By Jim Shimabukuro
Hailed by U.S. News & World Report as the “industry standard definition of what constitutes an online course” (Brooks 1.9.12), The Sloan Consortium’s nearly decade old “at least 80 percent” rubric was the basis for selecting education programs for its 2012 rankings. Here’s the rule, which has remained unchanged since the inaugural Allen and Seaman report in 2003:
Online courses are those in which at least 80 percent of the course content is delivered online. Face-to-face instruction includes courses in which zero to 29 percent of the content is delivered online; this category includes both traditional and web facilitated courses. The remaining alternative, blended (sometimes called hybrid) instruction has between 30 and 80 percent of the course content delivered online. (2011 report)
I’m not sure if the results of the U.S. News rankings would have been any different if it had not been based on this rule. Regardless, though, it may be time to re-examine the 80-percent rule, which, from its inception, seemed arbitrary, irrelevant, and practically impossible to apply.
For example, how would anyone possibly determine, with any kind of accuracy, that a course was 79.4% online and 20.6% F2F (face to face)? Six-tenths of a percent shy of 80% and the course is blended rather than online? This distinction is ultimately irrelevant and serves no practical purpose. And when you come right down to it, who cares? Or more importantly, why should anyone care?
The simple fact is that colleges need a workable “online course” definition for program planning, development, and evaluation. Those responsible for these types of operational decisions are practical. They have to be. Otherwise, they can’t function. Thus, to be useful, the rule has to be simple, clear, and applicable. As seems to be the case for the ones that work, the best standards can be found in the programs themselves. And the one that appears to fit most naturally is the fully online versus partially online division.
No hairsplitting here. A course is either fully online or it’s not. If it is, then it’s online. If it’s not, then it’s blended. The deciding factor is the F2F meeting requirement. If even a single in-person, on-campus class is scheduled and required, then the course is blended. Thus, students in online classes rarely if ever need to step on campus. (In this simplified dichotomy, proctored exams and orientation sessions aren’t considered classes. In any case, special sessions such as these can be managed at a distance or online, e.g., see the coverage below of San Antonio College.) [Update 1.24.12: John Sener, in his comment in the "Program-Level Definitions of Online Learning" (Sloan-C Commons, Nov. 2010) forum, suggested distinguishing "Fully Online Program" from "Online Program w/Visitation Requirement." "Most or all courses in the program," he explains, "are offered fully online; students are required to come to campus to complete limited but specified program requirements." Frank McCluskey's response to Sener's post is worth noting: "It is important that the orientation be online as well. Where an on campus orientation is required we restrict those at a distance."]
In fact, some of the top universities in the country use this simple dichotomy to differentiate between online and blended. They don’t belabor percentages. At Harvard, online courses are “solely online” or blended (“both online and on campus”). Its pitch is “Study from anywhere in the world”. At Yale, the summer session “offered three online courses … in which students watched recorded lectures and joined live discussion sections with their professors and online classmates via video chat.” Some of the students were “thousands of miles away”. UC Berkeley’s summer session offered “several online courses.” Students would be able to “experience the quality and excellence of UC Berkeley courses from the convenience of [their] own home.” The message to students: “Even if you can’t physically come to Berkeley, you can still experience the best that UC Berkeley has to offer”. At Stanford’s Center for Professional Development, students are encouraged to “Discover the Online Experience.” The message addressed to them: “Take courses … at a pace that matches your life…. Access courses anytime and anywhere for the period in which you are enrolled”.
Furthermore, the high ranking programs mentioned in Greg Scott Neuman’s “U.S. News & World Report Releases Top Online Education Program Rankings” (U.S. News, 1.12.12) use the simple online-blended dichotomy. On its FAQ page, Florida Tech University Online’s answer to the question “Can I complete all of the required course work online?” is “Yes. All of the courses offered are available via the Internet. You will never have to step foot on campus — unless you wish to walk with your graduating class!” The University of South Florida Tampa Graduate Catalog 2012-2013 distinguishes between “fully online” and “partially online” (95). For the “online option,” the catalog clearly states that “all academic coursework is offered online” (332-333).
