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The Confusion Around Online Learning Terms

With rapid change in higher education came a flurry of new terms that lacked clear definition across all institutions. This lack of definition makes communication with students, staff and faculty, and industry much more difficult, resulting in uncertainty and confusion.

I’ve been working in online education for almost fifteen years, yet at a recent conference on online learning, I found myself confused and even a little intimidated when I heard a presenter speak about the many advantages of teaching in a HyFlex model. What exactly did he mean by this term? I wasn’t entirely sure.

When I later asked a colleague who also has vast experience in online learning, he snapped: “What is this? A quiz?” When I explained that I wasn’t testing him, that I was myself uncertain, he explained that in a HyFlex classroom, learning is accessible to students in real time in person, via video conferencing technology such as Zoom and after the fact via a recording. Although he added, “I’m not sure that’s what they meant at your conference.”

How is it that we, well versed in this field, can find ourselves in professional settings uncertain about the definitions of the terms used? There are so many words to describe the modalities of online learning, and while those in the know may like my colleague confidently explain how a given modality is taught, they will likely need to add “most of the time” to their definition or “at my institution anyway.” For example, the often-used terms hybrid and blended sometimes mean the same thing and sometimes mean distinct things. In fact, each of these terms has more than a dozen possible meanings. They are often used in multiple ways at the same institution—sometimes even in the same department. 

If those of us who work in this field are confused, what about others with less knowledge? At a time when we wish to welcome faculty and students to the many possibilities of online teaching and learning, we are instead confusing and alienating them. The many terms we use to describe types of online teaching and learning, the fuzziness of their definitions and their rapidly shifting meanings, and most importantly the confidence with which we say these words—as if everyone knows what we are talking about—often excludes faculty, leaves students uncertain about what is going on and makes conversations across institutions fraught. 

What then is to be done?

It’s tempting to think that we should try to standardize terms. Why not come to an agreement about how we will use the word hybrid, for example? As a person who has worked in higher education for over three decades, I don’t see this happening. And this is not just because academics can become so involved in the discussion that it is sometimes hard to reach consensus. There are many excellent reasons to continue to create terms, including that each institution has unique offerings and therefore needs different ways to describe them. Add to that the fact that the process of teaching online is still evolving in unexpected and exciting ways. As Bob Ubell, Vice Dean Emeritus at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, points out, “One of the beauties of online learning is that there are all these permutations. The confusion is built into the creativity of online.”

Consider the following example. At the Open Society University Network (OSUN), a global partnership of educational institutions, classes are sometimes designed by multiple instructors from partner institutions across the world. Courses are then delivered simultaneously in different countries. While designing classes and teaching them is not new, doing so in this particular way is unique to this institution. And in recognition of this particularity, OSUN coined a term: the Network Collaborative Course or NCC. As OSUN Communications Manager Terry Roethlein explains, “Having this term makes it easier for faculty and staff to exchange information in conversation or in an email correspondence.”

Defining terms can go a long way toward mitigating the confusion. Roethlein explains that OSUN “never uses the term publicly without defining it first.” David Gastwirth, Vice President, Online Education and Learning Innovation at Union Theological Seminary, has coined the term online by design for his institution to distinguish classes that are simply moved from a traditional classroom to a video conferencing setting from classes that are designed intentionally for an online audience. He feels that the term simplifies communication between faculty and instructional design consultants. He also understands that there is work to be done “socializing the terminology,” as well as understanding that this term is particular to his institution. As Gastwirth points out, for adjuncts who may be teaching multiple courses at multiple institutions, we need to be cognizant of the fact that “just saying a term will not give them clarity on expectations.”

Another way to invite faculty and students into the conversation is a very basic one: acknowledging the confusion. Roethlein, after explaining the new terms OSUN uses to describe their courses, mentions the Alphabet Soup that higher ed is so fond of. Taking responsibility for the acronyms only insiders understand—mocking ourselves for this predilection even—can create a more welcoming environment. Had the panellist at the online learning conference I attended defined what he meant by Hyflex, I would have been able to focus on his remarks instead of discreetly Googling the term on my phone and wondering which of the many definitions I found this person was intending.

Alvin Toffler, writing in 1965, uses the term Future Shock to describe the disorientation that people feel when exposed to too much change too quickly. As higher ed institutions continue to adapt to technology-enhanced education, communicating clearly can help reduce the anxiety and disorientation we all feel as a result of change. Gastwirth proposes that we can even take what we have learned from online course creation and expand to revamping the language we use for in-person classes. He argues that students should know, when registering for an in-person class, whether it is held as a large lecture class or a small discussion class and whether the instructor, for example, teaches the material in a flipped format. Jenny McPhee, Assistant Dean at the NYU School of Professional Studies Division of Applied Undergraduate Studies, wishes for clarity about what the language we use means so that we can focus on pedagogy. She says, “The whole point is for us to be creating engaging experiences for students. The names we use and the definitions we give them should help us in the discussion of how best to achieve this aim.”

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