Learning Modalities

Learning experiences can differ greatly in how they are delivered and are typically broken in to the time and location where learners meet. This page contains detailed descriptions of time and location differences in learning modalities, and how they may be combined for the most flexibility.


Timing of Interactions: Synchronous and Asynchronous

Interactions between learners or between learners and instructors can differ based on the modality of delivery, and can either happen at the same time, or at different times.

Synchronous = At the same time. Examples of this would include a classroom setting, or a real-time video conference. All students and the instructor are gathered together in a physical space or online space, asking questions of each other working together in real-time, with no delay.

Asynchronous = At different times. A good example of this would be an online discussion forum. An online discussion forum usually doesn’t happen in real-time, meaning questions and responses are not typically responded to in fast succession, but instead it may be hours or days before a response is given. As learners are not required to be participating at exactly the same time, this allows for greater flexibility in participation and lends well to learners who are working, have home responsibilities or are in different geographic locations.

Location: Face-to-face, Blended and online

The location in which learners meet can also be a big difference in how learners interact.

Face-to-face courses, typically held in a classroom, and allow for real-time collaborative activities in a shared physical space.

Face-to-face courses using videoconferencing  are also held in a classroom using synchronous video or web conferencing technologies. Because there is no substitution or displacement of face to face interactions with online activities, these are not considered blended / hybrid, but do allow for meetings between remote sites as in the case of a multicampus institution.

Blended (or Hybrid) generally refers to a course in which face-to-face class time is substituted by online learning activities. For example, a class may meet on campus 2 days a week, and have the equivalent of 3 days of work online for the rest of the week. This substitution of location can vary greatly as well – there are some blended courses which meet for one intensive week a quarter, then engage online for the rest of the quarter, while others may meet four days a week, and have minimal online activities.

When blended learning experiences first started, much of the focus was simply on this time substitution, with not much emphasis on pedagogy. One innovation came in the form of the Flipped Classroom model, which ‘flipped’  content delivery in class such as a lecture to the online environment, allowing face-to-face class time to focus more on the application of knowledge and the practice of mastering skills. This simple definition has since evolved.

The key component of any good blended learning experience, flipped or otherwise is that online and face to face learning activities reinforce and build upon one another in a cyclical fashion,  usually consisting of an online pre-classroom activity, the classroom activity itself focusing on the application of new knowledge, followed by an online reflective post-classroom activity. This ensures that face to face time is leveraged for its affordances – the application of new knowledge and the presence of peers in real-time.

What is a flipped class? from Faculty Innovation Center on Vimeo.


The advantage of blended courses is that the necessary community building that facilitates group work and collaboration can happen in a face to face environment, which is much more conducive to allowing learners to get to know each other on a personal level.

Online courses are exactly that – courses which happen fully online in which learners never meet each other face to face. This allows for maximum flexibility in learning in different locations, but it also presents some challenges with regards to building a learning community. Due to a lack of face to face time, the learning platform is the only opportunity for learners to get to know each other and work together, so the facilitating and organic building of learning communities must be set up more intentionally.

Examples: Combining Location and Timing of Interactions

Tech / Web-Enhanced face-to-face course

In this example, a face to face course is augmented with online office hours, which are typically optional. This course is not considered blended as regular face-to-face time is not substituted with mandatory online activities

Blended Course (traditional)

This course shows ongoing asynchronous online activities, with regularly scheduled face-to-face class times throughout the quarter.

Traditional Online Course

This online courses shows something similar to the above Tech/Web-Enhanced course, with optional online meetings for office hours. More common is an online course with weekly synchronous meetings such as a webinar, which allows for real-time conversations and collaboration between learners and instructors.

Blended Course with Synchronous Meetings

This example of a blended course shows face-to-face orientation, and a synchronous online meeting (usually a webinar) for culminating presentations. The reset of the time is a traditional online learning experience.

Self-paced Learning

This model of distance education was one of the first to be implemented. Even before the advent of online technologies, learners could access readings through the mail or later on, VHS recordings of lectures, complete assignments and readings, and mail completed materials back to an instructor. As research in the Learning Sciences provided more insight into the affordances of social constructivism and collaborative learning, this modality has seen a decline, though it still very popular in the commercial MOOC space (such as Lynda.com), particularly for personal enrichment where the application of knowledge does not always require a group setting.


Ad-Hoc Solutions

All of these examples above speak to a quarter or semester-long implementation of a course, but what if you need to accommodate one or two students who may be off campus?

ETS has a number of options for including online students in face to face courses, or recording face to face sessions for learners who may be unable to attend.