Semi-synchronous collaborative learning: a definition

Jun 21, 2022

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In the world of digital learning, a lot of the conversation hinges on one key question: asynchronous learning or synchronous learning?

But any debate that simply addresses the merits of asynchronous vs. synchronous learning is missing a key point. For many organizations, the best solution is actually something in between. This is where semi-synchronous collaborative learning comes in.

What is semi-synchronous collaborative learning?

Semi-synchronous collaborative learning is a digital learning model that offers the flexibility of asynchronous learning alongside the motivation, great learner engagement, and community spark most often associated with synchronous learning solutions.

Asynchronous learning allows learners to engage with the learning content at their own convenience, whenever works best for them. Synchronous learning, meanwhile, dictates the learning schedule and requires learners to be online at the same time, often attending live, real-time learning sessions that mimic the real-world classroom experience.

Semi-synchronous collaborative learning falls somewhere in between. In Nomadic, for example, learners are divided into cohorts, who then complete Programs within the same general timeframe (usually 4–6 weeks). So although learners can log on and move through the learning content when it works best for them, they're engaging with the material, ideas, and discussion during the same period of time as their fellow cohort members.

The pros of semi-synchronous learning

Today's workplace often involves distributed teams, colleagues in different time zones, and collaboration across cultures, languages, and working styles. Any learning solution that requires cohort members to log on at the same time is inevitably going to create logistical hassles and, very likely, inequities, too. Live learning has its benefits, certainly, and plays an important role in many larger L&D initiatives. But instructor-based learning that mimics the classroom is difficult to scale across global teams, and an initiative that uses live learning as its core approach will likely be too clunky and slow for today's fast-paced environment.

Remove the live, synchronous element, however, and the rollout suddenly looks much more seamless: well-designed multimedia learning content can be translated, adapted to different teams, and engaged with on the learner's own time. Meaning it can also become available to thousands of learners across the globe with the click of a button.

Yet though this asynchronous approach is much more convenient, a fully asynchronous solution is less likely to engage learners, so some time constraints are key. This is why we give our Programs start and end dates. With this semi-synchronous approach, cohort members can share their insights, discuss the learning content, and engage with new ideas during the same general timeframe as their colleagues. They benefit from the camaraderie of learning together, while completing the course on a schedule that works for their time zone and their learning and working style.

If this rhythm of collaboration sounds familiar to you, that's because it probably is! In the modern workplace, we use semi-synchronous tools all the time. Communication and social platforms like Slack, Whatsapp, Teams, Facebook, and Twitter feature fellow users responding to ongoing conversations in a semi-synchronous fashion. In our Academy, features like profiles with photos, upvotes for great comments, and threaded discussions offer much of the same functionality you find on these platforms, too.

The pros of collaborative learning

It's not just the "semi-synchronous" part that's key here. The "collaborative" part of "semi-synchronous collaborative learning" is also essential to its impact. And this is largely because of the types of skills that semi-synchronous collaborative learning allows organizations to teach: the highly social skills essential for success in today's complex business environment.

From the beginning, our Academy has been focused on what are sometimes called mindset skills, 21st-century skills, or soft skills. We help people become better managers and leaders, help teams become more creative, and help companies become more strategic, adaptable, and resilient. These are not easy skills to teach online; at least, not using traditional e-learning. Collaboration, critical thinking, leading effective hybrid teams, and fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion are all in great demand today. And they're all highly social skills, which take a highly social form of learning to acquire.

This is why we designed our Academy to be deeply collaborative. Learners deepen their understanding of the material through discussion with their fellow cohort members. They trial-run skills like problem-solving, debating, and working through differences together. And they are much more motivated to engage with the platform than they would be in a solo learning experience, as evidenced by the 86% average completion rate in our cohort-based Academy, unprecedented for digital learning.

Why cohort-based learning?

To return to the example of social media, while social media is deeply engaging, anyone who's spent time on Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit can attest that the conversations that happen there aren't always constructive. (To put it lightly!)

This is why you can't just put a bunch of learners into a platform and call it a day. You need to organize learners into cohorts. In fact, well-designed cohorts are one of the most important factors in successful semi-synchronous collaborative learning.

We've been thrilled to see cohort-based learning gain popularity in recent years––we've been designing cohort-based solutions for more than a decade and have seen firsthand the impact this model can have on organizations and the learners and teams who work for them. However, it's important to keep in mind that there are some well-established best practices for designing cohorts. For more on that, check out a few tips for designing learning cohorts we've developed over the years.

What's next for semi-synchronous collaborative learning?

We're excited about the possibilities semi-synchronous collaborative learning offers. One interesting area of development is the capability academy, where learners are organized into cohorts around a specific function. We've seen successs with semi-synchronous marketing capability academies (check out this story about the capability academy we built with AB InBev), as well as the Josh Bersin Academy, the human resources capability academy we built with the Josh Bersin Company, which now has more than 30,000 members worldwide.

Beyond capability academies, semi-synchronous collaborative learning is most exciting because it's a tool that allows organizations to directly address today's biggest business challenges. Competing in an uncertain economy requires teams that are agile, creative, and adaptable. And it requires leaders who are highly skilled at guiding their people through difficult times, while fostering a great employee culture along the way.

These are the exact kinds of skills that semi-synchronous collaborative learning can teach effectively––at scale––in a way unmatched by any other learning solution. For learning and functional leaders looking for real L&D results, it's a model worth exploring, especially for global and distributed teams. In increasingly uncertain times, we are excited to see the impact this learning can have on helping organizations and teams become more resilient, no matter what challenges come their way.


To learn more about our cohort-based learning model, read our in-depth report, Cohort-Based Learning at Scale: Eight Principles for Success. You can also get in touch to discover how cohort-based learning can help your organization.

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