Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Synchronous vs asynchronous MOOCs

Most MOOCs have start and a finish dates. All students have to take the course at the same time. Udacity however, has moved away from synchronous courses to allow students to progress at their own pace.

The difference between the two types of MOOCs can significantly impact the learning experience. Each has it’s own strengths:


  • “If you can do it whenever you want you can do it tomorrow. Then you end up not doing it.” As Peter Norvig puts it, the seminal Stanford AI class was conceived on purpose as a synchronous MOOC to avoid students’ tendency to procrastinate. Although the videos could be watched at any time during the week, the homework deadline helped push students forward.
  • With all students joining at the same time and working on the same weekly topics, forums tend to replicate more closely a classroom environment.
  • The narrow exam window makes policing the forums for ‘spoilers’ easier.
  • Other social activities such as live office hours and peer-grading are also made easier by having a coherent body of students.
  • There is a level of flexibility in the synchronous format .The material for some Coursera courses remains available after the course has officially ended to allow enrolled students access to the course material.


  • Students can join at any time after the start date and take as little or as much time as they need to complete the course. Asynchronous courses are therefore much more flexible.
  • Students wishing to do so can replicate the feeling of a cohort by organising chats and setting deadlines with like-minded peers.

In conclusion, if they manage to continuously attract a big number of students, asynchronous MOOCs can offer the best of both worlds for self-motivated students wishing to follow their own pace.
However, realistically, synchronous courses do a much better job creating a virtual classroom in which students can interact with each other and feel encouraged not to indefinitely postpone their homework.

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