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How Online Courses Are Structured

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As you evaluate online programs, you may be focused purely on content: what courses are offered and what those courses cover. Yet, there is another factor that affects the nature of an online program: structure. The way courses are structured will dictate your learning experience, your study schedule, and your degree of interaction with others.

Hybrid/Blended

Not all online courses are conducted exclusively online. Hybrid courses, also called blended courses, are part traditional and part virtual, or in other terms you will see used, they involve both seat-time and screen-time. Students attend classes in a physical classroom in a brick-and-mortar school. Online elements, then, are utilized to supplement or maximize that time spent in the classroom. Or, classes are conducted primarily online while certain requirements are fulfilled via seat-time, practicums, labs, off-site field work, etc. Hybrid courses may only be available to local students but some online programs provide distance learners the option to fulfill in-person requirements at facilities close to home, as long as they meet program standards.

Also note: the term, blended course, can also refer to an online course that is conducted purely online but uses a blend of technologies.

Online Structures

You may have already come across the terms "asynchronous" and "synchronous". These terms differentiate courses according to time. In asynchronous courses, the teaching occurs at one time and the learning occurs at another. Instructors prepare and create lessons at one time. These lessons are delivered or posted to students via software packages, email messages, online servers, web pages, and the like. Lessons vary: text and reading lists, audio or video lectures, podcasts, or other multimedia presentations. Students access and navigate these lessons at a separate time. In synchronous courses, teaching and learning occur at the same time. Traditional classroom settings are synchronous in nature. Online synchronous courses are conducted virtually but instructors and students share a mutual schedule and classes are held in real-time. Instructors teach via audio or video conference, web lecture, and students log in to attend these scheduled classes, participating via conference, live chats, and the like. These courses are becoming increasingly popular as online education expands its reach.

Courses are further customized in structure according to the degree of facilitation, another term you may have already encountered. Facilitation is how the instructor functions in relation to students. Some courses are utterly free of facilitation and strictly asynchronous; students are left to their own devices and discretion as to how to work through course material. Instructors do no more than provide the course work, sometimes packaged in full and delivered at once. There may be no deadline--exams may be administered on a regular schedule or at student behest. These are most commonly called self-paced or self-directed courses.

While there is great appeal to the flexibility inherent to self-directed courses, instructor accessibility may be crucial for some students. Facilitated courses are also called instructor-led or instructor-directed courses. Instructor involvement can be minimal, no more than applying a schedule of deadlines for assignments, projects, papers, and exams. Instructor schedules may apply to individual students, or it may apply to all students enrolled in a course, but between fixed times students can manage coursework as they wish. Or instructors may be consistently involved throughout the course, emailing and posting assignments, interacting with students, monitoring progress, providing feedback, and facilitating interaction between students via message boards or listservs. Synchronous and hybrid courses are facilitated, structured around virtual or physical class times and built on real-time instructor-student interaction.

Not all programs are built alike. Depending on the material, and the instructor, courses can take different forms. You may find that program and course descriptions provide little sense of how courses are structured. Make no assumptions when it comes to your education. Make calls, send emails, inquire within, and determine what kind of courses will best serve you as a student.

Sources:
  • E-Learning Guru "What Are "Synchronous" and "Asynchronous" Training? Jan 2010 (http://www.e-learningguru.com/articles/art1_7.htm)
  • The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) "E-Learning Glossary" Jan 2010 (www.astd.org/LC/glossary.htm); Online Education for Dummies, Kevin Johnson & Susan Manning, EdD, Wiley Publishing, Inc, 2010
  • "Guide to Online Education" eLearners.com (http://www.elearners.com/guide-to-online-education/index.asp, http://www.elearners.com/resources/elearning-faq3.asp)
  • Distance Learning FAQ eLearners.com (http://www.elearners.com/resources/elearning-faq3.asp)

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