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Defining Course Modalities

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In this article, will describe common modalities, or formats, for course design. Most you will likely be familiar with. However, you may not recognize the terms that distinguish one approach from another. This article will guide you in using these terms and choosing the pedagogical approach that works best for your course.

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

Factors that determine course structure

First, we will introduce common modalities broadly. Then we define specific terms in greater detail in the boxes below.


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 most learning activities happen in the classroom space. In reality, nearly all traditional courses have some online components as well.

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.


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.


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. This flexibility is often referred to as a Hyflex learning environment, discussed below.

Common Course Models

Courses may use these factors in different combinations to best suit the learning context. As a faculty member, you may also have varying degrees of autonomy to choose your course modality, based on the program or school you teach in. Take into consideration which approach best suits the content, your learning goals, and the needs of your students when determining the course model that works best for you. 


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.

See "What is blended teaching?" for detailed recommendations about teaching a blended course.

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 usually 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 and 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 objectives or content is very reliant on human contact or access to specific tools and environments, such as some kinesiology courses or lab courses.


Hybrid usually refers to a course that is partially traditional and partially fully online, as pedagogically appropriate. Hybrid courses can also be a good fit for courses that are project-based or leverage learning communities for example.

You may be wondering what the distinction is between blended and hybrid courses. At Stanford, hybrid courses must have at least 50% of contact hours in person. For example, if a class meets twice a week for the quarter (i.e., 20 class sessions not counting finals), then at least 11 of those class sessions need to be in person. In contrast, a blended course is simply one that has any online component.

Stanford's accreditation body, WASC, considers any course with a single session online as "distance learning," which has separate accreditation requirements. Remote learning during the pandemic was possible because of a waiver that expired at the end of the 2021 calendar year. If a course is designed to be hybrid, it may need to be altered in the future to comply with accreditation requirements. If you work in a professional school, these accreditation standards may not apply. For example, in the School of Medicine, the MD program is accredited by the LCME.

See "What is a Hybrid Course?" for detailed recommendations about teaching a hybrid course.


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 happened during the class session. Students can choose how to participate in a way that works best for them.

Traditional, blended, fully online, and hybrid courses are similar in that all of the students participate in the same modality together. However, in HyFlex courses, some students may be online and others present in person, or some may participate synchronously and others asynchronously. Therefore it is critical that equivalent learning experiences and opportunities are provided for all students regardless of the modality they choose.

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.

See "What is a Hybrid Course?" for detailed recommendations about teaching a HyFlex course.