Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Definitions of E-Learning Courses and Programs


Colleagues:  The following draft document is posted here for your comment and feedback.  Our goal is to evolve some standard definitions surrounding online distance education to encourage better sharing of research data and effective practices.  Please review and leave your comments below.  Thanks.

Definitions of E-Learning Courses and Programs
Version 1.0

Developed for Discussion within the Online Learning Community
Frank Mayadas
Gary E. Miller

As e-learning has evolved into a global change agent in higher education, it has become more diverse in its form and applications.  This increased diversity has complicated our ability to share research findings and best practices, because we lack a shared set of definitions to distinguish among the many variations on e-learning that have arisen.  This paper is designed to provide practitioners, researchers, and policy makers with a common set of terms and definitions to guide the ongoing development of the field.  Our hope is that it will move us toward a set of shared, commonly understood definitions that will facilitate the sharing of research data and professional standards in our field.  In developing the definitions below, we have tried to incorporate existing definitions developed by others.  We do not present these as the ultimate definitions, but as a step toward more commonly held standards as our field continues to evolve.  Additions and revisions will be published as needed.

The Impact of E-Learning

While e-learning has become the primary form of distance education, it is also transforming instruction on campus.  Higher education historically is a campus-based institution.  Many students live on campus for the duration of their studies; others live near campus and commute to campus to take classes and to receive campus-based support services.  This physical connection has defined the relationship between the student and the institution.  It has also helped to shape the curriculum itself.  E-learning has blurred these traditional relationships, removing geography as a defining element in the student-institution relationship.   

Technology-enhanced learning has evolved both from enhancements to earlier generations of face-to-face teaching and enhancements to earlier generations of distance education.  Engaged intentional design of learning experiences has also evolved to promote the most effective design to serve the learners, their life experiences and the opportunities and limitations of the particular environment.  For example, many graduate programs have deliberately designed programs for working adults, which are predominantly offered online but also include short-term face-to-face residencies.

At the same time, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define a common measure for instruction.  The “seat time” measure on which common understanding of a “credit hour” is largely based, is being challenged as new instructional models and alternatives to traditional classroom lectures become more widely accepted.  However, the credit hour remains the most widely accepted measure used to compare courses across different delivery environments.  Continued growth in the number and diversity of learning environments will increase the need for a common standard by which different learning environments can be compared.  The following definitions assume the credit hour as the primary means by which courses are defined, regardless of delivery environment.

As e-learning has matured, several models have emerged that have different geographical and curricular implications.  The following definitions are designed to help both faculty and students better understand the different kinds of e-learning that are now practiced in higher education and to provide institutions with some standard models to encourage effective sharing of data about e-learning, at both the individual course and the curriculum level.


Traditional CourseCourse activity is organized around scheduled class meetings.

Traditional courses are measured by the number of hours spent in required class meetings.  Such courses may involve some sort of computer usage—for example, a software simulation or laboratory or design software for art or engineering applications—but the course is still anchored to the normal time spent in classes.  For the purposes of this paper, these course are considered to be “traditional” courses.

Web-Enhanced Course – Online course activity complements class sessions without reducing the number of required class meetings.

The University of Central Florida was among the first institutions to adopt this term as an official category.  When Internet access is required to complete course requirements, and when this Internet-based work augments but does not supplant classroom activity, the course is considered a “web-enhanced course.”  Traditional courses and web-enhanced courses are very similar, but are placed in separate categories because web-enhanced courses require additional faculty and student support, and very likely additional technology.  Web-enhanced courses are not normally considered to be e-learning courses, but are described here because they may be a step toward a hybrid or online course.  The National Center for Academic Transformation calls this a “supplemental” approach, in which some technology-based, out-of-class activities are used to encourage greater student engagement with course content.

Hybrid Course – Online activity is mixed with classroom meetings, replacing at least 20 percent, but not all required face-to-face meetings.

When the technologies used for education and communication outside the classroom are used to supplant some of the classroom work, reducing the time actually spent in the classroom, the result is a hybrid course.  For example, if a course traditionally meets in a classroom three times per week, a hybrid or blended version might use online sessions to replace one or two of the traditional weekly classroom sessions or to eliminate all but a few key face-to-face sessions for laboratory work or examinations. A general rule is to classify a course as hybrid if online components replace a minimum of one class meeting per week in a typical three-credit course or to replace all but a few key face-to-face sessions for laboratory work or examinations.  NCAT describes this as a “replacement” approach, in which online activity replaces some class meetings. The Sloan Foundation required that funding for such courses use online experiences to offset at least 30 percent of traditional classroom experiences.

