With the arrival and widespread adoption of the Internet as a venue for higher education, students are communicating far differently than they would in a traditional classroom setting. Asynchronous communication—where participants do not need to be directly available to exchange information, but rather respond at their own convenience—is the norm when it comes to online learning.
Since most of us are already familiar with asynchronous forms of communication, such as email and text messaging, incorporating it into the learning environment seems natural. Asynchronous forms of communication like discussion boards can be an effective way to engage students and track class conversations.
Though, as convenient it may be, when one contrasts lively, in-person class dialogues with computer-mediated discussions, it may seem that asynchronous communication is lacking. After all, how does one expect classmates to build camaraderie while staring at computer screens?
Surprisingly, there’s a significant amount of research supporting the idea that asynchronous communication is beneficial in helping online students build meaningful online learning communities. A recent study examining the use of discussion boards in online courses found that as the semester progressed, not only did student interaction increase but that students also started addressing their peers by name and that students were progressively willing to share personal and/or professional experiences with their peers.
Scholars refer to the connectedness one feels toward his or her classmates as a social presence. It’s been defined as “the ability of learners to project themselves socially and affectively into a community of inquiry” or “a measure of the feeling of community that a learner experiences in an online environment.”
From my own college experience, I can remember sitting in the middle of a large lecture hall with hundreds of other students, yet feeling somewhat isolated. Not in the physical sense, of course, but rather socially. Interaction usually consisted of a quick hello and goodbye with the neighbor who happened to be sitting next to me that day.
While it is true that online learners do spend more time physically separated from their classmates than their brick-and-mortar counterparts, many are able to develop strong learning communities through the use of online communication tools.
Another study found that classroom blogs provided an effective way to overcome feelings of frustration and isolation by providing an engaging and interactive forum for students that supported the emergence of individual voices in a distance-learning environment. All of the students who participated in the study reported having positive experiences with using blogs and most believed that it reduced feelings of isolation.
So how, at a functional level, do asynchronous forms of communication facilitate the online learning experience? Be sure to read my next article on social cues in online educational environments.
What do you think about these findings? If and when you’ve taken an online course, do you feel like you were able to meaningfully engage with your peers? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.
 Cox, B., & Cox, B. (2008). Developing interpersonal and group dynamics through asynchronous threaded discussions: The use of discussion board in collaborative learning. Education, 128(4), 553-565.
 Rourke L., Anderson T., Garrison D.R. & Archer W. (1999) Assessing social presence in asynchronous text-based computer conferencing. Journal of Distance Education 14, 51–70.
 Tu C.H. & McIsaac M. (2002) The relationship of social presence and interaction in online classes. American Journal of Distance Education 16, 131–150.
 Dickey, M.D. (2004) The impact of web-logs (blogs) on student perceptions of isolation and alienation in a web-based distance-learning environment. Open Learning 19(3), 279–291.