How many students are currently taking online courses? How many online programs does the university offer? How many students are enrolled in online programs?

These are the kinds of questions those of us in the world of online learning are asked regularly. They seem like innocuous and straightforward questions. They’re not though. Answering these questions turns out to be unbelievably complicated. “It depends…” is never satisfactory for a key university stakeholder, but the truth is that it does depend… on how we’re defining online learning.

We have to report about online learning at three different levels (state, regional and federal): SCHEV (our state education agency), SACSCOC (our regional accreditation agency), and IPEDS (the federal government).


 

Here is how SCHEV defines online learning1:

  • FACE-TO-FACE, SYNCHRONOUS: …For formal instruction, the instructor and learner share the same physical space more than 50% of the time (understood in terms of Carnegie credit hour equivalency). The instructor and learner interact mostly at the same time.
  • HYBRID; SYNCHROUNOUS: …For formal instruction, the instructor and learner share the same physical space less than 50% of the time (understood in terms of Carnegie credit hour equivalency). Electronic delivery is used for the balance of instruction. During electronic interaction, the instructor and learner interact mostly at the same time (e.g. video conference, teleconference, or Elluminate® live session).
  • HYBRID; ASYNCHRONOUS: …For formal instruction, the instructor and learner share the same physical space less than 50% of the time (understood in terms of Carnegie credit hour equivalency). Electronic delivery is used for the balance of instruction. During electronic interaction, the instructor and learner interact mostly at different times (e.g. discussion board or podcast).
  • ELECTRONIC; SYNCHRONOUS: …Apart from a face-to-face orientation or initial class meeting, for formal instruction, the instructor and learner use electronic means to interact 100% of the time (understood in terms of Carnegie credit hour equivalency). During electronic interaction, the instructor and learner interact mostly at the same time. (e.g. video conference, teleconference, or Elluminate® live session).
  • ELECTRONIC; ASYNCHRONOUS: …Apart from a face-to-face orientation or initial class meeting, for formal instruction, the instructor and learner use electronic means to interact 100% of the time (understood in terms of Carnegie credit hour equivalency). During electronic interaction, the instructor and learner interact mostly at different times (e.g. discussion board or podcast).

SACSCOC distinguishes only between “distance education” and “correspondence” education. They defines distance education as:

For the purposes of the Commission on College’s accreditation review, distance education is a formal educational process in which the majority of the instruction (interaction between students and instructors and among students) in a course occurs when students and instructors are not in the same place. Instruction may be synchronous or asynchronous. A distance education course may use the internet; one-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite, or wireless communications devices; audio conferencing; or video cassettes, DVD’s, and CD-ROMs if used as part of the distance learning course or program.

IPEDS also uses the term “distance education” and defines a distance education course as:

A course in which the instructional content is delivered exclusively via distance education.  Requirements for coming to campus for orientation, testing, or academic support services do not exclude a course from being classified as distance education.


 

See the problem(s)? Think of the course where the students and the instructor meet 3 times, once for a course orientation, once for a midterm and once for a final exam. That’s about 20% of the seat time. As far as SCHEV and IPEDS are concerned, that’s either not distance education (per IPEDS the content is not delivered “exclusively” via distance education), or it’s hybrid (per SCHEV). But, SACSCOC would consider that a distance education course because for more than a majority of the instruction, students and the instructor are not in the same place.

Now, imagine the rest of the course involves students reading, taking quizzes, watching videos, regularly communicating asynchronously on a class discussion board, etc. Oh, and the instructor holds the occasional live, synchronous videoconference interview with an expert in the field. For SCHEV reporting purposes, is that an asynchronous or a synchronous course?

And that’s just at the course level, which is just the beginning. Online programs?…

IPEDS says an online program is “A program for which all the required coursework for program completion is able to be completed via distance education courses.”

SCHEV requires us to report in quartiles and the key is around “potential.” So, we have to report to SCHEV any program where at least 25% of the coursework CAN/COULD be completed online (but again, what’s an online course?), and again where at least 50% of the coursework CAN/COULD be completed online.

So, here, again, we have IPEDS defining an online program as ALL and SCHEV defining an online program as, essentially, one where 50% of the coursework CAN/COULD be completed online.

Confused yet?

Consider the following not-so-hypothetical programs. Imagine all are 30-credit programs (10 3-credit courses)


 

Program A: Is this an online program? Yes, per SCHEV, but no per IPEDS.

FACE-TO-FACE, SYNCHRONOUS ELECTRONIC; SYNCHRONOUS ELECTRONIC; ASYNCHRONOUS HYBRID; SYNCHROUNOUS HYBRID; ASYNCHRONOUS
Course 1 X
Course 2 X
Course 3 X
X
X
X
X
X
X
Course 10 X

 

Program B: in this program, for all courses, students meet f2f on occasion; maybe 3 or 4 times for about 1.5 hours each time. Is this an online program? Not according to IPEDS, but for SCHEV purposes, this is probably an online program (because more than 50% of the “coursework” is completed online. But, none of the individual courses are coded as fully online (“electronic”)).

FACE-TO-FACE, SYNCHRONOUS ELECTRONIC; SYNCHRONOUS ELECTRONIC; ASYNCHRONOUS HYBRID; SYNCHROUNOUS HYBRID; ASYNCHRONOUS
Course 1   X
Course 2 X
Course 3   X
  X
  X
  X
  X
  X
  X
Course 10   X

Program C: this is based on an actual program here at VCU. In every semester, there are at least two sections of every course; one is f2f, one is online. In any given semester, students can choose which section(s) of which course(s) they want to take. This is probably the best and most “student-centered” format. But, is it an online program? Per SCHEV, yes, because more than half of the program CAN/COULD be completed online. Per IPEDS, probably/maybe? 

FACE-TO-FACE, SYNCHRONOUS ELECTRONIC; SYNCHRONOUS ELECTRONIC; ASYNCHRONOUS HYBRID; SYNCHROUNOUS HYBRID; ASYNCHRONOUS
Course 1 X X
Course 2 X   X
Course 3 X   X
X   X
X   X
X   X
X   X
X X
X X
Course 10 X X

But, here’s the real plot twists: IF this is an online program, how many students are in that online program? In other words, when we’re asked to report on the number of students in online programs, do we count all of the students in this program? Even if they’re, say, halfway through and have yet to opt for one of the online sections?

It’s easy for those not involved closely with these issues to shrug and say things like, “Who cares? That’s just semantics…” or “Isn’t it all just learning?” Well, yes and no. But, for many of us, these kinds of semantic issues have real and highly important consequences. Remember the UVA fiasco? If/when our board members ask if we’re doing “enough” with online learning, “it depends” will not suffice as an answer.

***

More importantly, I hope that this post has at least three effects:

  1. In the future, when you read any kind of report or see any kind of statistic about the number or percentage of students in online courses and/or programs, you’ll view those with a critical eye. There’s no question in my mind that those reports and statistics are generated based on incomparable data.
  2. More people involved in these issues need to be writing and talking about this, if only to generate conversations that might reach stakeholders and policymakers who don’t yet understand the nuances of online learning.
  3. And, finally, I desperately hope that the nuances are not viewed as just reporting problems. Rather, they are seen as opportunities/possibilities.
  1. based on personal communication with Tod Massa, Policy Research and Data Warehousing Director at SCHEV []