Hybrid courses are one component of E-Learning.  They are particularly relevant in programs that serve students within commuting distance of campus.  They increase flexibility but do not totally eliminate the need for students to have physical access to a campus facility.  Hybrid courses will be attractive to many traditional full-time students, in addition to non-traditional learners, typically working adults who are within commuting distance and who wish to earn a degree.

Note that, in the past, the terms “blended” and “hybrid” have been applied at both the course level and the program level without differentiation.  This has created a degree of confusion.  Our definitions use “hybrid” at the course level and “blended” at the program level to allow for clearer distinctions in usage.

“Emporium” Course – This model, designed for on-campus use, eliminates all class meetings and replaces them with a learning resource center featuring online materials and on-demand personalized assistance.

This model was developed through several NCAT-funded innovations designed to give campus-based students control over when they study.  The purpose is to allow students to choose when they access course materials, to choose what types of learning materials they use depending on their needs, and to set their own pace in working with the materials.  It assumes that students have access to sophisticated instructional software and one-on-one on-site help.  It replaces formal class meetings with increased access to instructional assistance and allows institutions to combine multiple lecture sections into one large section.

Online Course – All course activity is done online; there are no required face-to-face sessions within the course and no requirements for on-campus activity.

Online courses totally eliminate geography as a factor in the relationship between the student and the institution. They consist entirely of online elements that facilitate the three critical student interactions: with content, the instructor, and other students.

While these courses may appeal to on-campus students, they are designed to meet the needs of students who do not have effective access to campus.  They may reside near the campus, or they may reside quite a distance away in other states or even in other countries.   Over the years, universities have sought to serve this “non-traditional” population through a variety of media—from correspondence courses to satellite teleconferences—but only since the mid-1990s has technology enabled easy and continuous communication—interaction—among the learners and instructors at a distance. The Internet also has made library and other information resources available to this group.  Improvements in basic technology also permit this user group access to complex data as in precision images, mathematical visualizations and simulations of various kinds.  Social networking applications allow these learners to participate in both formal and informal learning communities.


Similar distinctions among delivery environments can be made at the program level.  Degree and certificate programs can be designed with a mix of traditional and e-learning courses in order to serve populations who have different levels of access to campus.

Traditional Classroom Program—The program may include a mix of traditional, web-enhanced, or hybrid courses, but all courses require some face-to-face sessions.

These programs take advantage of web-based applications to enhance learning, but without changing the traditional requirement that students attend classes on campus or in other traditional learning environments.  As a result, online elements do not significantly improve access to commuting or distant students.

Multi-Format Program – A program mixes, along with traditional classroom courses, other formats that use a variety of different delivery modes, web-enhanced, hybrid, fully online courses, synchronous distance education, etc., without a specific access goal.

These programs use a variety of technologies and course designs to provide a variety of learning experiences.  Typically, choice of technology is less related to the geographic or time needs of students than on curricular goals or instructional needs.   

Blended Program – A significant percentage, but not all of the credits required for program completion are offered fully online.  Typically, up to 30 percent of the curriculum may be offered as face-to-face or hybrid courses or other face-to-face formats or as independent study.

These programs provide increased access to distant students who are able to come to campus for some courses, laboratory work, intensive residencies, or other occasional group sessions.  Ideally, face-to-face sessions will be organized to minimize travel requirements for distant students.  Some academic support services should be available to distant students as well.

Online Program – All credits required to complete the program are offered as fully online courses.  Students can complete the program completely at a distance, with no required face-to-face meetings.
Fully online programs are designed with the truly distant student in mind.  Institutions that offer fully online programs should also take care to provide support services—registration, testing, advising, library support, etc.—at a distance.


The authors are indebted to the many colleagues too numerous to list individually who have contributed to these definitions by providing feedback on earlier drafts and who, in some cases, have pioneered in developing innovative applications of technology to create new learning environments.

These definitions are a work in progress that will be updated annually as needed.   The authors welcome comments and anticipate that they will prepare occasional companion pieces to add new definitions as the field evolves, in the hope the community will come together around a common set of definitions that will guide research, practice, and policy.  We encourage researchers and professional associations to adopt the definitions with the goal that a shared vocabulary will facilitate the sharing of research data, increase the transfer of research into practice, and, ultimately, promote standards of excellence for the field.

Your comments are welcome in this ongoing discussion.

Version 1.0  8/2/2012


  1. Gary (and Frank):

    This is very clearly written and a much needed piece. I am a big believer in having a shared language. It helps everyone.

    One small note: when you mentioned the National Center for Academic Transformation the first time, you did not write "(NCAT)" immediately after it, though you do subsequently refer to it as NCAT.


