What's it all about? Online learning terms explained

Do you know what terms such as 'asynchronous learning' or 'blended learning' mean?

The arrival of coronavirus to these shores prompted a swift pivot away from the traditional face-to-face style of teaching most students were familiar with since the first day they attended primary school.

Students nearing the end of their time in college had their finals to look forward to while others had essays, assignments and end-of-year exams to contend with. That all changed with the lockdown.

"The move to emergency remote teaching, learning and assessment was a huge challenge, but one which all academic staff engaged in overnight. The response by both the staff and students, to such a dramatic transition to remote online space, was phenomenal," says Dr Mary Fitzpatrick, head of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at University of Limerick (UL).

As colleges began moving their programmes online for the final semester, educational priorities quickly changed. Gone, all of a sudden, were the classes, lectures, tutorials, trips to the library and group-work meetings.


In came video conferencing, online quizzes, virtual learning platforms, specialised simulations, asynchronous and synchronous teaching.

The shift to online does have its benefits.

"Some of the benefits of course delivery online include flexibility: students can work at their own pace, supporting independent and self-directed learning, and allowing them to fit learning around the rest of their lives; and unlimited access to practice and revision resources," says Dr Alison Hood, dean of teaching and learning at Maynooth University.

Many will be unfamiliar with some of the terms associated with distance learning, blended learning and remote learning but this is likely to change in the coming months and years as these learning strategies grow in popularity. Many of these concepts are interrelated – and they all involve learning – but what do they mean individually and how do they relate to each other?

Distance learning

A 1960s Australian children’s television series might not be the first thing that springs to mind when we consider the merits of distance learning. Yet for many, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo is where they first came across the practice.

The series told the story of a young boy called Sonny and his adventures with his pet kangaroo friend Skippy. Sonny lived in a remote national park and had to use a two-way radio to connect with his teachers in order to receive his education. Thanks to the development of internet technology, distance learning has advanced quite a bit since then. The tools and methods traditionally associated with it such as correspondence courses, educational television and, in the case of Sonny, two-way radios, have now largely been replaced by online learning platforms. In many cases, the interactive online learning environment used to deliver distance learning courses is now the very same platform used by students who attend the face-to-face courses traditionally associated with third-level education.

Colleges and universities have improved their ability to deliver distance learning programmes while at the same time offering comprehensive support for students. In short, distance learning is when students don’t attend classroom lessons in person. Instead, they receive instruction, and learn and study from home.

Classes are usually conducted over the internet and students can submit assignments remotely. As distance learning offers students the flexibility and convenience of not having to be physically present in the learning institution, the advantages are numerous. Students can access class resources from a single location, they can save substantially on transport and fees as courses offered through distance learning are usually significantly cheaper than traditional classroom-based pedagogy.

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 as ongoing social distancing requirements limit the possibility of traditional in-person lectures taking place in the medium term.

Blended learning is customisable and, as a result, 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. Ideally, these course components complement each other to strengthen the overall outcome.

Blended learning also offers students the benefits of in-class engagement with instructors with the flexibility of online learning. The degree to which the course is blended depends on the course programme and the institution in question. Most Irish colleges and universities offer a suite of blended learning courses across undergraduate, graduate and professional level categories. This is likely to continue even when social distancing measures are in place.

Short for electronic learning, eLearning is a term that essentially means learning with the aid of digital tools. It has its roots in distance learning. The internet has contributed greatly to a marked growth in the use of technology for the delivery of education over the past decade and has helped the development of new models of teaching, improved instruction methods and the possibility of better student outcomes.

Technology is at the centre of eLearning and without it the programme could not be delivered. Students use computer and internet technology to access the curriculum from outside the traditional classroom.

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.

It is also efficient. Students no longer have to worry about attending a lecture or class at a set time, they can review lecture videos as often as they like, there is no commute time and it can help develop time-management skills. Unsurprisingly, it is often the preferred option for students who are working or who have other constraints on their time.

This form of learning is also 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 would widen access and lower the costs associated with traditional modes of learning.

Critics sometimes cite poor student engagement as one of the greatest drawbacks of eLearning. In traditional classroom settings, students can raise their hand and engage in face-to-face interaction with their instructor but it is not as easy to raise the hand digitally in an eLearning environment.

The very nature of the approach means students will invariably spend a lot of time on their own in front of the computer screen and the lack of social interaction can lead to a sense of isolation.

Tools do exist to facilitate better communication however and the development of video software now means students can interact directly with instructors through video-link. Depending on the type of course undertaken, practical assessments can be difficult to cater for well.

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.

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 sudden change in delivery model can mean a change to how course material is absorbed by students and it can also mean a change to the assessment model which can be disruptive for those students who had prepared for another format entirely over a lengthy period of time.

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. There is also the danger that in the absence of a coherent emergency plan that teaching objectives can shift from the achievement of pre-defined learning goals to enacting a crisis management approach instead.

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.

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. Class activities typically take place through the use of dedicated virtual learning environments (also known as learning management systems) such as Brightspace, Moodle or Canvas.

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.

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 even track student performance.

Virtual classroom

A virtual classroom is an online learning environment where students interact in real time with the instructor and with each other. Usually delivered via videoconferencing tools, virtual classrooms are also a feature of 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.


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.

Collaborative tools

This is usually a reference to materials such as PDFs, slideshow, spreadsheets, presentations, images or text documents. These tools are usually found as a feature within the learning management systems.

Flipped classes

A feature of some blended learning approaches where lectures are replaced by classes or tutorial-type settings. Students consume content – perhaps by viewing 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 time and affords the instructor greater flexibility in being able to engage directly with students during class, and it can help increase student engagement as they are required to prepare material ahead of the class.

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.