All Online Courses Aren’t Equal: Critical Sync-Async Difference

By Jim Shimabukuro

In the University of Hawaii System yesterday (March 31), we received a memo about our 2020 summer sessions: The May 26 to July 3 session will be online only; the July 6 to August 14 session may include F2F sections if we’re clear of the COVID-19 emergency measures by May 15.

A potential registration problem in the midst of this pandemic is the blanket use of the word online. When nearly every course is designated online, the lack of distinction will be confusing for students. The question foremost in the minds of many will be: “Will we have to meet online at a specific time?”

This question highlights the critical difference between sync and async1 classes. Sync classes, although online, require students to meet at specific times on specific days. This is a hardship for many with responsibilities (e.g., jobs, caring for family members), in distant locations (e.g., different time zones), or with preferred learning styles (e.g., async vs. sync) that make it difficult or impossible to participate. 

Most students with jobs will be concerned about the lack of sync-async distinctions. According to a 2019 NCES document, they comprise a huge segment of the college population:

In 2017, the percentage of undergraduate students who were employed was higher among part-time students (81 percent) than among full-time students (43 percent).

This problem is especially acute for two-year college students. In fall 2019, 3.3 million two-year students were enrolled part-time, compared to 2 million enrolled full-time (

Working college students, both two- and four-year, need to be able to easily distinguish between courses that are async and sync. Without clear designations, their only recourse is to contact instructors to ask for more details, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll receive timely responses. More than likely, they’ll reach out to friends and classmates or social media for that information. This route, however, isn’t always reliable.

To make it easier for students to select courses that suit them best, colleges need to clearly indicate whether a course is sync or async. All courses — F2F, blended, and online — are defined by space and time. Of the three categories, “online” is particularly ambiguous because it includes both sync and async courses.

A simple scheme to clarify online is to add a sync or async designation: “online async” or “online sync.” Courses that are “online async” don’t require any meetings that are day-and-time specific. Courses that are “online sync” require one or more day-and-time specific meetings.

1 Sync (synchronous) classes require attendance at scheduled meetings, usually via video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, ClickMeeting, and Ring. Async (asynchronous) classes don’t require sync meetings. Students decide when to log in and complete assignments as long as they meet deadlines.

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