Traditionally, a lot of employee training was held asynchronously, or “on demand.” Employees could log in and access training at their leisure to accommodate both variations in personal preferences and schedules. With the emergence of the pandemic, though, and a shift to remote and hybrid work, training sessions today are also being held synchronously as employees become more comfortable meeting virtually.
It’s not an either/or training environment these days. Both synchronous and asynchronous training have a place, and both have specific benefits and drawbacks for online employee training and employee engagement.
The Terminology of Synchronous and Asynchronous Training
Dr. Richard Kordel leads the MS program in Learning Technologies and Media Systems at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Historically, there has been quite a bit of variation in the use of terms related to online employee training and learning, says Kordel. The terminology has also changed over time.
“The first distinction I can remember being drawn in the corporate world was between “leader-led” and what at the time was called CBT—computer-based training,” Kordel says. “These two types of training were differentiated based on what he calls a “traditional” split.” Training that was “timeless”—like ladder safety or network functionality, could be converted to CBT because all the benefits of computer-based training could be engaged. Economies of scale in the delivery, standard presentation of material, and validated assessments all became factors, he says.
Over time, though, Kordel says the simple division between CBT and leader-led employee training has become more multifaceted driven by the widespread availability of inexpensive technology.
Two broad terms have emerged related to online employee training: synchronous and asynchronous teaching. Synchronous training is learning that takes place in real-time with an instructor, allowing learners to engage with each other. Asynchronous training takes place in settings that don’t require participants or instructors to be engaged at the same time. Today, most employee training benefits from a digital environment and the ability to use tools like Class to share information both synchronously and asynchronously.
A long-standing model in the field of education and instructional design—Bloom’s taxonomy—can provide some direction from an academic standpoint about how to make choices designed to boost both learning and employee engagement.
Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Decide Which Kind of Training To Provide
Kordel says that if he was speaking to instructional designers he would point to Bloom’s taxonomy as a guide to when synchronous or asynchronous training might be the best approach.
Things toward the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy—facts, figures, and capabilities—might best be presented via an asynchronous class, says Kordel. This type of information, he notes, “might need to be reviewed multiple times, and the recorded class might evolve into a reference document until memorized.”
Topics at the top of the pyramid, though, that require more analysis and interaction lend themselves to synchronous training. “Simply put, most of the time, these lessons would not be as effective if interaction was not possible,” Kordel notes.
There are practical considerations as well. Learning and development (L&D) experts consider both learning models and employee engagement as they seek to determine the best ways to share information.
Considering Employee Engagement, and Synchronous and Asynchronous Employee Training
Molood Ceccarelli, a leadership and change management coach and the founder of Remote Forever, says there are benefits to both synchronous and asynchronous methods for training employees. “In my experience, asynchronous training provides a better opportunity for people to digest information at their own pace when they are ready and willing to receive the information. It also gives the trainee an opportunity to pause and reflect on what they have learned, as well as the space to do their own research to supplement their learning,” she says. “On the other hand, synchronous training has the advantage of providing the trainee with emotional belonging to their company and team as the whole group receives the training at the same time.”
From a company standpoint, though, synchronous employee training has some drawbacks, Ceccarelli says, including the need to repeat a training program multiple times for each group that needs to be trained. The solution: a hybrid model. In a hybrid model, says Ceccarelli, “the content is delivered and consumed asynchronously accompanied with synchronous sessions for further practice of the learned material and Q&A.”
Dr. Sana Shaikh, PhD, is an organizational theory and behavior expert and consultant who has conducted both synchronous and asynchronous workshops. Asynchronous work, she says, “allows the prospect of greater employee engagement, a great tool when as a company, the premise is to build organizational culture and create a momentum of shared accountability and expectations.” Synchronous work, by contrast, says Shaikh, “allows for greater interaction with the facilitator and the understanding that the team is working on the charge simultaneously and in real time.”
The two can be used in conjunction, says Shaikh.
Taking a Hybrid Approach to Employee Training
Today’s L&D professionals have the advantage of being able to combine the best of both asynchronous and synchronous training as they seek to engage employees who may be both remote and on-site.
“Asynchronous work is a great modality for prep prior to a synchronous session. Asynchronous workshops also give employees independence and provide them the space to really take the time to tease out the concepts presented at the training,” says Shaikh. And, for those that need additional time processing, asynchronous work is a great vehicle for different learners who need that time, she says.
By now it should be abundantly clear that, as Ceccarelli, says, “there is no absolute answer for which way is best as the choice of method depends on the content and the audience.”
When deciding between synchronous or asynchronous training, it’s not an “all or nothing” proposition. Both have their place depending on the information being shared as well as instructor and learner preference.