MET:Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication:Tools for Collaboration

From UBC Wiki

This page was authored by Byron Kask (2009) and revised by Sarah Wood (2010), and Brett Williams (2014)

Time and Place Communication Diagram - Attaran (2007)


Synchronous and asynchronous communication tools are used to facilitate collaboration between individuals and groups of people, and are particularly useful for e-learning environments. Synchronous communication occurs in real time and can take place face-to-face, and as technology has evolved, can take place irrespective of distance (ex. telephone conversations and instant messaging). Asynchronous communication is not immediately received or responded to by those involved (ex. emails and message board forums which allow people to communicate on different schedules). To enhance collaboration between people, many software applications offer a blend of synchronous and asynchronous technology. The focus of this wiki is an examination of synchronous and asynchronous communication tools for e-learning and collaboration.


A soldier carries an early example (1945) of mobile synchronous radio communication.

Historically, synchronous communication was only available either in person with spoken word or within line of sight using signals. The telegraph and later the telephone extended synchronous communication beyond line of sight. Radio communication began to remove the restrictions of place by allowing people to communicate from wherever they had the appropriate equipment to send and receive signals. Today, synchronous communication includes satellite, cell phone, and internet technologies and allows people to work together instantaneously regardless of their location.

Asynchronous communication first developed when people were able to scratch out small pictographs. This type of communication was refined with the creation of written language. Until recently, communicating across great distances was only possible asynchronously, as messages were written and then carried to their recipients. Response time for this communication was dependant on the distance that needed to be traveled and the conditions faced by the couriers. Furthermore, the messages could be easily lost or intercepted. The creation of modern postal systems greatly improved the reliability of asynchronous communication. The Internet, and new developments in storage media, remote access, and cloud technology, has revolutionized asynchronous communication. Groups of people are now able to utilize asynchronous communication to work collaboratively on projects with no time or place barriers.

From an educational perspective, synchronous learning historically refers to the traditional classroom environment where a teacher communicates directly to a group of students and sets the pace for how and when students learn the curriculum (which continues to characterize a most models of learning to this day). Asynchronous learning emerged out of a perceived need by institutions to deliver curriculum to students who were unable to attend classes in a traditional physical setting due to distance or other factors. These correspondence and distance courses, which were delivered by mail, allowed students to complete readings and assignments on their own time and regardless of the teacher’s schedule and availability. While these types of courses allowed increased student flexibility, interaction with the instructor was limited and collaboration with other students characteristically non-existent. Early models for online distance learning mirrored this approach, which was good for motivated and disciplined students, but again, lacked interaction and support from peers and teachers (Pullen & Snow, 2007).

Synchronous communication tools

A basic chat box allows instant communication between individuals and groups.


  • Real-time collaboration.
  • Immediate response and feedback.
  • Many low-cost and free solutions.
  • Most useful for 1 to 1 communication.
  • Video/web conferencing allow for body language and tone of voice.
  • Increased motivation and engagement with course concepts.
  • Increased social presence


• Interactions can be focussed on task-related issues (Park and Bonk, 2007).
• Lack of reflection between collaborators.
• Instant messaging does not allow for tone of voice or body language.
• If technology fails the collaboration session not possible.
• Large time commitment for collaborators.
• Difficult for one to many communication.
• Lacks documentation.

Asynchronous communication tools

Email communication allows people to send and receive messages at their own convenience.


  • Available anytime.
  • Available anyplace.
  • Can incorporate a variety of media (LMS, Google Wave, Elluminate).
  • Documentation of collaboration process (cloud technology).
  • Can be used for one to one communication and one to many communication.
  • More time for reflection.
  • Contribution to discussion can be more evenly distributed.
  • More opportunity for students to share multiple perspectives.
  • Avoidance of undesirable classroom behaviour.


  • No immediate feedback.
  • Difficult to keep track of collaboration (email overload).
  • Technology can be costly.
  • Information must be organized and searchable or it is lost.
  • Written ideas may be misinterpreted.
  • Often lacks a true 'social presence.'
  • Learner may feel less engaged due to lag in response time to forum posts or questions.
  • Irregular or inconsistent contribution by individuals can affect the richness of discussion and learning.

