When lockdowns and social distancing requirements forced many of us to work and live online, video conferencing seemed like our saving grace. In a world without in-person contact, live video meetings appeared to be the next best option to communicate, celebrate and collaborate with friends, family and colleagues.

Many in-person learning experiences were converted to video meetings, but early attempts at replicating in-person learning experiences online have fallen short of expectations. Widespread overuse of video conferencing has led to a new pandemic: Zoom fatigue. The phenomenon (which is not unique to that particular platform) describes the lethargy we experience as we spend hours trying to stay focused in virtual meetings. It has led to a drop in learner engagement, which has been exacerbated by background distractions and the inevitable technical glitches we associate with video conferences. What has become increasingly clear is that high-impact learning requires more.

Good Learning Design Can Reengage Digitally Drained Learners

Modern learning design approaches consider which learning experiences need to happen at the same time and which can occur over time. These purposeful, learner-centered design processes aim to reduce the fatigue of webinars and conference calls and increase engagement across the learning journey. Innovative learning designers now target a blended online approach that combines synchronous and asynchronous learning in new collaborative learning journeys that stimulate and drive engagement over time.

Before jumping into how blended online experiences can result in higher engagement, let’s review some definitions:

    • Synchronous learning is real-time learning that occurs at a fixed time and location, whether in person or online (think a virtual conference or live webinar)
    • Asynchronous learning occurs any time, anywhere, at the learner’s convenience (traditionally used for compliance or “hard skills” courses that contained different modules for learners to complete at your own pace).
    • Blended learning (also known as polysynchronous learning) combines both asynchronous and synchronous learning. Blended learning is not new; organizations have been supplementing in-person experiences with online content for years. In the fully online world, blended learning has opened up new opportunities for learning designers to create extended, cohesive experiences that connect synchronous and asynchronous modalities in new ways that excite learners and demonstrate impact.

Synchronous Learning Is Social, but It Can Struggle to Engage

Synchronous learning experiences, such as video conferences and webinars, were initially thought to be the best substitute for in-person learning, due to their ability to bring people together and enable social presence and conversational flow. However, migrating in-person experiences to a digital classroom has not been as successful as many initially thought it would be, and it has resulted in learner disengagement and, ultimately, a lack of impact.

This is not to suggest that purely synchronous approaches do not have their place in the portfolio of online training. Synchronous learning can be effective for short, informational sessions, such as updates on new policies, where live questions are important; town halls or Q&A sessions; and small-group learning communities. Furthermore, breaking down long training programs into shorter sessions, spaced over a period of time, can alleviate some of the fatigue.

Asynchronous Learning Enables Learners to Proceed at Their Own Pace — and Collaborate

Asynchronous learning has often been considered synonymous with self-paced eLearning. However, modern design approaches to asynchronous learning have caused a reconsideration of methods of supporting collaboration and connections within the learning experience, in ways that empower learners and are supported by learning science:

    • Reflection, practice, application and feedback — for both individuals and groups — can occur through asynchronous learning over time.
    • Collaboration can occur through peer interaction, supportive facilitation, thoughtful discussions and team projects.
    • Accountability can occur through deadlines or learning cohorts.

Modern implementations of asynchronous learning can provide ample opportunities for meaningful reflection and discussion, helping learners internalize information and apply it to their work. The modality also gives learners time to practice and apply learning content to personally relevant circumstances and to engage with material at their own pace. Finally, thoughtfully designed asynchronous learning can promote inclusion by surfacing voices and opinions from learners who are often excluded during in-person experiences, including introverts and members of non-majority groups.

Blended Models Can Drive Engagement and Collaboration Across the Learning Experience

Synchronous and asynchronous learning each brings its own benefits, and they can be combined to create blended experiences. While blended learning has traditionally been thought about in terms of mixing in-person and online learning, in a digital workplace, blending means mixing synchronous and asynchronous online modalities. When skillfully combined, asynchronous and synchronous learning can complement and amplify each other’s benefits and minimize each other’s downsides, resulting in greater learner engagement and collaboration. This blended approach can leverage the social aspects of synchronous learning and the flexibility of asynchronous learning, promoting seamless engagement and accountability.

The trick in the design process is how to choose which modality to use for any given activity. There’s no set formula. For example, opening a course that is primarily asynchronous with a kick-off call can generate excitement among a learning cohort, set expectations, and create both community and accountability. Then, you can maintain active participation in your training by punctuating asynchronous learning (including not just content but practice, application and feedback) with periodic synchronous activities, such as check-ins, live Q&A sessions or project presentations.

Designing for Engagement and Impact

Our changed work environment has spurred innovation in instructional design for a new class of learning solutions. The COVID-19 pandemic pitched a curveball for learning and development (L&D) — and, in the process, accelerated the digital transformation that was already underway.

Creative approaches that leverage technology to mix and match synchronous and asynchronous learning activities can result in impactful and engaging learning experiences that not only meet but exceed the outcomes of purely in-person experiences. Distributing learning over time gives learners the opportunity to apply key concepts, work together through practice and feedback, and develop connections and relationships with their fellow learners along the way. The result is a learning experience that is just as rewarding for learners as in-person training and that makes a demonstrable impact on business outcomes.