Negotiating the Many Definitions of Hybrid, Online Classes

U.S. News | January 15, 2016 - 

Be proactive in understanding why a school classifies a course as one or the other.


As online education evolves, the ways classes are taught aren't as straightforward as they might have previously been.

In course listings, university registrars generally include a column labeled "instructional type." Historically, this column has contained basic terms such as "traditional," "hybrid" or "online."

While traditional instruction requires no further explanation, increasingly the lines between hybrid and online courses have become blurred. For example, at some institutions, if a class meets in person just once, it is listed as hybrid.

Other institutions use the definition of an online course originally established by the Sloan Consortium, now called the Online Learning Consortium, as the tipping point to determine hybrid or online status: that 80 percent of the content must be delivered online. Yet another hybrid variation is seen when a course blends synchronous and asynchronous delivery, saving the online designation for exclusively asynchronous courses. To be fully informed and successful, online students must seek to understand exactly what hybrid or online means at their institution.

[Learn about the Best Online Programs rankings.]


For clarity, the Online Learning Consortium has recently updated its e-learning definitions as follows.

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.

These updated definitions acknowledge the organization's ​80 percent online guideline but also clarify that individual campuses will have differing definitions and percentages​. While OLC definitions provide campuses with a starting point to modernize terminology, there is no universal solution. My institution,SUNY Buffalo State, recently tweaked the consortium's new ​definitions to publish our own variation that best meets the needs of our students.

It becomes clear that there is significant variation in the terms used to describe course instruction. The evolution of ​e-learning delivery systems​ and innovations in instruction has generally outpaced the university's ability to adequately standardize definitions.

[Determine what to ask about course delivery in online programs.]

​It is appropriate for students to request a syllabus or to ask about the seat time and screen time expectations for a course. Faculty and advise​rs want well-informed students, and until institutions adopt appropriately descriptive instructional definitions, students should clarify course expectations prior to the beginning of the semester. ​

The takeaway:
Unfortunately, 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.