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This image is the How Online Learning Works page title bar. Like all title bars of the Student Support site, it is blue and shows a picture of a group of students talking at a table.

 How Online

Learning Works

Asynchronous Learning

If you're new to online learning, you might be wondering how it works. On this page, we'll compare online learning to swimming (and on-campus learning).

Generally speaking, most online courses are considered asynchronous learning experiences. That means no one is dictating precisely when you need to log into a class – “live” interactions are infrequent and often supplemental.


That said, you have start times for lessons and deadlines for assignments, and very often you're working with other students, so it's not a free for all!

You can say it is similar to a swimming race rather than a synchronized swimming dance, In a race, swimmers start at the same time, but they swim at their own pace to meet their own goals.  The swimmers work independently. 

If you have come from a traditional face-to-face learning environment, you're used to doing a lot of your learning in a synchronized context --you, your classmates and your instructor are "live" in class and working together on the same thing.  Whether you're listening to a lecture, taking a test or giving a presentation, you're together as a class.

Most online courses are designed to function asynchronously, but that doesn't mean you can just work on things when you feel like it. You'll have deadlines, group discussions and group projects, reading, papers and tests to take. You'll start the term and your lessons following the same calendar as your classmates. But, unlike synchronous learning, you'll have a good bit of flexibility as to when you do your coursework. Are you a night owl? Great, stay up late and do your work -- just get it done by the deadline. Do you work evenings? That's OK, you can do your studies during the day. Again...just make sure you meet the deadlines listed in the syllabus.

In your online courses, faculty may offer Q & A sessions that are live (or synchronous) or they may review an exam, but generally, these pieces are supplementary to what is otherwise a largely asynchronous learning experience. As a result, you have more flexibility about how and when you complete your work and more responsibility to make sure you attend to requirements. divided into week long lessons (some have two-week long units). These lessons are laid out in the learning management system (at HBFGS we use Populi) so that everything you need for the lesson is contained right there. You’ll get an introduction from the instructor at the beginning of the week (some do this via recorded video, some via a written message). That launches the class for the week. Then, you work independently to read and watch course material. Reading can be textbooks, websites, journal articles. Videos can be anywhere from 5-30 minutes long. Some of the videos are lectures created by the instructor. Some of them are resources from the Internet.  If a resource is required for the course, it’s linked to the course, so you’re not spending time searching for it. After you absorb the course content, you’ll typically participate in a variety of “learning activities” that help you engage the content and your peers. These things can vary course to course, but I’ve been impressed that the faculty have found assignments that help students “use” the material or apply it to engaging situations.

Some courses require research for papers. You have full access to the online library, if you need to do that. Some courses require students to work on group projects together. In almost all cases, course material is designed to help you engage in active learning. In other words, you're actively applying what you learned to a professional or clinical context so that there's a real life implication for what you're studying. Sometimes you need to get the basics down before that kind of application to happen.

The great thing about being an adult student is that you really can take more responsibility for your learning. You can dig in and gain the understanding you need or pursue avenues of interest. Teaching, as it turns out, is not just about the instructor telling you what you need to know, but about designing learning opportunities for you so that you can dig into the material yourself. Online learning requires students to actively participate through reading, watching videos, discussion, projects, and all sorts of learning activities.

Every faculty member engages the course and demonstrates his/her presence differently. Some will  participate in discussions, so you’ll see their comments there. Some will post updates to the class via a video after people have submitted work. It really depends on so many things – their own ease with technology, their teaching philosophies, etc. What impresses me about the faculty is that I do see them engaging. I’ve not seen anyone treat an online course like it’s some plug-n-play in which they set things up and then just turn it over to students. In this sense, I would say that these are not high-tech correspondence courses, but courses in which you really do get to learn in community.

It may feel awkward to you as you get into these courses (and you may feel like you need flotation devices handy, but hopefully, you won't feel like you need rescuing). You'll have a community of learning around you to find your way. Start with the materials in your course and then reach out to classmates, your instructor, or even the online team to support you as you learn.

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