Defining an Online Course: What’s in a Name?

online course definitionAre there differences between online learning, distance learning, web-based learning and eLearning? The only assumption you can really make is that at least a component of the experience will not occur in a physical location (i.e., campus classroom, regional learning center). You can also expect some flexibility related to when you access course materials. These terms all convey something about both time and place.

What does it mean to take an online course? They aren’t all the same, and they can go by different names in a course catalog. Setting realistic expectations is a key for success, no matter what the course format is called. The way schools describe and define their different course formats is an important part of conveying expectations to students.

Online Learning Definitions

There’s not one, “correct” definition of online learning or an online course. In a way this is helpful – schools and instructors are using such a wide variety of technologies and techniques these days, that it’s hard to capture all of the possibilities with a single description. The lack of an accepted standard can result in confusion, however, if the experience you have in an online class is different than what you were expecting when you enrolled.

As a grad student, I remember the anxiety associated with registering for an “online course” that had three, mandatory, on-campus meetings – a requirement that was not revealed until after the class started. This is getting better though, as programs provide more detail about their courses in advance of student registration. Take a look at the definitions provided by several schools and education organizations:

  • North Carolina’s eLearning Commission defines eLearning as “learning utilizing electronic technologies to access educational curriculum outside of a traditional classroom. In most cases … delivered completely online.”
  • Embry Riddle offers interactive, scheduled courses through a Web-based videoconferencing system. Almost all of the course interaction takes place live in this virtual classroom environment, while their online courses rely on non-scheduled types of communication via school’s learning management system.
  • The International Association for K-12 Online Learning defines an online course as “any course offered over the Internet.” The Online Learning Consortium proposes a similar, broad description: “all course activity is done online.”
  • The University of South Florida describes a World Wide Web course as one that is accessed through the school’s learning management system or a website. The school advises students “to determine if any face-to-face meetings are required” for each course in this category. A videoconference course is an “interactive process that allows students and faculty to see and hear each other at multiple locations in ‘real-time’” from specific physical locations.

The bottom line is that it doesn’t really matter how the course is labeled. More critical to your decision to register is what the course will require of you in terms of when and how you’ll access materials and participate in activities. Keep in mind that different schools also use the term completely online differently. These programs may have on-campus requirements for advising, testing, orientations and other school-related activities, even though all course materials and conversations take place via the Internet.

More Choices for Students

Carefully review the learning options offered by any program you want to attend. Look for details about:

Scheduling: Beyond course start and end dates, and assignment due dates, you need to know if you are required to participate in any other activities on a specific date and time during the course. These could range from online text chats and virtual classrooms to in-person testing or meetings with faculty.

Type of Interaction: Is the course primarily synchronous or asynchronous? Synchronous activities are live; they happen in real-time with everyone logged in at the same time on the same day. Asynchronous activities allow each student to log in and participate at a time and date that is convenient for him/her, within some limits. Discussion forums, for example, are often set up with a prompt from the instructor and each student responds and replies at different times during the week. Email is another good example of asynchronous communication.

Technologies Used: A learning management system (e.g., Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle) is a part of even fully on-campus courses these days. There are additional requirements for hardware (e.g., web cams, headsets), software (video conference system downloads) and Internet connectivity you may need, in order to successfully participate in an online class.

Some schools offer “online” courses in multiple formats, so that you can pick the one that makes the most sense for you.

  • Do you need (or want) the flexibility to log in and participate in class activities at any time, without scheduled meetings? Try an asynchronous, online format. This approach means that you are on your own to monitor the course timeline and stay on track with activities and assignment due dates, but can complete them at any time during each lesson’s established time frame.
  • Is a more structured experience is a better match for your skills and schedule? If so, a course delivered through live videoconferences may be a better choice. Knowing that you have to log in at a specific time each week can help you prioritize your time and prepare for each meeting.

Many courses include a combination of communication tools and strategies, providing a mix of synchronous and asynchronous interactions. The options are changing rapidly as the tools available evolve and are implemented in new ways in different learning environments. Online courses may incorporate on-ground resources and services, and on-campus courses may rely on online options to post course announcements, lecture notes and grades.

Definitions and descriptions help online programs to communicate clearly, so that students can set realistic expectations from the beginning and prepare for the experience. If this information is not included in course descriptions provided by your school, take the time to ask questions and seek clarification before registering.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog