Online learning, hybrid learning, hyflex learning, blended learning, and distance education. What are the differences between these terms that necessitate the creation of novel words for variations of modality?

text box reads - WCET surveyed digital learning professionals on institutional practices in defining:
distance learning,
online learning, 
fully online learning, 
hybrid/blended learning, 
hyflex learning.

What goes into the institutional decisions on defining these terms? WCET – the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, gathered information relating to institutional definitions, policies, and procedures relating to digital learning definitions (such as distance, online, hyflex, hybrid, etc.) and how those terms are communicated to students. Administered earlier this year, the survey consisted of 23 open-ended and multiple-choice questions. This post provides preliminary findings with the full report and methodology to be published in the coming months.

This survey and analysis builds upon previous work of WCET to develop an understanding of the institutional practices relating to digital learning definitions and the challenges that institutions face in:

  • defining terms,
  • maintaining compliance, and,
  • achieving clarity and transparency with faculty and students.

Previous WCET work in the area of digital learning definitions analyzed the extent to which faculty and administrators agree with specific provided definitions of select terms (see Defining Different Modes of Learning: Resolving Confusion and Contention Through Consensus). This work also highlighted the variety of definitions of distance education used in policy by federal, state, and accreditation agencies plus the challenges said variety presents to institutional compliance (see Defining “Distance Education” in Policy: Differences Among Federal, State, and Accreditation Agencies). Click here to access an accessible PDF with the data from the tables below.

Highlights of Preliminary Survey Analysis

We have made a number of interesting observations based upon our review of the survey data received. During future institutional interviews, we will further explore a number of nuances, but today we will highlight several meaningful observations.

How “Online Intensive” Were the Institutions Surveyed?

In the survey, we asked institutions to identify their number of graduates who completed their program primarily online or at a distance in the most recent academic year.

Table 1. The percentage of graduates completing programs primarily online. See accessible version of this data.

Table 1 - In the most recent academic year, roughly what percentage of your institution's graduates completed their programs primarily (75%+) online or at a distance with few requirements to come to campus or go to a specific location?

0-25% of graduates - 62%
26-50% - 20%
51-75% 10%
76-100% - 8%

The bulk of institutional personnel responding to the survey represented institutions for which a quarter or less of their students graduated in a program that is primarily online. Less than 20% of respondents hailed from institutions which had more than half of their graduates complete programs primarily online. These data provide a good context for understanding other responses, as the responding institutions still have a preponderance of in-person students. The institutions are also likely to offer multiple course delivery modalities.

Does Your Institution Have an Institution-Wide Definition for Each Digital Learning Modality?

In the survey, we asked five questions to determine whether the institution defined a given digital learning term. Specifically, we had one question that focused on how the institution handles each of the following five modalities:

  • distance learning,
  • online learning,
  • fully online learning,
  • hybrid or blended learning, and,
  • hyflex learning.

For each question, institutions could select one of the following five choices for each modality:

  • We have an institution-wide definition,
  • We have definitions that vary by college or department within the institution,
  • We are actively working on creating or updating this definition,
  • We have no definition and there is no current work to create one,
  • Other (please explain).

Few Institutions Reported Definitions That Vary by College Or Department

We were surprised to see that the least chosen response (with the exception of the “Other” response), across all terms, was that definitions vary by college or department within the institution. Not only was that the least chosen response across all terms, but the percentage of responses was much lower than the others, with the highest being 6.57% for hybrid or blended learning. See Table 3 below for the overview of responses to whether institutions define these digital learning terms.

Table 2. Institutional Status of Defining Digital Learning Modality Terms. See accessible version of this data.

Our initial thought was that there would be more variation within each individual institution but that was not borne out by the results. It is important to note that, due to the fact institutions could only choose one response here, the number of responses may have been different had institutions been able to choose all that apply. For example, we now observe that, especially in the case of the “definitions vary” and “actively working on this definition,” both responses could be true and institutions may have chosen the response that felt more appropriate in the moment. Especially in this case, we hypothesize that one reason that there may be work on creating an official definition is the need to harmonize various definitions used throughout the institution. It will be interesting to explore this in more depth in follow-up interviews.

But, Institution-Wide Digital Definitions Are Often Still Not The Norm

Even with the lack of definitions varying by colleges and the growing maturity of digital learning, there are many institutions lacking comprehensive definitions. Only “distance learning” and “hybrid or blended learning” report more than 50% of respondents with an institution-wide definition. “Online learning” had only 40% with a definition.

