Transparency and Clarity: The Way We Define Online, Hybrid, and Blended Matters
Concurrent Session 3
How does your institution define the types of courses it offers? Definitions of delivery methods are critical for information systems, branding, compliance, and setting student/instructor expectations. Yet no universally accepted definitions exist for online, hybrid, or blended. Join the conversation to share how your institution navigates terminology and definitions!
This session focuses on the importance of clear definitions in developing the infrastructure, policies, and practices needed to run a successful online learning operation. Definitions for online, hybrid, and blended courses and programs ranges between institutions, and most accrediting and government agencies leave these terms undefined, opting instead to define an umbrella term, “distance education” (and that definition often conflicts between groups). This ambiguity is surprising, given the role these terms play in structuring information system, assessing tuition and fees, informing strategy and branding decisions, enabling compliance, and setting expectations with students and instructors.
Consider the different ways the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) define distance courses. IPEDS defines a distance education course as, “A course in which the instructional content is delivered exclusively via distance education. Requirements for coming to campus for orientation, testing, or academic support services do not exclude a course from being classified as distance education.” HLC defines a distance-delivered course as, “Distance-delivered courses are those in which all or the vast majority (typically 75% or more) of the instruction and interaction occurs via electronic communication, correspondence, or equivalent mechanisms, with the faculty and students physically separated from each other.”
An institution accredited by the HLC and receiving federal funding must report distance courses both to IPEDS annually as a condition of the Higher Education Act and to the HLC as part of monitoring whether expansion of distance offerings requires further approval. Such an institution will have to develop a system of definitions that accurately report to both entities. The institution also needs to develop a common language it uses with stakeholders to understand the different types of course modalities the institution offers and what each implies. For some institutions, definitions designed for reporting may suffice; for others, the shifting definitions may prove confusing.
The chart below depicts the definitions of face-to-face, blended, hybrid, and online courses employed by seven different universities. All universities are public, doctoral, institutions with enrollments between 15,000 and 45,000 total students. Of those students between 9 and 30% are enrolled in some distance education. The institutions all have 10 or more distance education programs and distance education comprises 5-20% of the institutions’ offerings. They are all accredited by the same regional accreditor. Despite this, they all have difference in the percentage of electronic delivery that form the basis of their course delivery definitions. This data was compiled using IPEDS and institutional sites by the proposal authors; to keep the institutions private, their names have been removed.
As a “Conversations, Not Presentations” session, conversants will be provided some baseline information as singular slides, as well as different handouts with various definitions, to spark conversation. Prompts for starting the conversation will focus on institutional experiences of the participants: what definitions are used? How were they developed? How do they influence the way the university operates? Are there financial implications or restrictions that result from the definitions? How formal or informal are definitions?
During the conversation, the facilitators will attempt to collect definitions and insights of conversants, either by crowdsourcing through an app like sli.do or recording on a Google document that may be shared. The purpose of this record is to attempt to identify any consensus on either definitions or challenges, as well as strategies that may be useful to others.
Conversants should leave with an understanding of the process and considerations colleagues at other institutions are using when navigating the ambiguity of delivery definitions, as well as contacts at similar institutions they may reach out to in the future. The electronic record will be shared with conversants who leave contact information. It is our goal that this conversation will provide sufficient insight to “jumpstart” conversations that either develop or evaluate the definitions each conversants’ institution uses upon their return to campus.