Alphabet soup: Online learning terms explained

Many of these concepts are interrelated – and they all involve learning – but what do they mean individually?

Students registering at third-level for the first time in September will most likely be signing up for some form of blended learning programme and are likely to come across some of the following terms.

Emergency remote teaching

Emergency remote teaching is what many were forced into last year as the pandemic forced the abrupt shutdown of colleges and further learning institutions. Not to be confused with distance learning or online learning, it is a measure that is adopted in response to a crisis where the curriculum has to be rapidly moved to a virtual online setting.

Distance learning


Distance learning is when students don’t attend classroom lessons in person. Instead, they receive instruction, and learn and study from home. Thanks to the development of internet technology, distance learning has advanced quite a bit since it first emerged. Methods originally associated with distance learning such as correspondence courses and educational television have been largely replaced by online learning platforms.

Blended or hybrid learning

This is where the traditional form of face-to-face learning converges with the newer methods of remote and online instruction. Blended learning uses technology to improve the learning process and is the model most likely to be adopted by third-level institutions. It is a flexible method of learning as it is customisable and the balance between in-class teaching and the use of technology varies from programme to programme. Supporters of the approach 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. Ideally, these course components complement each other to strengthen the overall outcome.

Synchronous learning

Synchronous learning is a term used to describe a method where students engage in learning at the same time but not in the same place. Synchronous learning usually involves the use of online tools such as chat and videoconferencing where students and teachers can interact in real-time during class.

Learning management system

Sometimes referred to as virtual learning environment or virtual learning platforms, learning management systems are web-based software platforms which facilitate the delivery of course content. Platforms provide teaching tools and supports but also allow 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 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. Systems such as Brightspace, Canvas, Moodle and Blackboard have built-in tools that allow instructors to deliver lectures by video or audio, facilitate discussions and track student performance.

Flipped classes

A feature of some blended learning approaches where lectures are replaced by classes or tutorial-type settings. Students digest the course content in advance – perhaps by viewing a lecture video or completing an assignment at home – before they then engage in analysis and discussion in the live class setting. This gives the teacher much more flexibility as he or she can engage directly with students during the class, instead of focusing on delivering a talk or a lecture. It has the added benefit of helping student engagement as the students are required to prepare material ahead of the class and then participate in discussion or analysis.

Virtual classroom

Your on-screen class. A virtual classroom is an online learning environment where students interact in real time with the instructor and with each other. The virtual classroom is usually delivered via videoconferencing tools and are often a core feature of learning management systems. Students can also usually interact with each other and ask or answer questions by using a chat window.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

UDL is an educational framework designed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) to improve the learning experience for all students, especially those with disabilities. The approach acknowledges that one size does not necessarily fit all and it offers flexible methods of teaching, assessment and engagement that to give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. The principles are based on the belief that all students learn differently and UDL provides practical strategies and techniques to educators to ensure that all learners can meet high expectations.


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.

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Iriseoir agus Eagarthóir Gaeilge An Irish Times. Éanna Ó Caollaí is The Irish Times' Irish Language Editor, editor of The Irish Times Student Hub, and Education Supplements editor.