Why asynchronous learning is the key to successful upskilling

April 18, 2022 - 18 min read

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What is asynchronous learning?

4 examples of asynchronous learning

Asynchronous vs. synchronous learning: What’s the difference?

8 pros and cons of asynchronous learning

3 tips for an effective asynchronous learning program

You really can learn on your own time. Or at least on your own schedule.

It might seem new to anyone who thinks of learning and training as synonymous. It might seem foreign to anyone who equates learning with school and education. But people learn asynchronously all the time.  Ever read a book or a how-to manual? How about a YouTube video? 

Now, there’s just a wider array of content and resources. Some of these resources are more formal and come with some certification. That’s still relatively new in the world of learning. With the rise of online learning, asynchronous learning has also become a part of the new normal. 

I recently finished an asynchronous learning course online. I wanted to develop my skills and get sharper on some technical aspects of my job. Because I work full-time and take instructor-led writing classes at night, I needed an asynchronous course. 

I needed a course that I could complete on my own time. 

So, I signed up for a digital marketing and SEO course. There were 18 different modules within this particular class. Whenever I found myself with a spare hour, I’d dive into a new section. Within a few weeks, I finished all the modules. The nicest part about it? I could hop in after dinner if I had a couple of hours of free time. Or, I could break up the middle of my workday with a 30-minute section. 

You might be looking for ways to implement asynchronous learning courses in your organization. Many organizations offer asynchronous learning as part of their talent development offerings. It can be used to help further career mobility.

The idea is to let people get what they need when they need it. But without a set training schedule and program, do people get around to doing their professional development? You may also be wondering if asynchronous learning is worth it. Does it actually work? How can you know or keep track? Can people benefit from asynchronous learning? Let’s find out. 

What is asynchronous learning?

Asynchronous learning is when students enroll in courses or learning programs where they can progress on their own time. Many asynchronous learning offerings are in the form of pre-recorded video classes. These courses are online and may be separated into different modules or sections. 

But instead of an instructor leading the class with students in attendance at the same time, the student learns at their own pace. Asynchronous learning is still usually instructor-led. But the content delivery and time frame are more flexible. Let’s get into some examples of what this means. 

4 examples of asynchronous learning

Your organization might already have asynchronous learning in place. Let’s talk through some common examples of asynchronous learning. Here are four examples of asynchronous learning. 

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Security training and awareness programs 

When I was first hired at BetterUp, I had a series of tasks waiting for me in my inbox. Within the first few weeks, every employee is required to complete security awareness training. 

This particular training was housed in a learning management system (LMS). Because I was juggling new hire orientation and ramping up in my role, I couldn’t complete the training in one sitting. 

So, over time, I was able to knock out sections of the security awareness training. I’d watch a module and complete the quiz at the end of each module. I had the flexibility to complete the training at a time that worked best for me. And I was still quizzed on my knowledge and what information I absorbed. 

Security awareness training is often asynchronous at organizations. It also frees up time for the security team from having to conduct in-person training (or virtual trainings to a live audience).

Code of conduct and harassment training 

Many organizations also use asynchronous learning for things like code of conduct training. 

At a previous employer, our code of conduct and harassment training happened annually. Every year, we were required to complete the online training asynchronously. Much like the security awareness training, employees were quizzed on their responses. 

Sometimes, the learning management systems won’t allow the student to progress to the next module until the correct answer is given. Consider implementing this approach with important content — like the employee handbook, code of conduct, or discrimination training. It can ensure that your employees take the time to digest the information. 

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Some diversity training programs 

First, we don’t recommend that your organization runs all of its diversity training asynchronous. There’s a huge benefit to synchronous learning opportunities for employees.

This is important because listening and discussion are critical to understanding diverse perspectives. Without the opportunity for employees to interact with each other, there’s a huge opportunity loss. 

However, some organizations have supplemental asynchronous diversity training programs. For example, I’ve worked at companies where the bulk of diversity training programs are hosted in person. But the content in the asynchronous course helped reinforce what I already learned in the in-person training. 

Some leadership and professional development programs 

Let’s say that employee Holly is a new people manager. She was recently promoted to a new role and now has four direct reports. 

Holly’s company has twice-a-year in-person people leadership offsites. The leadership offsites are chock-full of synchronous learning courses, with instructors from inside and outside of the company. Holly has attended one of the leadership offsites. But because they only happen twice a year, Holly’s company has created an asynchronous module around people leadership

Much like diversity training programs, professional development can’t be solely done asynchronously. There’s incredible value to collaboration, conversation, and real-time problem solving that happens in a physical classroom. 

But not many organizations can’t staff ongoing learning and professional development classes. Oftentimes, this is where asynchronous learning enters the picture. 

Asynchronous vs. synchronous learning: What’s the difference?

Asynchronous and synchronous learning do have some overlap. So, what’s the difference between the two? How do you know what’s asynchronous versus synchronous learning? 

  • Synchronous learning requires students and instructors are online at the same time 
  • Asynchronous learning can be done on your own time 
  • Asynchronous learning requires instructors to provide all materials to students at once 
  • With synchronous learning, instructors lead lectures or discussions with students live 
  • Asynchronous and synchronous learning can both be completed online 
  • With asynchronous learning, students are usually given flexibility on assignments and course completion 
  • Both types of learning may have virtual discussion boards, chat rooms, or other forms of communication 

8 pros and cons of asynchronous learning in talent development

There’s no right or wrong way to learn. But when it comes to talent development, there are pros and cons to consider. Here’s what you need to know. 