New York’s Pace University distinguishes between online and “web-assisted classes,” which are defined as “a combination of the traditional class and an online class.” Here, too, the Sloan-C rule is ignored. In an online class, students are told, “You will not be tied to the structure of the typical class that meets at a particular place on a regular basis. You’ll have the flexibility to complete your workload each week when and where it is convenient for you”. Westfield State University, in Massachusetts, offers the Pathways Program for On-line Business, which is described as “an opportunity for graduates of a MA community college to complete years three and four of a bachelor’s degree program in Business Management via an exclusively on-line format”.
Quinnipiac University’s (Hamden, Connecticut) response to the question “Can I take classes completely online?” is “Most programs may be completed fully online, while others require an on-campus orientation. The flexibility and convenience offered by online learning provides you an opportunity to complete assignments without having to attend a specific weekly class meeting. You may do your work day or night”. [Update 6.11.12: Quinnipiac University provides a Web-based orientation alternative.] George Washington University distinguishes between “fully online” and “combined online/on-campus” courses. The latter “blend[s] online and classroom learning”. Auburn University Online is fully online: “Through AU Online and Auburn University distance education programs and services you can become an Auburn student without coming to campus”.
I did a random search on Google to see if the simple all-or-nothing dichotomy would hold up for other online programs. I found ample evidence that it does. McHenry County College, in Crystal Lake, Illinois, makes the online-blended distinction: “Access online course materials, your instructor, and other online classmates at any time and from any place.” In contrast, “Blended courses meet on campus for a reduced amount of time, and the rest of the course is delivered online”. Butler Community College, in Kansas, does the same: “Blended Courses enable you to combine the best of both worlds — the classroom and the computer. Online Courses provide you with everything you need from the comfort of your own home” .
College of Mount St. Jopeph, in Ohio, uses the online-blended divide: “Online courses typically do not meet on campus except for course orientations and/or exams”. At Grambling State University, in Louisiana, “Classes which are totally delivered via the Internet are defined as online courses.” Students are warned, however, that “on-campus visits may be required for an orientation meeting and testing”. At the University of Alberta, courses are also either online or blended: “Online delivery refers to educational opportunities that are available over the Internet. This includes an entire course online or a blended course, one that is partly online and partly face-to-face”.
Some colleges attempt to skirt the entire issue by using other terms to describe their online courses. For example, the University of Iowa divides online courses into “Web, virtual classroom” and “Web, face to face.” For the first “no schedule[sic] meetings or log on times are required”; for the second, students are required “to participate in one or more scheduled meetings”. Broome Community College, in Binghamton, New York, seems to be onto something with their use of “Distance Learning Asynch” and “Distance Learning Asynch (Blended).” They say that “the majority of online courses offered … are asynchronous [Distance Learning Asynch] which means that there typically is no specific time you have to be online or meet face-to-face.” The Distance Learning Asynch (Blended) courses meet “both on campus and online”. In both cases, I’m tempted to say that “online” and “blended” might be less confusing, but I won’t go there.
Some colleges make a halfhearted attempt to honor the 80-percent rule and mention it upfront, but they quickly give in to expedience when it comes down to describing their actual programs. For example, Adelphi University, in Garden City, NY, says that “The technical definition of an online course or program is one that is completed use[sic] 30% or less live classroom instruction.” However, after mentioning this standard, they go on to simply divide their offerings into “fully online” and “blended” without any further ado about percentages: “fully online courses where all of the instruction is delivered online, or blended courses where the course is split between live classroom and online classroom sessions”.
Missouri State University, too, mentions the Sloan-C rubric in describing blended courses, but ignores it in their working definitions. They simplify: An online course “meets entirely online, requiring no traditional classroom time.” Everything else that “[integrates] online and traditional face-to-face class activities” is blended. No fussing over 80% quotas. San Antonio College uses 75 to 80 percent to define blended courses. However, percentages are conspicuously absent for online courses: “Online courses allow students to access courses by computer through the Internet.” They go on to say that students in online courses “are required to attend an on-campus or an on-line orientation on how to take an online course”. The impression is that they are completely online except for an orientation, which could be onground or online.