    1. Thanks, Garvey, for your comments and your editorial improvement. It will be in the next version.

  2. Hi Gary and Frank. I've been using the Sloan-C definitions for some time now and from my memory an "online" course was one that had 80% or more activity on the Internet. Correct me if I'm wrong but from my memory the definitions were: web enhanced: 0 < x <20, hybrid: 20 80. I had 2 problems with this. Firstly, hybrid covered a very wide variety, and secondly there was no classification for 100% online which suddenly makes a big difference in terms of potential audience. I would refer to this as "totally online". Now I like the fact that you are using a specific term for 100% online but I would have the following reservations. Again firstly your hybrid seems to cover from 20% to just below 100% which I think is too broad for one term, and secondly the term online does seem to have stuck for mostly online courses. Perhaps, I'm being a bit selfish - most of our online distance learning courses have a small amount of attendance and I don't want to have to rename them as hybrid.

    1. Thanks, Brian. It is good to hear from you and to know that you've been using the earlier draft of the definitions. I really appreciate your feedback on this draft; you make some excellent points. I have shared it with Frank and will get back to you as soon as I can.

  3. Gary - here are several remarks based mainly on my experience at Illinois.

    First, you might want to look at a matrix approach juxtaposing mode as you've already done with course size. The size distribution of courses at most campuses is highly skewed. When I looked at this in some detail at Illinois (now more than 15 years ago) there were about 1600 undergrad courses. 30 of those accounted for about half the enrollments. The super large courses are things unto themselves and if you make comparison, say for Web enhanced between a class with 1000 students and one with 30 students, you are still getting an apples and oranges comparison.

    Second, your definitions depend heavily on how the campus schedules the courses and ignores the actual behavior. If attendance at a web enhanced course is only 50% but the students who don't show up still do the course work required outside of class and get credit for the course, is it then actually a hybrid?

    Third, and this point is really borrowed from Murray Turoff, there are some classes with some students face to face to face and others remote, who may attend live sessions via Web conferencing. Is the classification really proper at the course level or should it be at the level of the student enrolled?

    Fourth, this isn't so common but there are classes with students and instructors on multiple campuses. The class is scheduled as a traditional class on each campus, but the behavior within the class is far from traditional.

    Fifth, online at present for students who matriculate as on campus students is important as a summer option or as a scheduling help during the fall and spring. But it also has a function for potential transfer students, especially those coming from community colleges. Courses that supposedly articulate in theory do less well in practice. If the student wants to transfer and be well adjusted then, better to take the courses from the university online ahead of time. This is also a way for the student to get a self-test on his or her own readiness to transfer. Further, as tuition continues to rise the 2 + 2 model will likely become more popular. This aspect of the audience might be important to include in the definitions.

  4. Hi Gary,

    Thanks for the excellent piece - and for providing a valuable resource.

    I would advocate for inclusion of the "hyflex" course format - a team taught approach such that learners have both a classroom based and an online option for all learning activities. With all learning activities, students can choose to participate all online, all in room, create their own "hybrid" mix, or do some activities both ways. I have enjoyed teaching under this format (The "Herkimer Hyflex" model) and despite some logistical complexities I found it to be a satisfying infusion of heutagogy allowing a lot of learner autonomy.

    Bill Pelz

    1. Thanks, Bill, for your response. Do you have any idea how the "Herkimer Hyflex" model got its name?

  5. As I've probably commented previously, kudos to both of you for taking on this unenviable task of trying to make clarity out of a thicket of competing definitions. Having said that, here are some comments which I'm afraid will not necessarily aid in creating more clarity:

    - Models vs. typology: The inclusion of the "emporium" course model poses some problems because it introduces a second differentiator (delivery mode being the first): choice. Students in the emporium model have a choice about which delivery modes they use when. Variations on this model can also include attending classroom lectures as one of the choices, whereas the emporium model as currently described excludes these, saying that this option is replaced instead.

    This is similarly true of using the "hyflex" model, which has this option but which does not necessarily include learning resources (although variations of it could). in other words, including emporium and hyflex introduces distinct models or typology types based on hybrids of learning resources vs. delivery modes. This raises the question, which (other) models do you want to include in the typology, and why?

    - Purely online vs. mostly online courses: The definitions in their current form seem to exclude courses that replace less than 20 percent of required f2f meetings. They're not online, but they're not hybrid either. If "geographic and curricular" implications are among the important criteria, then distinguishing between purely online and mostly online courses is critical since it makes a big difference on the geographic dimension.

    - The hybrid threshold problem: as a recent WCET discussion on this topic illustrates, there is no consensus on where to draw the line between "hybrid" and "online" delivery. Sloan-C has historically placed it at 20 percent, and the need for Sloan-C to stick to this is understandable; however, many others do different thresholds for different reasons. So the question becomes, how will 20 percent come to be widely accepted, and why? And the related question is, does setting the threshold at a different place result in any real differences, and why or why not?

