Digital Learning Definitions

Higher education uses many variations of terms to describe slightly different digital learning modalities,  such as: “in-person,” “online,” “hybrid,” “hyflex,” “synchronous,” “asynchronous,” and many more. These variations have long confused students, faculty, administrators, and the general public.

WCET has worked on this issue in the past, and continues to advocate for simple, easy to understand terms that can bring consistent agreement to the use of these phrases. The WCET Steering Committee has made it a priority to attack this issue.

WCET has examined this issue from the point of view of faculty, administrators, policy makers, and students. While there is general agreement on definitions, policies still differ. Meanwhile, students just want to know what the technology, in-person, and synchronous requirements are for their classes.

Recent Work in This Area

Defining "Distance Education" in Policy: Differences Among Federal, State, and Accreditation Agencies

March 7, 2023

There are many (many!) terms used in higher education to describe the wide variety of course delivery options used today. The definitions of said terms have important policy and practice implications for higher education institutions and stakeholders. This new report from WCET and SAN reviews the definitions of “Distance Education” and how it is commonly used in higher education policies. The purpose of the review is to highlight the challenges the varied definitions (of just this one term) can cause for colleges and universities as they attempt to adhere to compliance and other regulatory responsibilities.

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Defining Different Modes of Learning: Resolving Confusion and Contention Through Consensus

September 1, 2022

There has been longstanding contention about how terms related to online and hybrid learning should be defined. In this study, we report survey findings on how administrators and faculty apply the following terms in practice: online learning, hybrid learning, hyflex learning, in-person learning, synchronous learning, and asynchronous learning. Drawing upon the literature, the research team developed survey definitions for each of these terms. The survey then asked participants to rate the extent to which they agreed with the survey definitions. A total of 987 faculty and 1,051 administrators participated in the study. Participants represented the full range of higher education institutions in the United States. The key finding from the study is that there was widespread agreement with the survey definitions, which is contrary to much of the literature that indicates confusion and contention about how online and hybrid learning terms should be defined. In light of the findings, we provide a framework for categorizing common learning modes and the variations that exist within these modes. This study provides a foundation for establishing common language and shared understandings as online and hybrid course offerings (and learning technologies, in general) continue to evolve.

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Defining Key Terms Related to Digital Learning

Summary Report

September 21, 2022

To address the ongoing debate about how terms related to online and hybrid learning should be defined, WCET (the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies) funded a survey to explore the meanings of these terms. Dr. Jeff Seaman from Bay View Analytics conducted the survey and worked with Dr. Nicole Johnson to analyze the data. WCET and the researchers worked in partnership with the following organizations: the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA), Online Learning Consortium (OLC), Quality Matters, and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). The purpose of this report is to provide a brief overview of the findings from this study, which are described in detail in the article published in the Online Learning Journal.

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INFOGRAPHIC - Agreement with Digital Learning Definitions

Survey of Higher Education Faculty and Administrators

September 21, 2022

A bar chart is depicted with each digital learning term, the brief definition, and the percentage of survey respondents agreeing with that definition.


INFOGRAPHIC - Agreement with Digital Learning Definitions, International Comparisons

September 21, 2022

A bar chart is depicted with each digital learning term, the brief definition, and the percentage of survey respondents agreeing with that definition as broken down by surveys of U.S. respondents vs. Canadian respondents.


WCET Events

Digital Learning and Distance Education Definitions – Where there is clarity, confusion, and what matters to the students?

31 Mar 2023

In this month’s Closer Conversation, we will discuss some of the key insights from WCET’s forthcoming report “Definitions of Distance Learning” about the need for effective, student-centered polices around digital learning and distance education definitions. Members are encouraged to...

Finding and Providing Clarity Amidst the Array of Digital Learning Definitions and Modalities

15 Mar 2023

The webcast will highlight two recent reports:  Toward a Hybrid Future, written by Minerva Project, which explores how to design high-quality hybrid learning that matches learning objectives, learning modality, and learner needs,  A forthcoming report from WCET and the WCET State...

Navigating the Confusing Array of Digital Learning Definitions

21 Sep 2022

As students sign up for courses, they are faced with course delivery options such as online, remote, hybrid, hyflex, synchronous, and asynchronous – but how these are defined is not always clear, and they vary even within an institution...