Educational relavance

A Model of Online Learning (Anderson 2004)

According to Anderson (2004), learning takes place through the interactions between student, teacher and content. Both synchronous and asynchronous communication tools can be used to facilitate learning collaboration between these groups.

Student-Teacher Interaction

Online learning has altered the role of educators from being the sole body of knowledge to being a facilitator of the learning process (Voerwall & Alderman, 2007). Within an online learning environment the interaction between students and teachers is primarily asynchronous; one to many technology. One teacher to many different students in different locations and working in different time zones. Asynchronous instruction is often delivered through text, audio, and video communications (Anderson, 2004).

The communication channel between students and teacher is usually email or message board forums. Anderson argues that both students and teachers need to learn to work within this asynchronous environment as teachers can get overwhelmed with question overload and students can get frustrated with the time delay in feedback. Karabulut & Correia (2008) suggest that a good use for smaller-scale synchronous applications is for the teacher to have virtual office hours whereby the feedback or answers can be received immediately.

According to Murphy et al. (2011), faculty involved in the study revealed that the use of synchronous or asynchronous communication tools often depended on context. Faculty surveyed revealed that they found synchronous tools effective in assisting a student with a specific problem, or to facilitate social interaction within the learning environment, specifically in 'virtual school' contexts. Teachers of older students feel that it is easier to communicate and distribute learning asynchronously, as students seem to prefer this approach as it's easier to communicate one-on-one and to work at one's own pace. Interactive media may also be ineffective if students prefer communicating in text-based environments.

Rovai (2007) stresses the importance of the teacher serving an acting role in student support and learning, which was found lacking in many online distance courses. A lack of mediation or facilitation in discussion can lead to the construction of misconstrued understandings of key concepts, and a regular instructor presence online can impact student self-determination (Giesbers et al., 2013) as an increased 'social presence' (Oztok, 2012) is visible, leading to the potential for increased learning and student satisfaction with the course. According to Rovai (2007) an alternative to regular instructor involvement is to appoint student moderators each week who are responsible for generating discussion questions and facilitating discussion.

Student-Content Interaction

One of the goals of e-learning is to allow groups of people to interact with the content and each other regardless of place or time. To facilitate e-learning, learning management systems (LMS) have been developed to help organize and distribute coursework. More importantly, LMS allow students to collaborate with the content and each other to enhance their understanding and learning. Ellis and Romano (2008) note that working in a collaborative environment is beneficial as it helps students minimize the isolation that can be felt in traditional distance education. Message board forums are a popular asynchronous tool that allows students to post questions and responses to each other to develop content and ideas. These systems are also not limited to the extension of a single thread, allowing diverse ideas and opinions to be compiled and discussed. Vonderwell, Liang, and Alderman (2007) found that message board forums helped students to build knowledge and new connections. Students using LMS’s have expressed that it is enough for most of the coursework to be completed without additional synchronous communication (Ellis & Romano, 2008). However, as Tegn and Taveras (2005) note, a purely asynchronous environment can give rise to a sense of isolation and disconnect.

Wiljekumar & Spielvgel (2006) provide some additional critiques of LMS message board forums and their ability to support rich learning and engagement with course content. These criticism include:

  • students often paraphrase each other instead of contributing new ideas.
  • students often skim through other posts rather than taking the time to deeply reflect on what others have written.
  • length and number of posts can be daunting for both teachers and students to carefully read and scrutinize.
  • delay between posting and responses can slow down the flow of the discussion and impact the motivation of those students enthusiastic about discussing a particular concept or idea.

Rourke & Kanuka (2009) also point to some research that indicates that a “majority of student postings fall in the lowest levels of cognition," as students often tends to re-iterate what has already been stated in their reading or what other students have previously stated, rather than forming new ideas and connections of their own.

Work by Kienle (2008) and Wiljekumar & Spielvgel (2006) proposes the use of computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) or intelligent discussion boards (IDB) to target these shortcomings. Should a system might include features wherein feedback is provided automatically by mining existing information found within the course archives from previous years as a way of clarifying concepts or broadening connections between ideas; automatically sending students emails to prompt them to respond to new posts; and providing feedback on the clarity, paraphrasing and relevance of the content of each post.

