Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning Communities

Stephen Downes linked to a post by Wendy Wickham entitled “You just had to be there.” Wendy has a great picture of something made during a synchronous learning session that doesn’t make any sense to anyone outside the community who created it. Wendy says this:

“In a synchronous learning community, in many instances, the process is the point. As Sandra points out, a tremendous amount of learning occurs in the push-pull of conversation… Asynchronous learning communities, such as the blogosphere, generate objects that are meant to be referred to in the future. These objects can be used by the members of the community or by outsiders.”

Stephen asks whether it makes sense to separate communities by synchronous and asynchronous. I think there are certainly differences between what you can do with synchronous and asynchronous tools, but I’m not convinced that it is always a clear line. I think the learning community created has more to do with the instructional methods used than with the technological tools themselves.

Real-time chat can be great for brainstorming and sharing ideas with an immediacy and energy that can’t be achieved the same way in slower medium like blogs and wikis. If a professor or trainer uses a chat to simply give a text-based version of a lecture though, does that have the same kind of energy? Compared to a chat-based lecture where students are mostly passive readers, I would expect that students doing even an asynchronous threaded discussion board would be more actively engaged and feel more like a cohesive group.

On the other hand, if students just create blogs but don’t really communicate with each other, they aren’t building a community or engaging each other. They are just creating independent reflective journals—which isn’t necessarily bad, but it might not be the best use of the tools. If there’s no conversation happening, reflective journals could be created in word processing programs or even with pen and paper and still accomplish the same goals. In that case, Wendy is completely right—you don’t have the push-pull of the conversation to drive learning. But it isn’t the tools that determines whether there is a conversation: It’s how we use the tools.

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