e.g., courses in Chinese language or Japanese history. In these cases, schools may have used, and may still use, distance- and asynchronous-learning technology to expand course offerings for students or share teachers with specialized expertise.
For a related discussion, see blended learning.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.