Updated E-Learning Definitions


John Sener, Founder/CKO, Sener Knowledge LLC

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Definitions of E-Learning Courses and Programs Version 2.0 April 4, 2015

Developed for Discussion within the Online Learning Community By Frank Mayadas, Gary Miller, and John Sener

As e-learning has evolved into a global change agent in higher education, it has become more diverse in its form and applications. This increased diversity has complicated our ability to share research findings and best practices, because we lack a shared set of definitions to distinguish among the many variations on e-learning that have arisen. This paper is designed to provide practitioners, researchers, and policy makers with a common set of terms and definitions to guide the ongoing development of the field. Our hope is that it will move us toward a set of shared, commonly understood definitions that will facilitate the sharing of research data and professional standards in our field. In developing the definitions below, we have tried to incorporate existing definitions developed by others and have incorporated comments from colleagues who have reviewed earlier drafts. We do not present these as the ultimate definitions, but as a step toward more commonly held standards as our field continues to evolve. Additions and revisions will be published periodically, as needed.

The Impact of E-Learning

While e-learning has become the primary form of distance education, it is also transforming instruction on campus. Higher education historically is a campus-based institution. Many students live on campus for the duration of their studies; others live near campus and commute to campus to take classes and to receive campus-based support services. This physical connection has defined the relationship between the student and the institution. It has also helped to shape the curriculum itself. E-learning has blurred these traditional relationships, removing geography as a defining element in the student-institution relationship.

Technology-enhanced learning has evolved both from enhancements to earlier generations of face-to-face teaching and enhancements to earlier generations of distance education. Engaged intentional design of learning experiences has also evolved to promote the most effective design to serve the learners, their life experiences and the opportunities and limitations of the particular environment. For example, many graduate programs have deliberately designed programs for working adults, which are predominantly offered online but also include short-term face-to-face residencies.

At the same time, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define a common measure for instruction. The “seat time” measure on which common understanding of a “credit hour” is largely based, is being challenged as new instructional models and alternatives to traditional classroom lectures become more widely accepted. However, the credit hour 2 remains the most widely accepted measure used to compare courses across different delivery environments. Continued growth in the number and diversity of learning environments will increase the need for a common standard by which different learning environments can be compared. The following definitions assume the credit hour as the primary means by which courses are defined, regardless of delivery environment.

As e-learning has matured, it has begun to be used in different ways to address diverse goals. Several models have emerged that have different geographical and curricular implications. It is important to be able to distinguish among these factors in order to compare practices and to understand and be able to effectively apply research findings. Shared definitions will also empower students to make better decisions. The major goals of e-learning include: improving access for both traditional-age and nontraditional students who are not otherwise able to attend a traditional, campus-based program and improving student choice over when, where, and how to engage in the learning process; and improving efficiency and effectiveness by using e-learning media and methods to control cost or provide other efficiencies or to make large-enrollment courses more effective for students. In addition, we are assuming that courses and programs defined below are instructor-led experiences, distinguishing them from self-learning modules, often seen for instance in some corporate training models.


Over the years, various organizations have attempted to define different aspects of elearning. Often, these have been focused on the specific needs of an individual institution or organization. In 2012, Frank Mayadas and Gary Miller posted a set of definitions designed to create a more common understanding; these were updated later that year in response to feedback from the professional e-learning community. The following definitions are designed to replace the 2012 document. They are designed to help both faculty and students better understand the different kinds of e-learning that are now practiced in higher education and to provide institutions with some standard models to encourage effective sharing of data about e-learning, at both the individual course and the curriculum level. These definitions have two key characteristics:

  • They include definitions at both the course level and the program level.
  • They incorporate three key parameters: instructional delivery mode, time, and flexibility.


The following definitions distill current practices into seven categories that reflect the variety of applications that predominate in use today.

1. Classroom Course – Course activity is organized around scheduled class meetings. Traditional classroom courses are measured by the number of hours spent in required inperson class meetings in various formats, such as lectures, studios, or workshops or other traditional face-to-face activities, such as laboratories, field trips, or internships. Such courses may involve some sort of computer usage—for example, a software simulation or laboratory or design software for art or engineering applications—but the course is still anchored to the normal time spent in face-to-face classes. For the purposes of clarity in these definitions, courses that use technology at this level are considered to be “classroom” courses.