4 benefits of asynchronous learning 

There are plenty of benefits of asynchronous learning. Let’s walk through some of the pros of learning on your own time. 

  • Asynchronous learning can make content more accessible and digestible. Because sessions and courses are usually pre-recorded, there’s plenty of thought and inclusivity on how the course is designed. This means little things that have a big impact (like screen accessibility or closed captioning) are taken into account. 
  • Asynchronous learning allows for incredible flexibility, especially for busy employees. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest pros. Life is busy. And making the time for learning can feel like one more “to-do” on the long checklist. But with the added flexibility, learning can work with your life, not against it. 
  • Asynchronous learning makes space for learners to learn at their own pace. This goes hand-in-hand with flexibility. But beyond just choosing when and where you’d like to learn, you can also pick your pace.

    I remember being in math class in college and simply not understanding the concepts being presented. But I had to move along with the rest of the class. I couldn’t stop the professor from teaching their planned curriculum. And while I went to office hours and sought extra support, I still didn’t grasp the concept until later.

    But with asynchronous learning, you’re given more time to review and understand concepts. There’s no rush and pressure to quickly move on to the next course. Not only is good for the act of learning, but it’s also good for confidence. When learners feel like they’re in control of their learning journey, they’re going to be more engaged
  • Asynchronous learning expands networks and connections. I recently had a friend take a digital marketing course with Cornell’s online learning program. Because it was an asynchronous course, she was able to complete the class on her own time. But there were also hundreds of other students in the course — and in her field of work.

    While she wasn’t in class in real-time with these students, connections were still formed. With things like online forums, chat functionality, and other communication methods, she was able to expand her network. For employees, this can be useful especially if courses are focused on industry-specific learnings. 

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4 drawbacks of asynchronous learning 

While there are incredible benefits, there are also cons to consider. Asynchronous learning comes with its drawbacks. Here’s what you need to know. 

  • Asynchronous learning doesn’t allow for as much interaction and communication. Because learners aren’t joining a class with other students at the same time, there’s not as much opportunity for interaction. Students miss out on things like live discussions and other engaging components of a classroom. 
  • There’s not an opportunity to ask questions and get feedback in real-time. It also can also be a con when it comes to instructor and learner communication. For example, in a synchronous setting, a student can raise their hand and get an immediate answer from an instructor. But asynchronous learning doesn’t allow for that type of interaction. 
  • Asynchronous learning requires learners to be fairly self-motivated. With asynchronous learning, you learn on your own time. That places a heavy emphasis on learner motivation. If a person isn’t self-motivated, it can be easy to fall off track or perhaps not even complete the course. There’s an accountability aspect to synchronous learning that asynchronous learning lacks. 
  • There’s a risk that the curriculum won’t be understood well or learned. Without the opportunity for real-time feedback or classroom discussions, learners take on risks.

    They might not fully understand or learn the material. Of course, things like quizzes, tests, and regular check-ins can help mitigate the risk. But there’s always a chance that students interpret the material in a way that doesn't allow for learning. 

3 tips for an effective asynchronous learning program

If your organization is ready to leverage asynchronous learning, here are three tips to keep in mind

1. Be strategic about which programs should be asynchronous 

As mentioned earlier, there’s some content that shouldn’t be taught purely asynchronously. There’s a richness to synchronous learning for some material, like diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB)

Be strategic about which learning programs you’d like to use asynchronous learning for. Try asking yourself some of these questions: 

  • What’s the risk if this content is taught asynchronously? 
  • What do employees gain if this content is taught synchronously? 
  • What’s our organization’s desired outcome of this learning program? 
  • What goals do we have for this particular learning program? 

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2. Leverage discussion forums 

Just because employees are learning on their own time doesn’t mean that they can’t interact. But it takes intentionality to create forums for discussion and feedback

Let’s say you’re launching a manager development program asynchronously. Is there a Slack channel or an intranet page where your people managers can ask questions and get feedback? Are people managers given opportunities to connect? Can you schedule a town hall or all people manager meeting after all managers complete asynchronous training? 

Think of ways to bring the discussion to life outside of the curriculum. It can help to ensure your employees are absorbing and learning from one another, too. 

3. Motivate your employees 

Work is busy. We don’t need to tell you that your employees are already pretty busy doing their day jobs. If you’re thinking about asynchronous learning programs, what’s in it for the employee? 

Are there ways you can incentivize or recognize employees who complete the program? What motivation tactics can you use to engage employees? 

For example, let’s say you’ve implemented a supplemental diversity training program asynchronously. In what ways can employee recognition help motivate employees who complete the program? How can you reward your employees for staying motivated throughout the course? 

Hit the books (or the laptop) whenever you feel like it 

There are plenty of learning styles.

Asynchronous classes are very different from the traditional classroom. The format is usually a completely different learning environment than what many of your employees are used to. And while e-learning isn’t necessarily new (especially after the pandemic), online courses may be new to a majority of your employees. 

To create a strong asynchronous learning environment, design learning activities that are going to engage your employees.

Provide reskilling opportunities asynchronously. Create learning networks to help facilitate meaningful connections. Put employees in the driver's seat of their own learning, even if that’s in a virtual classroom. 

The learning experience should be an enjoyable one. But learning new things — especially when course content is asynchronous — can be a challenge. How are you setting up your employees for success?

With BetterUp, you can help your employees thrive, no matter what their learning style. With access to personalized coaching, your employees can become pros at distance learning. 

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Published April 18, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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