Asynchronous Learning: The Key to Equity

Kevin McFarland

In this time of the Coronavirus pandemic and an all too sudden shift to virtual learning, equity of access has become perhaps the single largest obstacle to educating our children. Part of this problem can only be corrected with funding to bridge Internet and device access to communities in need. But part of the problem, a big part of the problem, can be improved by a simple change in the way we instruct our students.

The solution comes from realizing that in-class instruction and remote instruction are not the same thing. For most teachers, whole-group synchronous instruction is still the norm for traditional, in-seat instruction. However, when used in virtual learning, synchronous instruction has a tendency to shut out large numbers of learners who can’t be in front of a computer with broadband access at specified times. This reality hits low income students especially hard. Many are working around impossible schedules, accompanying their parents to work, sharing a device with siblings, or competing with a parent for computer time who is trying to work from home while supervising children. You may even have heard stories of economically disadvantaged students who have no broadband access at home and are forced to get a ride to the nearest McDonald’s parking lot to use the Internet.

30 percent of students in the US either have limited device or Internet access at home, making live instruction almost impossible to deliver. In each of these cases, the problem can be solved by simply providing an asynchronous learning environment.


Effective in the right environment

Whole and small group synchronous learning have a vital place in modern in-school instruction as well as virtual instruction. Nothing can top a live interaction between an educator and learner.  As much as possible, focusing on a synchronous and iterative cycle will improve student outcomes.  The fundamental process of formative learning is derived from this back-and-forth relationship, and adding even miniscule delays can drastically decrease the impact of feedback and interventions.

During my time as a graduate-student researcher at UCLA with my now Co-Founder, Craig Jones, I observed hundreds of hours of classroom time and thousands of pieces of feedback being delivered.  Together, we found that the key to effective feedback was timeliness. If a student left the classroom, the shifts in focus to other classes, extracurricular activities, and other events at home meant that feedback received the next day or later would be piled behind a wall of information, separating it from the learning moment. The only way to avoid interruptions to this cognitive rhythm was to be as synchronous as possible and aim for live interventions whenever feasible.

However, in our current situation, we shouldn’t force educators to continue using this method even if it is proven in a brick-and-mortar classroom, and we don’t necessarily have to. Students aren’t on the same cognitive schedule they were last Spring.  They aren’t all moving through the day with anticipation to focus on a different topic at a specific time, and they are adapting to an environment where work can be trenched for the most effectiveness. So, let’s not pretend things haven’t changed and let’s re-evaluate everything, including the things that have worked great in the past.


Reaching children where they live

For virtual learners, asynchronous instruction may have many benefits beyond simply space and time. Self-determined time and individual learning can foster independence, innovative thinking, the development of researching skills, discernment, individual thought, increased effort, confidence, and decision-making. Also, beyond flexibility, it gives the learner control. Children will learn how to direct their own learning. They can decide how best to accomplish the task, using their own creativity to make decisions about completing tasks and assignments. They can also make the learning personal, locating references and markers that relate to their own lives and interests.

But most importantly, with asynchronous learning, many more children will have the opportunity to access the lesson in the first place. The simple truth is that all the historic pedagogical pros and cons of “asynchronous vs synchronous” are secondary since we had to shift to distance learning without the time for the necessary, which includes being indiscriminate of socio-economic status, infrastructure to be built. Until then, we need to ensure that more children have access to learning. At this early point in our virtual learning experience, we are nowhere near where we want to be. Lack of access is a fact of life. Removing the requirements to meet at exact times of instruction creates flexibility and increases access for many of those in need. The loss of one child’s opportunity is a tragedy. And in the United States, we are faced with the loss of children’s opportunities in the millions. So, let’s fix what we can, and then let’s find a way to fix the rest.


About the Author

Kevin McFarland is Co-Founder & CFO/COO at Formative, a web-based software used for real-time assessment and a free student response system for digital or hybrid classrooms. Used in thousands of school districts across the US, educators depend on Formative to improve student learning, save time and increase overall engagement.  offers live data analysis on any homework, classwork, or assessment to help teachers, parents, and schools guarantee student growth in the moments when it matters most

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