2. Synchronous Distributed Course—Web-based technologies are used to extend classroom lectures and other activities to students at remote sites in real time. These courses use web conferencing or other synchronous e-learning media to provide access to a classroom experience for students at off-campus locations (such as places of employment, other campuses, etc.) while otherwise maintaining a normal face-to-face classroom schedule. These courses may mix on-campus and remote students, with oncampus students being face-to-face with their instructor and remote students participating simultaneously via technology. This changes the experience for both sets of students, so both settings fall into the same category. Some types of synchronous distributed courses offer greater place flexibility than others, depending on the delivery tool used. Synchronous distributed courses are significantly limited in terms of time flexibility, although that can be increased by recording class lectures and related activities and making them available for later viewing.

3. Web-Enhanced Course – Online course activity complements class sessions without reducing the number of required class meetings. When Internet access is required to complete course requirements, and when this Internet-based work augments classroom activity or supplants a relatively small amount (typically, 20 percent or less) of the traditional classroom activity, the course is considered a “web-enhanced course.” Traditional courses and web-enhanced courses are very similar, but are placed in separate categories because web-enhanced courses require additional faculty and student support, and very likely additional technology. Webenhanced courses are not normally considered to be e-learning courses, but are described here because they may be a step toward a hybrid or online course.

4. Blended (also called Hybrid) Classroom Course – Online activity is mixed with classroom meetings, replacing a significant percentage, but not all required face-to-face instructional activities. When the technologies used for education and communication outside the classroom are used to supplant some, but not all face-to-face instruction, reducing the time actually spent in the classroom, the result is a blended classroom course. For example, if a course traditionally meets in a classroom three times per week, a blended version might use online sessions to replace one or two of the traditional weekly classroom sessions or to focus face-to-face sessions on laboratory or project work. The offering institution should set the threshold for required online activity at that institution. Some institutions use blended courses with traditional on-campus students to improve efficiency in the use of limited classrooms. For example, replacing 50% of classroom experiences with online experiences would allow an institution to schedule a second course in the same room.

5. Blended (also called Hybrid) Online Course – Most course activity is done online, but there are some required face-to-face instructional activities, such as lectures, discussions, labs, or other in-person learning activities. These courses are the mirror image of blended classroom courses. Most course activity is conducted online, but a small amount of scheduled in-person classroom or other onsite group activities events are required. Online delivery replaces all but a few required faceto-face sessions. While this category of course may commonly be called an “online” course, the distinction is important because the inclusion of face-to-face work sets some geographic limitations on student access to the course. The institution is responsible for setting the threshold of required online activity.

Both Blended Classroom Courses and Blended Online Courses are particularly relevant in programs that serve students within commuting distance of campus. They increase flexibility but do not totally eliminate the need for students to have physical access to a campus facility. Blended courses will be attractive to many traditional full-time students, in addition to non-traditional learners, typically working adults who are within commuting distance and who wish to earn a degree.

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. Purely online courses totally eliminate geography as a factor in the relationship between the student and the institution. They consist entirely of online elements that facilitate the three critical student interactions: with content, the instructor, and other students.

While these courses may appeal to on-campus students, they are designed to meet the needs of students who do not have effective access to campus. They may reside near the campus, or they may reside quite a distance away in other states or even in other countries. Over the years, universities have sought to serve this “non-traditional” 5 population through a variety of media—from correspondence courses to satellite teleconferences—but only since the mid-1990s has technology enabled easy and continuous communication—interaction—among the learners and instructors at a distance. The Internet also has made library and other information resources available to this group. Improvements in basic technology also permit this user group access to complex data as in precision images, mathematical visualizations and simulations of various kinds. Social networking applications allow these learners to participate in both formal and informal learning communities.

NOTE: Since 2002-03, the Babson Survey Research Group has conducted a national survey of online learning, initially supported with funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. It has become recognized as a premiere national e-learning survey research effort in the United States. Their protocol defines a Blended/Hybrid course as being up to 79 percent online and an Online Course as being 80-100 percent online. They have maintained that distinction in order to ensure longitudinal consistency across survey years. However, most institutions now consider an online course to be 100% online.

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. The distinguishing characteristic of the type of course is that it provides students with the option to select from multiple delivery modes, which also increases their control over time and place as well as delivery mode. One example is the “Emporium” model developed through several innovations funded by the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) (1). This model, designed for on-campus use, eliminates all class meetings and replaces them with a learning resource center featuring online materials and on-demand personalized assistance. This gives campus-based students control over when they study by allowing students to choose when they access course materials, to choose what types of learning materials they use depending on their needs, and to set their own pace in working with the materials. It assumes that students have access to sophisticated instructional software and one-on-one on-site help. It replaces formal class meetings with increased access to instructional assistance and allows institutions to combine multiple lecture sections into one large section.

