Online Learning – Modes and Meaning

The introduction of online learning strategies into our curriculum takes many forms. New “modes” range from simple technology enhancements  along the continuum toward fully online courses, with terms such as “inverted classroom,” “blended” and “hybrid” now entering our vocabulary.  The most recent addition is the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) which adds yet another dimension.

During a recent online webinar, a poll of a group of instructors and educational technology professionals uncovered some unevenness in our shared understanding of the meaning of these terms within a newly formed project team.  That observation has led me to write this blog post, aiming to demystify some of the jargon and provide a guide to current online learning terminology through explanation of the various modes and current meaning. A visual representation of the continuum might look something like this:

Diagram - Continuum of Online ELearning

The following definitions are based in information provided on the CTSI web site in the Online Learning Instructor Toolkit:

Online Courses: A course is considered to be fully “online” if it has been designed such that all of the instructional interaction occurs without the student and instructor being in the same physical location, with the exception of final or interim assessment requiring attendance on campus no more than once per term. It is anticipated that University of Toronto degree program online courses will extend beyond provision of lecture capture or videocast and offer interactive learning activities that engage students directly with the curriculum materials. 

Hybrid Course:  According to the Ontario Ministry of Training, University and Colleges definition, a hybrid course is one in which face-to-face teaching time is reduced, but not eliminated, to allow students more time for online activities. This model comes in a number of formats; however the online component generally replaces at least one third of the total . Several of our graduate programs and a few undergraduate courses use this model.  

Inverted Classroom: Also known as the “flipped” model, the inverted classroom does not reduce face-to-face class time. Instead, the course is enhanced with additional digital resources such as video lectures and quizzes  that students review prior to class. This allows for design of active learning and hands-on  activities to be incorporated into the classroom time. The term “flipped” refers to the idea that video lectures might be provided outside of classroom, and what would have been homework assignments completed during class. 

MOOCs:  A MOOC is is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web.  Access to direct instructor and learner feedback is very limited and it should be noted that University of Toronto MOOCs are not for credit. The University of Toronto has partnered with two organizations providing MOOC platforms, Coursera and EdX as described on the  Open Utoronto web site. Currently some of our MOOC content is being repurposed in conjunction with selected University of Toronto degree program courses through use of the inverted classroom model. 

Clear as mud? Don’t be discouraged. With the swirl of new online modes emerging and plenty of jargon to go along  – there is a lot of terminology to keep up with!  One more term… perhaps the most confusing of the lot, is “blended” learning.

Blended Course: Blended learning is a catch-all phrase that refers to any combination of traditional face-to-face classroom methods with any computer-mediated activities such as discussion, video presentation, synchronous webinars, assignments, group projects, etc. Traditionally the blended model refered to reduction of class time, but more recently it is used to refer to the inverted or “flipped” classroom in which class time is not reduced. Definitions of the blended mode thus vary widely.

In short, if you are considering using the term “blended”… you’ll have to provide your own definition if you want to ensure everyone on your “team” understands your mode and your meaning. And now… you are fully equipped for jargon juggling!

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