Some colleges seem to have dibs on common sense in their definition of online courses. For example, Rochester Institute of Technology (NY), as described in Donna Dickson and Peter Osborn’s 2011 report, “Online Learning at RIT,” uses the following classification:
- Traditional course (F2F): a course in which content is delivered in a classroom or other face-to-face (F2F) environment
- Blended course (BL): a course in which some content is delivered in a classroom or F2F environment and some content is delivered using technology such as a course management system
- Online course (OL): a course where all of the content is delivered using technology and there are no required F2F meetings.
No messy percentages at RIT. But when it comes to no muss, no fuss, Monroe County Community College, in Michigan, takes the prize: “An online course delivers instruction in an entirely Web-based format. Some exams and assignments may be required at authorized locations as established by the instructor”.
Interestingly, a presenter at the 17th Annual Sloan-C International Conference on Online Learning, Nov. 9-11, 2011, also used the simple online-blended dichotomy. This is how Gail Krovitzm, of Pearson eCollege, described her presentation, “Recipe for an Effective K-12 Blended Online Program” (11.11.11): “The research will show how students succeed in effective blended learning or fully online learning environments…. It will have a K-12 focus and show teachers how to design a true blended/hybrid course which could develop into a fully online course.” Again, no percentages — just a simple split between blended, on the one hand, and fully online, on the other. And even more interesting is the apparent goal for blended courses — to become “a fully online course.”
[Update 1.24.12: John Bourne, in his Sloan-C Commons forum, "Definitions of Online Learning" (Oct. 2010), presents the following definition for discussion: "Online Course – All course activity is done online; there are no required face-to-face sessions within the course." Nan Chico's comment, Online really is different, is noteworthy: "Designing and participating in a completely online course is so different that it really needs to stand as a main category, with everything else (hybrid, enhanced, etc.) being 'other.'" Not surprisingly, the forum on programs (Nov. 2010) rather than courses generated similar definitions. Gary Miller offered the following definition: "Fully Online Program – All courses in the program are offered as fully online courses; no face-to-face courses. Students can complete the program completely at a distance, with no required face-to-face meetings."]
Some researchers, too, seem to favor the online-blended division. For example, Susan J. Martin, in “Comparison Study: Teaching a Blended In-Class Course vs. a Distance Education Course” (Teaching and Learning Conference of the American Political Science Association, Feb. 6 – 8, 2009), addresses the question, “Is there a significance difference in the student’s learning outcome between a blended in-class course and a totally online course?” Bassou El Mansour, and Davison M. Mupinga, in “Students’ Positive and Negative Experiences in Hybrid and Online Classes” (College Student Journal, March, 2007), define online learning as “an instructional strategy in which the learners are geographically separated from the instructor, and the instruction is delivered totally through the computer (Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications, 2004).” For Thomas B. Cavanagh, in “The Blended Learning Toolkit: Improving Student Performance and Retention” (EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 34. 4 ), blended courses is “where web-based online learning replaces a percentage of traditional face-to-face instruction,” and he contrasts them with “fully online learning.”
These examples were gathered quickly, in a few hours, so there’s no pretense on my part that this is a comprehensive, in-depth survey of all college online programs. Still, the almost random nature of the process implies that these findings may be representative of the field.
The question remains: Why does this simple dichotomy of online, on the one hand, and blended, on the other, work? The answer is simple, too. It’s because the Sloan-C rubric is flawed, based on the assumption that traditional, blended, and online share the same continuum. After viewing the examples above, it should be obvious that they don’t, or more accurately, traditional and blended do, but online doesn’t.
The continuum — or paradigm, if you will — for traditional and blended courses is the geographical campus and classroom. Using this as a base, it’s easy to see how courses could be nearly free of online tech, at one end, and nearly free of the classroom, at the other. The common denominator, again, is the physical location requirement. Regardless of where a course falls on the continuum, it still retains the geographical element.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for placing online on its own continuum — besides practicality — is the opportunity that it provides for research and development. An obvious question that we can then ask is, What is the full range of possibilities for online, that is, once it’s freed from the geographical continuum? A construct that comes quickly to mind is the LMSs (learning management systems) that dominated the early days of fully online courses, on one end, and MOOCs (massive open online courses), on the other. Currently, many experienced online teachers are exploring the vast middle ground, testing the virtual landscape with one foot while keeping the other firmly grounded in LMSs. In this new continuum, the common denominator is freedom from location constraints. That is, regardless of where a course falls, it can always be accessed from anywhere.
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