What IS online learning?

Almost a year ago my dissertation, entitled “A Comparative Study Between Online High Schools and Traditional High Schools in California”, was completed.  It has taken me awhile to reflect on what it all means, so this will be the first blog post towards those reflections.

Before comparing any schools or completing any research regarding online learning, it is important to define “online learning.”  To start with, the following items by themselves are   NOT online learning:

  • posting PowerPoints to a website and having students view them
  • emailing assignments to students
  • using a website for face-to-face instruction
  • having students create a website and/or online resource for an assignment

Non-researchers like to define “online learning” in policy as many states have done in legislation.  Generally, online learning is a percentage of time spent online by students and teachers for instruction.  This percentage ranges from 50% to 80% depending on the researcher and/or legislator.  However, if the body of knowledge regarding the effectiveness of online learning is every really going to be known, we need to agree on a definition.

The way traditional schools are categorized is generally the same and include full time students, full time teachers, curriculum based on statewide standards, use of lecture, textbooks, and technology for the delivery of the curriculum, and a school day with a total of six periods that lasts about 6 hours per day.  Charter schools follow similar categories or typologies as was explained in the charter school section of this literature review.  However, as schools and courses have moved online, a clear consistent way to categorize online courses has not emerged (Barbour & Reeves, 2009).

Online schools and online charter schools do not fall into neat categories in the same way as traditional schools.  Over the past 10 years, researchers have worked to define the categories or types of online schools.  Clark (2001) identified online school programs by four categories:  state-sanctioned/state led, college or university based, consortium or regionally based, and local education agency based.  Another study identified five categories including: statewide supplemental programs, district-level supplemental programs, single-district cyber schools, multi-district cyber schools, and cyber charters (Watson et al., 2004).  The types of schools were further refined into four categories including: state virtual school, multi-district, single-district, or consortium (Watson et al., 2009).

Online schools are defined in a variety of ways including the entity that develops the online school, whether students attend full time or part time, how instruction is delivered, the technology used, the amount of time students meet face-to-face with a teacher, and how they are funded.  The entity that develops and maintains the online school can be state-led, county, region or consortia-led, company-led, or district-led (Watson et al., 2009).  In some cases, online schools are home grown by a few teachers in a school district, chartered in a district or developed by a company that administers online charter schools across many states.  In some state-led schools such as Idaho, all students who attend are part time, while in other online schools and, especially in charter online schools, students only attend full time.  How an online course is delivered is another way researchers define online courses.  Some institutions consider online courses as courses in which 100% of the instruction was delivered online, while others used various percentage cutoffs such as 80%, 70%, and 50% of online instruction (Parsad & Lewis, 2008).  Some schools provide primarily asynchronous instruction while others provide primarily synchronous instruction.  Different technologies used may cause curriculum to be delivered in different ways.  Setzer and Lewis (2005) found that school districts who were engaged in distance learning courses reported using the following technologies for online course:

  • 49% reported using two-way interactive video
  • 35% reported using Internet courses with asynchronous instruction
  • 9% reported using Internet courses with synchronous instruction
  • 7% reported using one-way prerecorded video
  • 1% reported using other technologies

Another variable used for categorizing online schools is how often students may meet in person with a teacher either in a traditional classroom or individually.  Some online programs deliver content fully online where students do most of their coursework from home, while other programs known as hybrid or blended online courses use online courses for instruction but meet students in a regular classroom on a daily or weekly basis (Watson, 2008).  Allen, Seaman, and Garrett (2007), who have surveyed online learning in higher education have categorized online courses in four distinct different ways including traditional, web facilitated, blended/hybrid and online.

I believe the Allen, Seaman and Garrett (2007) definition is the one that should be used for defining online learning.  Here is how they break it down:

  • TRADITIONAL: 0% delivered online
  • WEB FACILITATED: 1 to 29% delivered online (teacher uses websites, may use a course management system for posting syllabi, presentations, etc.)
  • BLENDED/HYBRID: 30-79% delivered online. Students meet face-to-face with instructor in addition to having substantial coursework completed online.
  • ONLINE: 80% or more delivered online. A course where most or all of the content is delivered online.  May include a few face-to-face meetings.

References/Links:

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3 Responses to “What IS online learning?”


  1. 1 Andy Frost April 25, 2011 at 8:40 am

    Rob – great post. I’d love to read your dissertation. In the post, you talk about online learning and online schools. I’m curious if you think that the definitions work equally well for online COURSES. For example, where a student takes 4-5 courses F2F and one course online. Do we need different definitions? I hope not, but I’m interested in your thoughts.

  2. 2 Rob Darrow, Ed.D. April 26, 2011 at 4:31 am

    Hi Andy – Generally, yes, I think the definitions work with online courses. I think the challenge with online COURSES is that there is a wide variety of types of courses. There are two areas that need further refinement and agreement in this area: first, the amount of time a student spends doing an online course in a computer lab vs. at home on their own, and second, online course content or whether the course is teacher lead or computer lead. A teacher lead course would be one where there are a series of lessons a student works through under the direction of a teacher that includes discussion boards and online class meetings, lessons and discussions while a computer lead course would be one where a student works through a series of levels showing their competency before moving onto the next level. The teacher determines competency in teacher lead courses while the computer program/application determines competency in computer lead courses.

  3. 3 sklep zlewozmywaki April 9, 2013 at 10:46 am

    I every time spent my half an hour to read this weblog’s posts every day along with a cup of coffee.


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