Student-Student Interaction

Anderson (2004) argues that developing student-student interactions is critical to e-learning. Kirby & Boak (as cited in Anderson, 2004) note that collaborative learning increases cognitive learning tasks, completion rates, and acquisition of social skills in e-learning. Unlike the interactions between students and content and students and teacher, student-student interactions provide a more realistic opportunity for synchronous communication. Park and Bonk (2007) comment that, “synchronous communication has a great potential to increase individual participation and performance” (2007, p.245). Synchronous communication allows for immediate feedback and meaningful interactions (Park & Bonk). Exploring this further, a study involving preserve teachers by Levin et al. (2006) suggested that synchronous online communication was more effective in fostering critical reflection compared to similar asynchronous online activities. Reasons for this include:

  • immediate feedback
  • pace (more natural)
  • students only had to check in once, rather than multiple times (therefore more focused, engaged)
  • students required to think quickly, intensely, and to actively learn from others.

As discussed, LMS is an asynchronous tool for students to collaborate with each other and the content. Other asynchronous tools are beneficial to students completing group projects. The Google Apps suite of products are an example, and perhaps the most easily accessible of these for student use. Sharing similar features as the previously launched Google Wave, products such as Google Drive and Hangouts allow for communication and collaboration between group members. Individuals can insert conversations within a document and can reply/respond to others comments. The communication can be synchronous as updates are automatic and seen by all group members or asynchronous as work can be completed by individuals and left for others to view later. However, a growing number of online software applications for the purpose of brainstorming and collaboration have also emerged in recent years, offering both synchronous and asynchronous affordances - each with their own unique features and interfaces.. Many of these sites (listed in the chart below) provide a range of products that can be accessed for free, although account set-up is required.

According to Levin et al. (2006), there are benefits to both modes of communication in facilitating student-student interaction and developing a strong social presence required for effective collaboration (Oztok, 2012). The authors suggest that both methods be available for students to explore, and that students should then be given the opportunity to participate more actively in one over the other.

Synchronous-Asynchronous Blended Environments

A growing body of academic scholarship has focused on the benefits of combining synchronous and asynchronous communication tools into the design of online learning environments. According to Oztok et al. (2012), synchronous and asynchronous communication tools should not be evaluated in isolation, but rather how they can supplement one another. There is a great need to consider the learning value that these tools afford students, thus an informed pedagogy is critical in the development and use of these tools in online learning environments. As Oztok et al. (2013) argue, learning - regardless of the context - is a social activity that is enriched through social interactions, collaboration and contextual experiences, thus positing the potential affordances of a blended synchronous-asynchronous online learning environment within a social constructivist framework that owes much to the work of Dewey (1963) and Vygotsky (1978).

Interestingly, most scholarship in this area focuses on the collaborative affordances that a blended synchronous-asynchronous environment would provide students (Murphy & Coffin, 2003; Pullen & Snow, 2007; Kienle, 2008; Oztok et al., 2013; Giesbers et al., 2013). Pullen & Snow (2007) argue that an online course that blends asynchronous tools with synchronous instructions and discussion provides students with improved support and guidance. Online learning environments that combine features such as voice interaction, group file sharing, whiteboard capabilities, video and recording/playback provide a kind of virtual extension of a traditional classroom where mentor/teacher and peer-to-peer interaction is supported. This 'social presence,' according to Oztok et al. (2012), is an important factor in determining students' motivation, depth of learning and satisfaction with the course.

Giesbers et al. (2013) argue that students may likely feel less engaged with the course if the instructor relies primarily on the use of asynchronous communication. Regular online synchronous meetings are likely to increase student motivation to complete tasks (Pullen & Snow, 2007), and are likely to increase the quantity and quality of asynchronous discussion (Giesbers et al., 2013; Oztok & Brett. 2011). Johnson (2006) specifies that synchronous communication tools greatly benefit the social processes involved in learning, "while asynchronous discussion may best support the development of higher-level thinking skills, for example, through the process of writing and enhanced reflection time.”