The HyFlex blended learning model is another one in use at several colleges and universities. The model was developed at San Francisco State University to give students choice over the mode of study (2). In HyFlex courses, students have both classroombased and online options available for all or most learning activities, giving them the flexibility to choose when and where they study based on their own needs, desires, and preferences. Students can also choose to change which option they use to attend courses weekly.

6 PROGRAM-LEVEL DEFINITIONS Similar distinctions among delivery environments can be made at the program level. Degree and certificate programs can be designed with a mix of traditional and e-learning courses in order to serve populations who have different levels of access to campus. Currently, there appear to be four major kinds of practices in wide use:

1. Classroom Program—The program may include a mix of traditional, web-enhanced, or hybrid courses, but all courses require some face-to-face lecture sessions.

These programs take advantage of web-based applications to enhance learning, but without changing the requirement that students attend classes on campus or in other face-to-face learning environments. As a result, online elements do not significantly improve access to commuting or distant students.

2. Multi-Format Program – A program mixes classroom courses with other formats that may use a variety of different delivery modes, web-enhanced, blended, fully online courses, synchronous distributed courses, etc., without a specific access goal. These programs use a variety of technologies and course designs to provide a variety of learning experiences. Typically, choice of technology is less related to the geographic or time needs of students than to curricular goals or instructional needs.

3. Blended Program – A significant percentage, but not all of the credits required for program completion are offered fully online. Typically, up to 30 percent of the curriculum may be offered as face-to-face or blended courses or other face-to-face formats or as independent study. These programs provide increased access to distant students who are able to come to campus for some courses, laboratory work, intensive residencies, or other occasional group sessions. Ideally, face-to-face sessions will be organized to minimize travel requirements for distant students. Some academic support services should be available to distant students as well. While a model in which 30 percent of the program consists of face-to-face or blended courses is given as a guideline, institutions should determine the percentage of the curriculum to be offered fully online based on local needs.

4. Online Program – All credits required to complete the program are offered as fully online courses. Students can complete the program completely at a distance, with no required face-to-face meetings. Fully online programs are designed with the truly distant student in mind. Institutions that offer fully online programs should also take care to provide support services— registration, testing, advising, library support, etc.—at a distance. 7

Emerging Innovations

As e-learning matures, innovative new ways to teach and learn will continue to emerge. Recent examples are massive open online courses (MOOCs) and competency-based education. At this stage in their evolution, these innovations can be adequately described within the course and program definitions described above; MOOCs and competency-based courses can be understood as operating within one or more of the defined categories.


The authors are indebted to the many colleagues too numerous to list individually who have contributed to these definitions by providing feedback on earlier drafts and who, in some cases, have pioneered in developing innovative applications of technology to create new learning environments.

These definitions are a work in progress that will be updated periodically as needed. The authors welcome comments and anticipate that they will prepare occasional companion pieces to add new definitions as the field evolves, in the hope the community will come together around a common set of definitions that will guide research, practice, and policy. We encourage researchers and professional associations to adopt the definitions with the goal that a shared vocabulary will facilitate the sharing of research data, increase the transfer of research into practice, and, ultimately, promote standards of excellence for the field.

Comments are welcome in this ongoing discussion.

References (1) “The Emporium Model.” National Center for Academic Transformation. Retrieved from the Internet on February 16, 2015: http://www.thencat.org/PCR/ model_emporium_all.htm

(2) “Student Choice, Instructor Flexibility: Moving Beyond the Blended Instructional Model.” UAiR: Issues and Trends in Educational Technology,Vol. 1, No. 1. University of Arizona, 2013. Retrieved from the Internet on February16, 2015: https:// journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/itet/article/view/16464/16485 Version 1.0 8/2/2012 Version 1.1 9/7/12 Version 2.0 4/4/15

2 Responses to “Updated E-Learning Definitions”

  1. Reuven Pasternak, MD

    Nice to see a common nomenclature being applied to this rapidly expanding and innovative approach to teaching.

  2. Joan York

    Thanks for delving into this confusing topic! I still don’t know where the courses I design fit in. In the past, these types of courses were mainly in the realm of corporate training, but they’re pretty common these days. Some people might call them “MOOCS” since they’re low-cost and open to anyone. I understand that most MOOCs have learner-to-learner interactions, like discussion boards, and ours don’t have much of that because we would have to monitor these interactions.

    Our courses are completely online, but fully automated and “self-paced” (not instructor-led). Enrollment is continuous and learners get a specified number of days to complete (usually 30-120), which starts the day they enroll. Most courses take between 2 and 12 hours to complete. A certificate and possibly a badge are issued upon completion.

    I’ve used “self-paced” and “e-learning” to describe them, but I’d like to do better. Any ideas?


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