Question: What types of instruction methods are used in online MSW programs? What is the difference between synchronous and asynchronous instruction?

Answer: Online MSW programs use learning management systems (LMS) that allow students to access all of their course content in one location, and to facilitate discussions between faculty and students. Within the LMS, online MSW programs can deliver course content through asynchronous instruction, synchronous instruction, or a combination of the two. Each type of instruction method has its own advantages and disadvantages, and students should choose a program that uses the instruction method that best fits their learning style. Some programs also feature on-campus intensives to supplement and reinforce the material students learn online.

Online MSW programs use asynchronous instruction, synchronous instruction, or a combination of both. Each type of instruction method has its benefits and important considerations. Regardless of their mode(s) of online instruction, all online MSW programs use learning management systems (such as Canvas and/or Zoom) that employ various types of technologies for lectures, seminars, document sharing, instructor office hours, online tutoring, group projects, interactive homework assignments, course examinations, and more. For more information on asynchronous and synchronous instruction, as well as examples of how online MSW programs utilize these instruction methods, continue reading below.

Types of Instruction Methods: Asynchronous Instruction

Programs that utilize asynchronous instruction allow students to access elements of a course on their own time, such as course readings, pre-recorded lectures, and independent assignments. Programs that only use asynchronous instruction do not require students to participate in any real-time instruction. Therefore, asynchronous instruction has the benefit of giving students maximum flexibility to complete their coursework on their own schedule. This is especially important for working professionals who may not be able to attend live online lectures on a weekly basis.

Asynchronous instruction also allows students from different time zones to participate in a class together without the need to be online at the same time. Students typically interact with classmates and instructors through online discussion forums and often must participate at least on a weekly basis. Students can also contact professors through email, and depending on the program and professor, by phone or video chat for professors who hold live office hours.

While asynchronous instruction provides students with greater flexibility, it does not provide a traditional structured classroom experience, because lectures and discussions do not happen in real-time. Therefore, students need to be motivated and proactive in order to keep up with course readings, lectures and assignments. It also does not allow students to seek immediate answers to questions they may have regarding course materials, as they cannot ask questions during lectures and there are no impromptu discussions that can take place following a live lecture. Students should also keep in mind that even with programs that utilize 100% asynchronous instruction, there are still assignment deadlines that students must meet (typically in accordance with a course syllabus).

Note: All online MSW programs have some asynchronous elements—for example, online students typically complete homework on their own time according to their availability.

Types of Instruction Methods: Synchronous Instruction

Programs that utilize synchronous instruction require students to log on to a program’s LMS at specific times for delivery of course materials. This includes live video lectures; interactive real-time discussions by phone, video, or chat; exams that all students must log in to complete simultaneously; and live presentations students give to instructors and course peers. Students are typically expected to attend at least one live session per week, which are usually held in the evening so they can be attended by students in different time zones.

Synchronous instruction has the advantage of providing a more traditional classroom experience, where students can ask questions of their instructors in real-time and discuss course concepts with their peers. It also provides more structure for students to keep up with course materials as they are expected to participate on a weekly basis. However, courses that employ synchronous instruction are less flexible because they require students to log on at pre-set times. One way in which some online programs mitigate the scheduling challenges synchronous class sessions may pose is to offer multiple live sessions throughout the week so that students can choose which one to attend.

There are also programs that employ asynchronous and synchronous instruction in an effort to help students benefit from both types of instruction methods. For classes that use both, cadence varies and the nature of the synchronous sessions also varies. For example, a common structure in many online courses is to have asynchronous lectures supplemented by monthly live discussion sections wherein course instructors facilitate discussions, answer students’ questions, and host interactive learning activities. Another example is a course that employs primarily asynchronous instruction but which requires students to meet synchronously for student projects or presentations.

It is important to note that most online programs, regardless of whether they use asynchronous or synchronous instruction, record lectures so that students can access them again as needed. This allows students who may need to miss a live session to still view the lecture at a later time. It also allows students to spend additional time reviewing lectures in order to better understand the course material and concepts.

On-Campus Visits for Online MSW Programs

Some online MSW programs require students to visit campus in order to meet with professors and fellow students in person, and to engage in learning activities. Instructional activities employed during these campus intensives vary, but could include in-person lectures, seminar discussions, networking events, and field practicum workshops. On-campus intensives for online MSW programs are typically several days in duration, and often held over a weekend to accommodate students who are working while pursuing their degree. defines a program as online if it requires two or fewer visits to campus per year.