Synchronous and asynchronous tools for collaboration

Categories of communication technologies:

Popular Collaboration Tools
Name Categories Type of Communication Comments
Blackboard, WebCT Message Board Forum, Chat, Email, Wiki Synchronous and asynchronous Learning Management Systems (LMS) that allow an institution to provide a learning environment to students. High costs associated with these applications, suitable for online learning.
Elluminate Whiteboarding, Chat, VoIP, Video Synchronous and asynchronous Features allow voice and video communication, as well as presentations. High cost associated with this application. Suitable for presentation of material
Evernote Organizing & categorizing information, file sharing Synchronous and asynchronous Cross-platform functionality; useful for note-taking and sorting information; notes can be shared in a multi-user environment for the purpose of project building and collaboration.
GoToMeeting, Zoho, Whiteboarding, Chat, VoIP, Video Synchronous and asynchronous Web conferencing that allow people to meet and host presentation. Minimal cost, suitable for one-time use or longer term projects.
Edmodo SNS, Chat Synchronous and asynchronous Web 2.0 technology, similar in style and function as Facebook. Teachers and students can upload resources and connect with like-minded individuals.
Facebook, Myspace, Nexopia SNS, Chat Synchronous and asynchronous Web 2.0 technology that encourages social participation and is free to users. See Social Network Site.
Google Apps Email, Video & Text Chat, File and Calendar Sharing Synchronous and asynchronous A suite of apps linked to a single account that enable several options for collaboration and discussion. Includes popular apps such as Google Drive and Hangouts.
MediaWiki Wiki Asynchronous Free open-source that allows for multiple authors.
Moodle CMS, Forum, Chat Synchronous and asynchronous Free open-source. Requires an existing web server to run on, and access to a SQL database. See Learning Management Systems (LMS).
Messenger Chat Synchronous Instant messaging with no costs associated. An email function is also available.
Popplet,Padlet Collaborative brainstorming Asynchronous Users can organize and make connections and comments on ideas in a collaborative concept webs (Popplet) or virtual sticky notes (Padlet).
RealtimeBoard, Chat, Video Chat, File Sharing, Whiteboard Synchronous, Asynchronous Online collaboration software created as a team collaboration and online brainstorming tool.
Skype VoIP, Video, Chat Synchronous See Using Skype to Increase Educational Communication. Free, but has paid features. Available across multiple platforms (Windows, MacOS, Linux, etc.), and can be run natively on several handheld devices.
VoiceThread File Sharing, Video, Audio, Chat Synchronous, Asynchronous Cloud-based, interactive software good for collaboration, media creation and sharing. Can be integrated into existing LMS. Cost involved.

See also

Collaborative software
Asynchronous communication
Synchronous communication


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Levin, B.B., He, Y., Robbins, H.H. (2006). Comparative analysis of preservice teachers' reflective thinking in synchronous versus asynchronous online case discussions. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 14(3), 439-460.

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Bourke-White, M. (1945) Us Fifth Army in Italy [image file] Retrieved Feb 20, 2009 from:

Further reading

How Synchronous Communication Helped Engage Our Community

Opinion: The Importance of Being Synchronous

Comments on 2014 Revisions

In revising this page, it was my intention to build upon the existing entry by including a wider breadth of research and to provide a more up-to-date archive on the software available for asynchronous and synchronous communication and collaboration. It was my intention to bring a more critical focus to the discussion by providing evidence of research that delved deeper into the benefits and disadvantages of both forms of curriculum delivery and communication between students and teachers.

In the previous entry, synchronous and asynchronous communication tools were largely represented as mutually exclusive. However, a growing body of research points to the use of both forms of communication in tandem in the development of online courses and tools. As a result, I placed a greater emphasis on this particular area in my own research on the topic, and included these findings as a new section of the article.

In addition to contextualizing the history of synchronous and asynchronous modes of communication within education, I greatly expanded the archive of web tools available for use by educators and students. This included removing links to sites that were no longer active.