Guide to online learning terminology

Familiarise yourself with the component parts of blended learning strategies

The impact of Covid-19 on our schools and colleges has resulted in many students having to familiarise themselves with new learning strategies and a new vocabulary of terms associated with distance learning, blended learning and remote learning. Many of these terms and strategies are interrelated but what do they mean individually?

The following is a guide to some of the terms you might come across::

Asynchronous learning

Asynchronous learning is a term used to describe a method where students engage in learning at different times and locations. Asynchronous learning often utilises elements such as email, pre-recorded video and other tools such as online discussion forums that facilitate the sharing of information.

Benefit: It allows students to learn on their own time/schedule.


Blended or hybrid learning

This is where the traditional form of face-to-face learning is delivered alongside the newer methods of remote and online instruction. Blended learning uses technology to improve the learning process. It is customisable and a wide range of approaches to the method means the balance between in-class teaching and the use of technology varies from programme to programme. Advocates say it offers the best of both worlds. The curriculum is usually delivered through a combination of classroom-based lectures, online lectures and the use of other online resources.

Benefit: Blended learning offers students direct in-class engagement with instructors with the flexibility of online learning.

Collaborative tools

This refers to materials such as PDFs, slideshows, spreadsheets, presentations, images, feedback forms or text documents. These tools are usually found as a feature within learning management systems.

Benefit: Educational tools help to empower students and increase engagement with teachers or course instructors.

Distance learning

The student does not have to be physically present in the lesson. Postal correspondence courses and educational television traditionally associated with the model have been largely replaced with more advanced digital learning platforms, sometimes referred to as virtual learning environments. In many cases, the interactive online learning environment is now the same platform used by students who attend face-to-face courses. Classes are usually conducted over the internet and students can submit assignments remotely.

Benefit: Tansport costs and fees are usually significantly lower than those accrued using the traditional classroom-based approach.


Short for electronic learning, eLearning is a catch-all term that essentially means learning with the aid of digital tools. Students use computer and internet technology to access the curriculum. Unsurprisingly, it is often the preferred option for students who are working or who have other constraints on their time.

Benefit: It is widely seen as a flexible and efficient way of delivering the curriculum as most people with a stable internet connection can access these tools and participate in some form of online learning.

Emergency remote teaching

Not to be confused with distance learning or online learning, emergency remote teaching is a measure that is adopted in response to a crisis where the curriculum has to be rapidly moved to a virtual online setting as happened during the pandemic.

The unintended consequences of emergency remote teaching can include a failure to meet the expectations that students had at the outset of the course. Simply broadcasting a lecture with the aid of a video conferencing tool or uploading a presentation to a virtual learning environment is not the same as presenting course content that has been planned, developed and designed for delivery via a framework that best enables learning to take place.

The needs of all students might not be met by sudden change, and unexpected barriers such as the digital divide and other inequities can arise.

Benefit: Can be quickly deployed. While the process of moving from an established teaching method to an unfamiliar new platform can be difficult, emergency remote teaching can be a useful learning experience as instructors quickly learn to apply what works and discard what doesn’t.

Flipped classes

A feature of some blended learning approaches where lectures are replaced by classes or tutorial-type settings. Students view content - perhaps by watching a lecture video or completing an assignment - at home before engaging in analysis and discussion in the live class setting. The practice results in more face-to-face interaction and being able to engage directly with students during class it affords the instructor greater flexibility and can help increase student engagement as they are required to prepare material ahead of the class.

Benefit: Teachers can create more engaging classes/lessons


This form of learning is used in a wider context. In recent years we have seen a sharp growth in demand for online digital courses. Courses called Moocs (Massive Open Online Courses) first appeared in the late 2000s and were seen as a disruptor which could widen access and lower the costs associated with traditional modes of learning.

Benefit: Ease of access. Anyone can enrol for a Mooc and they are flexible, you can learn from anywhere. The courses are generally short-term and can often be used as a ‘taster’ for a full degree programme.

Synchronous learning

Synchronous learning is a term that describes a method where students engage in learning at the same time but not in the same place. It involves the use of online tools such as chat and videoconferencing where students and teachers can interact in real-time during class. Activities typically take place through the use of dedicated virtual learning environments such as Brightspace, Moodle or Canvas.

Benefit: Students can participate in class in real-time by asking questions or interacting with fellow-students and the instructor.

Virtual learning platform

Sometimes referred to as a virtual learning environment or as a learning management system, these are web-based software platforms which facilitate the delivery of course content. Teaching tools and supports can be provided and the software allows course instructors to track student performance over time. Multiple formats such as video, audio and text are catered for and students can be assessed through various tools such as online quizzes and questionnaires.They are in widespread use at third-level and can be used to deliver asynchronous or synchronous-based courses.

Benefit: Providing they have access to a computer and stable internet connection students can participate in a class no matter where they are located. Instructors can use these platforms to interact with students and conduct tutorials, assessments and exams.

Virtual classroom

A virtual classroom is an online learning environment where students interact in real time with the instructor and with each other. They are often delivered via videoconferencing tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams but can also be a feature of dedicated learning management systems. Students can also usually interact and ask or answer questions by using a chat window. Presentation tools such as PowerPoint or whiteboard tools can usually be utilised by the teacher during class. It is also possible during a class or lecture to operate break-out rooms where students can work together or where the instructor can interact directly with an individual student.

Benefit: Students can watch classroom presentations and join student discussions in a live setting.


A webinar is a class in which participants view the same screen at the same time. Very useful in a classroom setting, the instructor controls proceedings and participants can communicate through the use of interactive features such as chatrooms, polls and quizzes.

Benefit: Allows for increased engagement between instructor and class. Material can be prepared in advance of being shared and worked upon in a live setting.