The picture might be brighter than that as about 20% of institutions use “distance” or “online” synonymously. They might not see the need for both or use them interchangeably. Having nearly 60% of institutions reporting a standard understanding of “hybrid or blended learning” shows strength for that modality.

It is concerning that for all of the definitions offered at least 10% of the institutions neither have a definition nor have current work to create one. Given that our mailing lists favor those in digital learning, this is probably a bit more worrisome.

Notably, there’s also a variety of definitions for “fully online” despite what seems like a self-explanatory term, which was surprising to us. In some cases, online and fully online are considered synonymous and are not distinguished from one another. In other cases, a certain percentage of instructional time, or a limited number of in-person instructional time, is permitted within the institutional definition of fully online. In our review of the definition of distance education, we did not note definitions of fully online in policy (federal, state, or accreditor) but the survey responses clearly indicated that policy influences institutional variations of the term fully online, especially policies at the state level.

What makes a program fully online? This issue is examined briefly in the recently-released white paper on labeling modalities written by Nicole Johnson (CDLRA) and sponsored by WCET. In that paper we cite an instance where a university system cites “full online” as having no in-person requirements, but then links to a program that has in-person requirements. Whatever the case in how “fully” is defined locally, the institution should be clear in communicating their online vs. in-person expectations with students. We look forward to exploring this more with our follow-up interviews.

What Factors Influence Your Digital Learning Definitions?

Additionally, in one of our survey questions, we asked institutions to indicate what factors influenced the institution’s definitions relating to digital learning where respondents could choose all that apply. Not surprisingly, the top three influences were accreditor (63%), federal (57%), and state (48%) definitions.

One surprise that emerged in the responses to this question was an additional potential source of definitions that we had not yet considered that could bind institutions to certain definitions and interpretations, which are union contracts or collective bargaining agreements with institutional faculty and instructors. Notably, the influence of faculty and instructors on institutional definitions was the fourth highest choice at 47%, although it is not clear whether that is due to binding contracts with faculty, faculty expertise on course content and delivery, or a mix of both (likely a mix of both).

Table 3. Factors influencing digital learning related definitions. See accessible version of this data.

Table 3 - What factors influenced your institutional, college, or department’s definitions relating to digital learning? (choose all that apply)

What Obstacles or Challenges Did You Face in Creating Digital Learning Definitions?

Lastly, in one of our open-ended questions, we asked institutions to describe some of the obstacles or challenges that they have experienced relevant to digital learning definitions. A commonly listed challenge related to faculty adherence to the modality assigned to the course. To illustrate this commonality, here are some of the responses we received related to this challenge:

  • Not all faculty abide by the definitions; in some cases, faculty will list a course as one modality, but deliver it in a different way.
  • Sometimes the faculty will teach a hybrid class but teach it all online.
  • Faculty using their own interpretation of a modality.
  • Faculty following the definitions.
  • Instructors sticking to mode of teaching: e.g., says synchronous, but is asynchronous. Or hybrid, but all synchronous.
  • Overcoming some historical practices and making sure faculty practice the expectations of the guidelines for distance learning.
  • While the institution has definitions, faculty have a great deal of flexibility in how they are implemented.

We can see how this situation can be challenging for institutions, especially in navigating how to emphasize the importance of adhering to course modality. This could have a great impact on the institution (i.e., financial aid, accreditation, etc.) as federal, state, and accreditation rules can differ by modality. For example, the need for regular and substantive interaction, adherence to accessibility requirements, and intellectual property rules all change when a course transitions into the digital realm. There are also increased faculty development and instructional design needs and requirements. And, most importantly, the student is not getting the course experience they expected at registration. This could have a great impact on learning outcomes and exacerbate inequities in serving students.

We look forward to exploring the strategies that institutions are using to address this challenge in institutional interviews. We know that institutions have a variety of innovative means of not only defining terms but also seeking to ensure compliance with definitions in policy.

Next Steps  

We look forward to delving more into the data, expanding on our analysis, and gaining more practical insights from institutions in our subsequent institutional interviews and the full report to come later this winter. Join us at the WCET Annual Meeting for the session “Digital Learning Definitions: Let’s Talk and Share” on the afternoon of October 26, for a brief background on this work and lots of time spent sharing on how you are handling definitions in your setting.

If you have any thoughts or experiences you would like to share, please feel free to contact Kathryn Kerensky ( and Russ Poulin (

Kathryn Kerensky

Director, Digital Learning Policy & Compliance, State Authorization Network

Russ Poulin

Executive Director, WCET & Vice President for Technology-Enhanced Education, WICHE


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