    - If models which distinguish among levels of student choice are included on the course level, won't they also need to be included on the program level? In other words, the program models as currently described don't differentiate the level of student choice (unlike the emporium, hyflex, and related models at the course level). Isn't this student choice factor also important at the program level, and if not, why not?

    I hope this helps...

  6. Thank you, Gary and Frank, for spearheading this. Here are some additional thoughts from my experience as an Instructional Designer and Technology Specialist in higher education institutions.

    Introduction: good backdrop, setting the stage for course-level and program-level definitions. My only comment is regarding the term “e-learning.” In my experience, there has been some kick-back by faculty in higher education thinking that ‘e-learning’ is associated with the corporate world and may be viewed as an attempt to “corporatize” education. Personally, I don’t view it this way and am comfortable with this term. However, was there any discussion about this? As an alternative, was “technology-enhanced learning” considered? It may very well be that “e-learning” is the best choice as a generic term.

    Course-Level Definitions:

    For a “traditional course,” I have used the term “traditional classroom-based course,” which I have found is clearer than a ‘traditional course.’

    For a “hybrid course,” I would suggest adding that it is in the “50% in-class and 50% online” hybrid model (i.e., in a given week that normally meets 2x a week, students will meet 1x in-class and the rest of the week on-line) that higher education institutions can reap benefits – in addition to faculty and students. In a 50/50 arrangement, physical space is maximized and costs are reduced by having two instructors “share” the same physical classroom throughout the semester. This requires well-planned scheduling. When the hybrid model is less than 50/50, then two classrooms end up being scheduled for the entire semester, instead of one. For all intents and purposes then, this hybrid scenario is really a “web-enhanced” course because the instructors pick-and-choose when they will have class meetings and when they will have online sessions (and it may not be pre-determined).

    For an “online course,” I would suggest adding that while online courses serve the “non-traditional” population, the ‘lure’ of online courses for all populations has created an additional challenge – that students coming right out of high school and other students, in general, may not be “ready” to deal with the rigors of online learning – the increased need for self-motivation, strong time-management skills, and comfort with both technology and not having the ‘face-to-face’ contact with the instructor and students in the class.

    Program-Level Definitions: I found the program-level definitions somewhat confusing. Is there really such a program as totally “Traditional Classroom” (as the term suggests) in today’s context? If the program includes a mix of classroom-based, classroom-based web-enhanced, hybrid, and/or online, wouldn’t it be a “Blended Program” or “Multi-Format Program” (which could also include the Hyflex model)? I also found the distinction between “Multi-Format Program” and “Blended Program” confusing. To simplify it, would it be possible to define the Program-levels as “Blended Program” (as any mix thereof of classroom-based, classroom-based web-enhanced, hybrid, and/or online) and “Fully Online Program” (program and courses are only offered online)?

    I hope this helps. Again, thank you for your efforts to make standards in terminology in this field. You’ve made great progress!

    Denise Kreiger, Instructional Designer and Technology Specialist, Rutgers University.

  7. Its a clear cut information.Online education or E-learning is same things and now all know the importance of this program.Online Courses Australia

  8. Thanks,It is good to hear from you and to know that you've been using the earlier draft of the definitions. I really appreciate your feedback on this draft; you make some excellent points.

  9. This blog is nice and amazing. I really like your post! It's also nice to see someone who does a lot of research and has a great knack for writing, which is pretty rare from bloggers these days.

    1. Wonderful! I'd never seen such informative blogs before. It has really something great tips.

  10. Hello Coupon, I am agree with and same to you.

  11. Really excellent post. For many days long, I was searching for such definitions and the post includes the important and helpful one.

  12. Hi, I was searching as you and like this article most.

  13. Its a clear cut information.Online education or E-learning is same things and now all know the importance of this program.Online Courses Australia.I would advocate for inclusion of the "hyflex" course format - a team taught approach such that learners have both a classroom based and an online option for all learning activities. With all learning activities, students can choose to participate all online, all in room, create their own "hybrid" mix, or do some activities both ways. I have enjoyed teaching under this format (The "Herkimer Hyflex" model) and despite some logistical complexities I found it to be a satisfying infusion of heutagogy allowing a lot of learner autonomy.

  14. I hope it is very useful and important blog and I think that it is a clear cut information. It is very important for online education or E-learning.
    zip code radius
    distance between zip codes

  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  16. Excellent posting! Please, let me love not only the post but also the site. Thanks.

  17. This is blog is definitely helpful for every one I suggest everyone to love this site and visit this site because by this site everyone cant get more important information.