A Plea to Simplify the Definition for ‘Online Course’

By Jim Shimabukuro

Three years ago, in 2016, four students (one was possibly an instructor) had a discussion on Reddit about an online course offering with a “lecture required” component. The original poster was byu:

Posted byu/[deleted]
[Subject:] Online Classes – Class Component: “Lecture Required”?
Signed up for a couple online classes and under the Class Details section is says Class Components: Lecture Required. The class is definitely listed as an online class, room says online and meeting day/times TBA, so what does this mean? Video lectures? Just making sure I don’t have to physically show up for anything.

TurtleWaffle: It could be a blended class. I had a class like this and we had 5 Saturday class sessions during the semester as well as the online stuff

Rhynocerous: In my expirience it means you have to physically show up at some point possibly for exams.

corner0ffice1: It sounds like a class with both an online lecture and online lab. You always enroll for the lab component, and then tack on the lecture, so SIS is just telling you that you need to enroll in both components. It does not always mean that you have to show up for anything in person. It SHOULD say if you have any on-campus obligations in the course description, but you can also ask the instructor to confirm.

If we took a moment to actually listen to our students, we’d learn that conversations like this pervade the higher ed landscape. In nearly all colleges, “online” is a confusing course label that can mean any number of things that fail to meet student expectations. byu’s “Just making sure I don’t have to physically show up for anything” captures students’ primary concern in selecting an online class.

Implicit in their expectations for an online class is the idea of not being required to “show up” in a specific place at a specific time. For them, online is virtual, a convenience that allows them to engage learning from anywhere at any time. Thus, synchronous meetings are also not part of their online expectations. “Online” ought to be reserved for courses that are completely online and completely asynchronous. Sync requirements are a real problem for students who choose online courses for their anywhere/anytime advantage. Many online administrators and faculty don’t realize that sync requirements are a carryover of F2F into the virtual environment. Requiring students to meet at a specific time is tantamount to requiring them to meet at a specific place.1

The Online Learning Consortium’s classification of courses is a mostly successful effort to clear up this confusion:

1. Classroom Course: Course activity is organized around scheduled class meetings.
2. Synchronous Distributed Course: Web-based technologies are used to extend classroom lectures and other activities to students at remote sites in real time.
3. Web-Enhanced Course: Online course activity complements in-person class sessions without reducing the number of required class meetings.
4. Blended (also called Hybrid) Classroom Course: Online activity is mixed with classroom meetings, replacing a significant percentage of, but not all required face-to-face instructional activities.
5. Blended (also called Hybrid) Online Course: Most course activity is completed online, but there are some required face-to-face instructional activities such as lectures, discussions, labs , or other in-person learning activities.
6. 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.
7. Flexible Mode Course: Offers multiple delivery modes so that students can choose which delivery mode(s) to use for instructional and other learning purposes. (Fuster)

The only problem is their use of “Blended Online Course.” The “online” in this category leaves the door open for confusion, inviting colleges to include blended courses in their online offerings. A simple solution would be to include Blended Online in Blended Classroom, eliminating the confusing use of “online” as both blended and completely online.

Until this confusion is cleared up, “The possibility currently exists for students to register for a hybrid course that is mostly online, or an online course that has some face-to-face component. It is best for students not to assume anything and be proactive. Email the instructor prior to the beginning of the course” (Fuster).

The bottom line is that students should not have to deal with this confusion by emailing instructors to clarify whether an “online” course is blended or completely virtual with no required place and time meetings. Colleges can easily nip this problem in the bud by revising the categories in their course schedules.

To further simplify the course schema proposed by the OLC, we should probably reduce the categories to two: Blended and Online. In other words, categories 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7 are all variations of blended. (The differences could easily be spelled out in the course descriptions.) The first category, Classroom Course, is also a form of blended because it’s difficult to imagine that, in 2019, any class is completely free of web media, even if it’s limited to the course syllabus and schedule.

Here are some colleges that have taken the first step in eliminating the confusion by reserving “online” for completely online, anytime/anywhere courses. Most, though, still follow the OLC’s confusing example of including other types of “online” courses:

Colorado State University-Global Campus “100% ONLINE: Our online university is 100% online with degree programs designed for working adults…. CSU-Global was built in a way that supports the needs of working adults who don’t have time for set classes in fixed locations…. Working On Your Own Schedule … asynchronous learning environment.”

University at Buffalo–SUNY: “Online courses offer students the opportunity to learn anytime, anywhere…. There are four types of online courses [web-enhanced, blended, fully online asyn/syn, MOOC]…. But unlike in face-to-face courses, online students engage with learning materials on their own time.”

University of Oklahoma Extended Campus: “Primarily focusing on the higher education needs of place-bound working adults, military-connected personnel and those seeking specialized study in selected professional areas…. Designed to accommodate students’ varied work schedules and lifestyles, our programs are delivered 100% online….”

Here are other colleges that are working toward the anytime/anywhere definition of “online”:

Ohio State U Online: “The definition of an online program is that 50% of the courses are delivered in an online format. Ohio State is working with the goal of offering full, 100% online programs.”

Oregon State Ecampus: “OSU Ecampus delivers many bachelor’s and graduate degrees 100 percent online. Others are delivered in a hybrid format that blends online activities and coursework with regularly scheduled in-person classroom meetings.”

Penn State World Campus courses are designed with your busy schedule in mind, providing the flexibility you need to study at the times most convenient to you. Most of the courses are structured for asynchronous learning, meaning the classes are facilitated so students are not required to attend courses at scheduled times.”

As we approach the start of classes for fall 2019, let’s keep our students in mind and think of ways to clarify and simplify our course offerings. One way to do this is (1) to reserve “online” for 100% online courses with no real-time meetings and (2) to eliminate the “online” label from courses that blend classroom and web media.
1 This paragraph was updated on 23 June 2019 based on a comment from Ray Rose, a longtime contributor to ETC.

4 Responses

  1. Jim:
    related to your comments about clarity, for the students, there was one issue I thought you were going to hit but didn’t. If there are scheduled meetings, in something other than a classroom course, those should be announced in the description, so students know if there will be specific times when they will be expected to be present.

    There are courses where the anounced synchronous (either online or face-to-face) are announced in the sylabus, which the student sees after enrolling in the course. Their option then is to drop the course if they see a conflict. Or risk a lower grade for not meeting an assigned synchronous meeting.


    • Ray, thanks for the comment. You’re right. I should’ve made it clearer that “online” ought to be reserved for courses that are completely online and completely asynchronous. I’ll see if I can work an update into the article. Yes, sync requirements are a real problem for students who choose online courses for their anywhere/anytime advantage. Many online administrators and faculty don’t realize that sync requirements are a carryover of F2F into the virtual environment. Requiring students to meet at a specific time is similar to requiring them to meet at a specific place.

  2. Jim, that for providing a powerful definition of terms. Prof Shimabukuro your articulation is exceptionally very good. We shall share appropriately. Thanks for sharing the various Universities that offer an online course at various level.

    • Prof Boruett, thank you for the kind words, and thank you for spreading the message in this article about the need to simplify the definition of “online” course. -Jim

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