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Defining Online Course Modalities

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Defining your course mode is the first step to deciding on the structure of your course. Here, we discuss the factors that determine course structure and define some common course models based on these factors.

Factors that determine course structure

Timing 

The timing of interaction between the students, instructors, and the learning environment is an important factor. This is most commonly framed as synchronous vs. asynchronous learning.

Synchronous refers to class activities that occur in real-time. Students and instructors typically will meet at a designated time, usually in a campus classroom or a designated virtual space such as a Zoom meeting. 

Asynchronous learning resources are designed to be accessed at any time, and the learning does not require people to access them at the same time. Examples include an online forum or video recording. 

Location of course environment

The location of the course environment is a major factor in determining the structure of a course. This is usually framed as a traditional vs. online course. 

The term traditional describes a course where a physical classroom is the primary learning environment. Instruction and learning activities, as well as most access to course materials, happen in the classroom space.

Online courses are most commonly organized in a learning management system like Canvas. Course materials, activities such as quizzes or homework submission, and class management functions such as grading and announcements are all managed online in an LMS like Canvas.

Interaction

How and where person-to-person interaction takes place is another important factor to consider. Interaction is usually described as face-to-face (also on-campus or in-person) vs. virtual (or remote).

Face-to-face is exactly that, where people meet together in the real world. Face-to-face, in-person, and on-campus are often used interchangeably. 

Virtual or remote learning describes person-to-person interaction that takes place via the web, usually synchronously with a web meeting like Zoom.

Flexibility 

An often-overlooked factor when thinking about course models is flexibility. This refers to how much students can choose when and how to engage in learning vs. the teacher making those decisions

Student flexibility means that students may have some choice over the timing, location, and interaction of their learning experience. For example, perhaps there is flexibility around interaction, where a student can choose to either attend the synchronous lecture on-campus or to attend virtually via Zoom. Or perhaps there is flexibility with timing, they can choose to attend the live lecture or watch the recording on their own time. 

Common Course Models

Different courses will combine these factors in different combinations to best suit the learning context. Take into consideration your learning goals and the needs of your students when determining the course model that works best for you. 

Traditional/Blended

Traditional courses are your prototypical lecture or seminar course, where students and teachers meet in a designated classroom on a set schedule. Most of the learning happens synchronously during the class session. Students have little flexibility as the course is designed for learners and teachers to be together at the same time and place. 

Even the most traditional courses still usually make use of some online elements. These courses are referred to as Blended. For example, a blended seminar course might still meet in-person but have students access course readings in Canvas. Or perhaps students complete quizzes online as homework rather than on paper in class.

Traditional/blended courses are best suited to learners who benefit from in-person contact; who have regular schedules and proximity to campus. A traditional large lecture class is best suited to courses with learning objectives that are knowledge- and content-centric, while traditional small seminar courses are a natural fit for courses that involve a lot of analysis or creation.

Fully Online

In fully online courses, the learning environment is entirely online and students participate remotely from various locations. Students typically attend synchronous class sessions over a video-conferencing platform like Zoom. Course materials and class management are accomplished via a learning management system like Canvas. Learning activities are a mix of synchronous and asynchronous activities.

Fully online courses are best for students who have access to reliable technology, suitable learning spaces, and are comfortable with online environments. Fully online courses are generally more accessible to students so can benefit students that face challenges with physical access. This course model works for a wide variety of course content and teaching methods. But it can be limited when the course content is very reliant on human contact or access to specific tools and environments, such as some kinesiology courses or lab courses.

Hybrid

Hybrid usually refers to a course that is partially traditional/blended and partially fully online. An example hybrid course may meet face-to-face, on-campus at the beginning, and just a few times throughout the term, for large project milestones for instance. But otherwise, students might watch pre-recorded lecture videos, participate in asynchronous discussion forums, or work independently in groups. This will prepare them for Zoom meetings that happen just once a week for synchronous discussion and activities.

Hybrid courses, particularly ones with a lot of asynchronous activities, are best-suited to independent learners with good study skills. They can also be a good-fit for courses that are project-based or leverage learning communities for example.

HyFlex

Hybrid-flexible or high-flexibility courses are hybrid courses designed to maximize flexibility in how students can access the course. A typical HyFlex course might meet synchronously in-person, but give students the option of joining the session remotely. The session would also be recorded so those who could not attend can still access it. Additional asynchronous learning resources are made available that are equivalent to the activities that have happened during the class session. Students can choose how to participate in a way that works best for them.

HyFlex courses are most suitable for highly independent and self-directed learners. HyFlex courses typically are meant to serve learners that are juggling multiple priorities, have difficulty accessing campus, and have limited time. Like Hybrid, they can also be suitable in cases where learning is largely driven by the students such as project- or community-based, independent study, practicum, or creative project courses.