Entering the Lexicon of Online Education

Entering the Lexicon of Online Education

More and more people are interested in earning their graduate degree through online programs. Thankfully, colleges and universities throughout the United States and abroad are responding to the demand with high-quality, affordable programs in numerous subjects.

Researching online programs, however, can sometimes be daunting as students discover that online academia has its own lexicon. This lexicon is rich with terminology, and the knowing of it can allow for a more successful discovery of what it means to earn one’s graduate degree online.

Following is an introduction to the vast lexicon of online education. Knowing these commonly-used terms can help you get started with your search for the perfect program:

Online Schools vs Online Programs:

First, it is important to know that there is a distinction between online schools and online programs. Online schools were created solely to offer undergraduate and graduate-level education online. Some online schools have actual buildings that house administrative offices, a few rooms for occasional class meetings, and perhaps a computer lab; other online schools simply have an online presence and require all interactions to happen online. Many online schools specialize in a particular field of study, but others offer programs across disciplines. Online programs, on the other hand, are typically offered by traditional “bricks and mortar” schools (schools that actually have buildings and campuses). Such online programs are typically offered through online divisions that specialize in particular disciplines or span disciplines, or through discipline-based departments.

Online vs Hybrid Programs:

Online programs are typically offered completely online, as part of a hybrid program (in which students take online and on-campus courses), or as part of a low-residency program (in which students take courses online the majority of the year and meet on campus once or twice/year for an intensive on-campus course or practicum).

Blended Learning:

Courses that offer both online and on-campus (face-to-face) courses are often called “blended learning” courses. Similarly, a single course that comprises both online and face-to-face interaction might be called a “blended learning course”.

Residency Requirement: Each online school and program will specify an amount of time students must spend on campus to meet the requirements of the program. Residency requirements vary by program type and discipline. Some online programs have no residency requirement for students.


Accreditation is a process through which colleges and universities gain recognition for the quality of their programs, institution, and education. Attending an accredited institution may allow for easier transfer of credits and degrees and helps insure your degree may be recognized by more entities such as other academic institutions, financial-aid grantors, and employers. Accredited schools have gone through a rigorous process of peer review to ensure their quality of education. When attending an online school or selecting an online program, it is imperative to confirm it has been accredited. Many online schools and programs are relatively new or unregulated. Check with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the US Department of Education.


In online courses, much of the learning happens asynchronously; that is, interaction between teachers and students doesn’t happen at the same time. Instead, teachers post work for students to complete, and students log in to complete their work at times convenient for them. While much of the work in online programs and courses is asynchronous, some is not, and most asynchronous work is still guided or constricted by deadlines.


Some learning in online courses happens synchronously. In such cases, students and teachers meet in real time to communicate and complete work and tasks. Such interactions occur through real-time interfaces such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and other platforms. Some teachers may also require students to meet synchronously with one another.

Discussion Boards:

Discussion boards are online forums that students use to discuss subjects and interact with their classmates and teachers. Discussion boards are a common requirement of online courses as they allow students to ask questions, share knowledge, and engage in discourse with others.

Learning Management Systems:

LMSs are platforms that students use to view course documents, interact with their teachers and classmates, and otherwise participate in online courses. Such platforms, such as Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard, might be used in traditional, online, or hybrid courses.


Some disciplines require students to take exams and tests under the supervision of a “proctor” or a person who oversees an exam or test. In such cases, students will be required to attend a proctored exam on campus or by webcam. Proctoring is designed to prevent cheating, especially in courses primarily taught asynchronously.

These are just some of the many terms in the emerging lexicon of online education. As you research programs, continue to build your vocabulary so that you can make the best decisions in terms of your online education.

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