Transparency and Clarity: The Way We Define Online, Hybrid, and Blended Matters

Concurrent Session 3
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

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!


Michael Reis brings a broad range of professional experiences as an educator, administrator, and project manager, both in higher education and community organizations. Mr. Reis currently serves as an Associate Director for Online@VCU and the ALT Lab, Virginia Commonwealth University's central administrative units for online programs and technology-enhanced learning. Mr. Reis' work as a higher education administrator has focused on building greater institutional capacity to support high-quality online learning. This includes recruiting a superb instructional design team, launching programming and quality assurance initiatives, and developing policies, processes, and analytics to support greater clarity and efficiency. Mr. Reis has also conducted large-scale institutional evaluations, managed technology implementation, and performed institutional research on student success, campus climate, and resource management. As an educator, he has designed and directed degree and community education programs, developed open-access resources for teaching and research, and taught graduate courses in education. He holds a master's degree in Ethics & Social Theory and a master's degree in Higher Education Administration, with additional graduate coursework in organizational development and distance learning pedagogies. He has presented at national conferences and international symposiums on curriculum, policy, and instructional strategies.
Dr. Bouchey is Associate Professor and Associate Dean, College of Professional Studies and Advancement at National Louis University where she also serves as Director of Online Academics for the university. Dr. Bouchey has enjoyed a long history in higher education and online leadership serving in roles at smaller institutions ranging from Vice President of Operations, Provost, and Dean, to her most cherished role as faculty member. Dr. Bouchey has had the opportunity to lead all aspects of an online campus in her career and spends time each week in deep dialog with an engaged personal learning network discussing the evolving nature of online education. Dr. Bouchey holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University at Albany, an M.B.A. in Entrepreneurship from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a Doctorate in Education from Northeastern University. Dr. Bouchey is proud OLC member where she is a graduate of the Institute for Emerging Leaders in Online Learning (IELOL), was awarded a Bruce Chaloux Scholarship for Early Career Excellence, and is a co-chair for the IDEA Committee for OLC. She is also a member of the leadership subcommittee for the National Coalition on Online Education (NCOE, part of UPCEA).
Erin is a Librarian at Orange Coast College in Southern California. Prior to this position she was the Senior Director of La Verne Online, the virtual campus of the University of La Verne. Erin was brought in to develop and implement a strategic vision for online education at the University. Prior to working in La Verne Online, Erin was an academic research and technology librarian for more than 15 years. She also teaches online and is an adjunct faculty in the EdD in Organizational Leadership program at the University of La Verne. She is a 2018 IELOL alumni and a founding member of the Collegiate Online Research Collaborative (CORAL). Her research interests are in faculty trust and readiness for change; resistance and readiness towards online education in higher education, and effective leadership and organizational structures of online education.
Dr. Monica Simonsen is the Director of Special Education Online Programs for the University of Kansas. In this capacity, Dr. Simonsen is responsible for recruiting and training instructors, coordinating course development and revision, and overseeing admissions and student advising. She is currently participating in the OLC"s Institute for Emerging Leaders in Online Learning. Dr. Simonsen previously served as the Program Associate for the Secondary Special Education and Transition Services online graduate program and a Senior Research Associate at TransCen, Inc., providing technical assistance and research expertise to a variety of state and national transition projects. Prior to joining TransCen, Inc., Dr. Simonsen worked as a secondary special educator and transition specialist in Maryland, coordinated a post-secondary program for 18-21 year olds with intellectual disabilities, and completed her doctorate at the University of Maryland. She has been an instructor for KU since 2010 and has taught courses at the University of Maryland and at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Dr. Simonsen has authored numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, and practice briefs. Dr. Simonsen's primary research interests are on the role of family and teacher expectations on student outcomes, the impact of online learning on special education teacher preparation, culturally responsive online teaching, and organizational structures that support high quality online learning.

Additional Authors

Demonstrated history of working in higher education, as a trainer, consultant, instructional designer and admissions coordinator for an online graduate program. Possesses In-depth technical knowledge of LMS platforms with a specific focus on partnering with faculty to thoughtfully adopt educational technology into their pedagogy and course design. Capable admissions coordinator, handling all aspects of processing applications from submission to decision and communicating with prospective applicants at every stage in-between. Driven by and dedicated to the ongoing task of delivering high quality online teaching and learning. Work experience supported by a master’s degree in Learning Technology & Design from Purdue University.

Extended Abstract

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 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.