Asynchronous Learning

A very short White Paper describing how much of good teaching is already asynchronous and how it may be easy to incorporate more of these techniques in well instructed courses here at WSU.


In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future.
The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.

Eric Hoffer (1902&endash;83), U.S. philosopher.
Reflections on the Human Condition
, p. 32 (1973).


The medieval university looked backwards;
it professed to be a storehouse of old knowledge. . . .
The modern university looks forward, and is a factory of new knowledge.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825&endash;1895), English biologist. Letter, 11 April 1892.



This is a white paper on the new roles of learners and universities as we, or others, shift from teacher-centered instructional formats to learner-centered instructional formats. The first section, entitled Historic View, describes how much of what is done in universities qualifies as an asynchronous model of education and how this shift to asynchrony could be more complete and deliberate. The second section, Future View, describes how universities may change their orientation, not in curriculum or in goals, to the methods of instruction away from teacher-centered formats to learner-centered formats.


Historic View

Traditionally, teachers and students have convened in classrooms to teach and to learn. Traditional views of teaching allow teachers several active roles: lecturing, offering explanations, describing lab activities, setting out exercises, guiding practice sessions, conducting evaluation and assessment, guiding critical discussions as well as many others. Traditional views of learning offers learners relatively few roles, most of which are passive: listening, note taking, following instructions, practicing skills, or performing memory tasks during evaluation. Over the last few years research in the cognitive sciences (Kandel & Hawkins, 1992; Fishback, 1992) and empirical observation of learning situations (Goodlad, 1995; Cuban, 1986) has lead educators to conclude that these predominantly passive roles of learners have, in fact, inhibited learning or relegated it to occurring during out-of-class time.


Reading about topics heard in lecture, practicing skills described or demonstrated, discussion with other learners, writing up reports, analysis of data are all typical tasks and activities that students have completed in order to learn. Often these are done out of class. There is nothing unusual about this or the expectation that much of a course's cognitive activities happen out of the classroom. This is important for several reasons; two are worth describing in detail.


First, this opportunity or expectation, for learners to process, practice, discuss, read, write, diagram, hum to, dance to, plot, diagram, investigate or classify allows them the freedom to explore the intellectual demands of the specific learning situation in manners comfortable or efficient to the learner. Whether one subscribes to Gardner's Multiple Intelligences, or Dunn and Dunn's Learning styles, or to a culture-specific/background-specific orientation to learning in its various forms, it is a rare individual or theory that allows for only one single path to learning. This traditional asynchronicity, the expectation that students will on their own time work through course material, has allowed, but not fostered multiple orientations or paths to learning.


Second, this opportunity or expectation, allows learners to gain contrast, alternate sources, explore concepts in new ways in a location amenable to the learner. While students are tied to campuses where lectures or specialized laboratory equipment is located, they are expected to learn beyond the lecture hall or laboratory. At home in soft light, at work while doing labor, while driving, while exercising, at night in dreams, good learning takes place; learners are not expected to do all of their learning in the classroom. This traditional asynchronicity and the expectation, that students will learn in setting of their own choice, has allowed limited geographic dispersion of learners due to the ties of the lecture hall.


With this historic description of education it is clear that many educators facilitate asynchronous learning. There are other ways that learning is asynchronous. In any classroom of learners there are many different paces, patterns and paths to learning any subject or skill. Within these individual learners there are also a limited number of "sub-learnings" that can happen in many different orders. Generally, the class is in the same realm on the syllabus and many learnings have precedent and antecedent sub-learnings, but to a large extent, learning is clearly a process that in not tightly synchronized to teaching. Therefore, building on traditional views of learning and education, describing what asynchronous learning is and what its benefits are should be easy.


So far, we have explored and might agree that . . .


Future View

For the purposes of the Virtual Washington State University Implementation Group (VWSU IG) the designation "asynchronous learning" implies that the acts of learning and the acts of teaching are not simultaneous or colocal.


Aside from the above described asynchronous learning activities, adding just a few new elements liberates, but does not exclude learners, from the colocal expectations of lectures and in some cases laboratory experiences. The elements of asynchronous learning are not aimed at separating students from instructional aid or from each other, in face quite the opposite is true. There are several types of activity that are predicated on groups of students (group discussions, team mastery of skills, . . .) and student/teacher interaction (remediation, feedback, . . . ).

Decreasing the dependence of instruction on lecture and shifting to asynchronous techniques could take several forms, ranging from simple and elementary to advanced and complex:

This list is incomplete and limited only by our imagination and experience. Good educators are likely to be able to produce many more methods for enhancing learning environments that, not just make possible, but endorse and credit specific types of asynchronous learner-centered learning activities.

The university may change to endorse and purposefully plan and use asynchronous learner centered instructional techniques. If not other credentialing agencies will arise to fill a consumer desire to credit learning experiences outside of classrooms. Several university scholars have explored this issue (Langenberg, 1996; Casper, 1995; and Wulf, 1995) and many agree that the forces will impact higher education.



This paper briefly described the elements of asynchronous learning which often already exist on the university campus and then proceeds to describe ways that the asynchronous environments and systems will benefit students and future universities.


The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1993, 1995 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Kandel, E. & Hawkins R. (1992). The biological basis of learning and individuality. Scientific American, 267(3). 78-86.

Fishback, G. (1992). Mind and brain. Scientific American, 267(3). 48-57.

Cuban, L. (1986). Persistent instruction: Another look at consistency in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan (68). 7-11.

Gardner, H. (1993). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelegences. New York: Basic Books.

Langenberg, D. (1996). Power plants or candle factories? Science, 272, 1721.

Casper, G. (1995, April). Come the millennium: Where the university? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American education research Association, San Francisco, CA.

Wulf, W. (1995). Warning: Information technology will change the university. Issues in Science and Technology, 11(46), 46-52.Goodlad, J. (1994). Educational renewal. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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