Sloan-C’s Definition of ‘Online Course’ May Be Out of Sync with Reality

Jim ShimabukuroBy 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”)[1]. Its pitch is “Study from anywhere in the world”[2]. 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”[3]. 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”[4]. 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”[5].

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”[6]. 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”[7].

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”[8]. [Update 6.11.12: Quinnipiac University provides a Web-based orientation alternative.] George Washington University distinguishes between “fully online”[9] and “combined online/on-campus” courses. The latter “blend[s] online and classroom learning”[10]. 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”[11].

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”[12]. 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” [13].

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”[14]. 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”[15]. 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”[16].

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”[17]. 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”[18]. 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”[19].

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”[20] 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”[21]. 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”[22].

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 [2011]), 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.

[Update 1.24.12: Other colleges that reserve the “online” designation for fully online courses: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Highline Community College, University of Colorado Denver.]

21 Responses

  1. I have used the Sloan Consortium definition and found it useful, except insofar as it did not distinguish between online and totally online which are distinctly different. Your point is a good one in that the term “online” seems to indicate that the course should be completely available over the Internet. At the other end of the spectrum it does seem reasonable that a course that makes no use of the Internet could be described as face-to-face, but these are beginning to disappear. So that leaves you the term “blended” for all courses with x% online (0<x<100). That covers a lot of ground both in terms of pedagogy and convenience. It is indeed a continuum, but it would be useful if we had a few terms that would indicate roughly where on that spectrum a particular course is. Perhaps you could start the ball rolling on this.

    • Hi, Brian. I agree. “it would be useful if we had a few terms that would indicate roughly where on that spectrum a particular course is.” Let me give this some thought over coffee this morning. I’ll post an expanded reply later. In the meatime, hopefully others will share their thoughts on how to flesh out the online continuum.

    • OK, I’ve had my coffee. One preliminary thought is that the online continuum is nonlinear. Thus, “continuum” with the connotation of linear may not work, although an argument could be made for nonlinear continua. Another thought is that the notion of physical dimensions is out. I’m not too sure, though, about time (a 4th dimension) and how it factors in. The elimination of physical dimensions makes modeling a bit more difficult, but the upside is that we’re exploring new theoretical territory. More later…

    • More preliminary thoughts: Time may be a key concept in defining “online course” as a new paradigm — the old paradigm being the F2F-blended continuum. Sync and real-time are at one extreme; async and virtual at the other. However, time outside of or isolated from the spacetime continuum presents challenges. Then again, maybe not since we’re technically already doing it on the internet. This appears o be a case of theory trying to catch up with reality practice — after the fact…

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  3. I agree with you, Jim, and with Brian. 80% online versus fully online – the teaching strategies are (or should be) different. Excellent points. Don’t get me started on the LMS again… ;)

    • Jesse, we may agree on that but I’m sure we’ll find plenty to disagree on. I love my LMS.

    • Hi Jess. LMSs seem to me to be the equivalent of “physical classrooms” transported into the VLE, an attempt to extend the same kind of gatekeeper control that defines traditional onground schools and colleges into a whole new dimension for learning that’s defined by openness and freedom, by personal choice rather than group herding.

      Hi Brian. I too love my university system’s LMS, Sakai, and what it can do for me and my fully online classes re automatic roster updating, class email options, discussion forums, and stats. Our IT department is first rate in providing seamless services that facilitate online teaching and learning. Its 24-7 service continues to astound me. Staff members such as Yves Sakai and Kenwrick Chan always repond quickly and effectively, often within minutes, regardless of when I send my request for help.

      The LMS is a foundation for online learning, and I don’t think it’s going away. However, it runs into problems when it attempts to completely control all facets of online learning in a closed system. This control can take passive forms such as refusal to support or in any way recognize or acknowledge extra-LMS efforts. This has a direct impact on faculty attempting to experiment with technology outside the LMS since IT often has a dominant hand in funding. Also, being outside the LMS radar impacts promotion.

      LMS control can sometimes take an aggressive posture with draconian policies that severely restrict experimentation and innovation not sanctioned by the IT. Fortunately, most IT departments are enlightened and view their role as service and support for learning and instruction.

      • So, again, it’s not the tool that is the problem. It is how it is misused. ?

      • Exactly!

      • I love most learning management systems, except when they’re so restrictive they box instructors into corners of perceived pedagogical excellence. My favorite thing? Hacking the LMS. I agree, they’re a great way to transport the classroom online, and allow less tech-savvy instructors to have success in teaching. Only when they restrict us to rurbric-ized education do I get irritable. :)

        • I don’t see the LMS as restrictive in itself. For instance I get my students to carry out collaborative projects using Google Docs. I ask them to share the docs with me when finished (so that I can see who contributed what). However, if my institution were to stipulate that I could not use any tools outside the LMS, that would be restrictive, but you could not blame the LMS.

      • Brian… I smell an article shaping up… what about you? Want to e-mail me at and we’ll see what we can get cooked up?

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  6. […] Sloan-C’s Definition of ‘Online Course’ May Be Out of Sync with Reality (ect Journal) […]

  7. Quinnipiac University provides a Web-based equivalent for students in online programs who are unable to attend the on-campus orientation. The Web-based orientation includes a video from each program director and a video for the different academic and administrative support areas such as library, learning center, technology support, financial aid and registrar.

  8. Absolutism does work, providing everyone agrees to the same unbending rules. Where does testing fit into a policy of all “content delivered online”? Is testing content? Then there is the comment that “blended courses meet on campus.” But what if a group of soldiers in Afghanistan form a study group, as requested by an instructor? Does the course transubstantiate into the blended paradigm? The advantage of the Sloan definition, providing it is not arbitrarily applied or deconstructed, is that it recognizes the vagaries of life. To satisfy HEOA and insure that a student taking a course is the one actually receiving funding there might be a proctored testing required that allows alternatives to visiting the physical college campus but still allows for a person-to-person encounter that authenticates credentials prior to completing the assignment. Perhaps a purist online or not definition can work, but doesn’t that require a reinvestigation of “traditional” and suggest that if students are required to go online it is no longer a traditional course. Definitions, like policies, should be flexible.

  9. I teach mathematics, and my main concern with online courses is proctored testing. I can deliver the material online, get students to do projects, give them weighted (less) multiple choice quizzes, use discussion boards, and all the wonderful tools online developers have created, but in order to assess a student’s ability to understand mathematics, I want them to do it, and do it in a proctored situation. I can use that paper and pencil exam to provide comments and feedback that are virtually impossible with multiple choice. What kind of feedback do I give a student who picks a wrong letter, “Bad guess?” And this is all beside the point of verifying that a student is who they say they are, as well as doing their own work.

  10. […] Learning Consortium, Inc | Empowering Educators Everywhere. Sloan-C’s Definition of ‘Online Course’ May Be Out of Sync with Reality. By Jim Shimabukuro Editor Hailed by […]

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