What’s in a Name? Canvassing the Terms We Use for Digital Learning

Concurrent Session 2

Brief Abstract

The terms used to describe forms of digital learning (e.g., online, blended, hyflex) in higher education have multiplied in recent years and have led to confusion among faculty, staff, and students. Several organizations partnered to survey how institutions, departments, or programs define these terms. What do you think we found?


Russ Poulin leads the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, which advocates for effective practices and policies for digital learning in higher education. WCET’s members represent institutions, state agencies, corporations, and non-profit organizations from all fifty states. In paying attention to federal, state, and institution policies, he twice represented the distance education and competency-based education communities in federal negotiated rulemaking processes. The Presidents’ Forum, Excelsior College, the National University Technology Network, and the Online Learning Consortium have all recognized Russ for his contributions. He is also partial to movies, cats, and his wife, Laurie. Contact: rpoulin@wiche.edu or @RussPoulin.
Dr. Jeff Seaman is Director of Bay Vie Analytics. He has worked in education information technology for over 20 years, and holds degrees in Demography/Statistics, Sociology, Electrical Engineering, and Housing, all from Cornell University. He has taught at several colleges and universities, including Cornell University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, and Babson College. Dr. Seaman created and ran the Computing Resource Center and served as Associate Vice Provost for Computing for the University of Pennsylvania and as Chief Information Officer for Lesley University. His industry experience includes serving as Chief Technology Officer at HighWired.com and as the Vice President of Engineering for Vista Associates. Dr. Seaman has been conducting research in the impact of technology on higher education and K-12 for over a decade, beginning with comprehensive national studies of technology use in U.S. Higher Education. Dr. Seaman has served on academic technology advisory boards for a number of information technology companies including Apple Computer, IBM, and Microsoft.

Extended Abstract

What’s in a name? Juliet supposed that Romeo would be the person she loved regardless of his last name…and why should that make a difference? In academia, we are very keen on our nomenclature. At times the distinctions are necessary and at other times our language only serves to hinder effective communication.

Many in the digital learning community observed that there are a wide variety of terms to describe the use of technologies in postsecondary instruction. Examples of the terms include online, blended, hybrid, hyflex, distance, remote, synchronous, and flexible learning. The growing use of instructional technologies as a result of the remote pivot due to COVID-19 has only increased the number of terms and potential misuse of terms. The result is that some have observed confusion among faculty, staff, and students when using different terms to describe the same activity.

Leading organizations in distance and online learning in the U.S. and Canada partnered on a survey to determine how institutions, departments, or programs define these terms and which activities faculty are using in different learning modalities. The survey, conducted in May – early June 2022 attracted about 2,000 respondents. That participation indicates the great interest in this topic.

One section of the survey presented simple definitions of online, hybrid, hyflex, in-person, synchronous, and asynchronous learning to ascertain the level of agreement by respondents with the proposed wording. Our goal was not to settle on definitive definitions, but to see how close higher education professionals were in their agreement on how the terms are used.

The session will present the results of the survey. Participants will be engaged in some gamification as they guess the results of some of the questions. Finally, they will have the opportunity to ask questions and provide some feedback on the terms used and the necessity (or not) for more commonality in these definitions.

NOTE:   Poulin will be at the onsite meeting, but the other two will not. We can talk if you also want some version of this onsite, as well as virtually.