What Are the Different Types of Online Learning?

Find out about the learning options and education delivery systems available for students seeking fully online degrees and blended learning programs.

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Updated March 25, 2022

Edited by Amelia Buckley
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What Are the Different Types of Online Learning?


Types of Online Learning Programs

As online learning programs have expanded over the last decade, so have the variety of delivery formats and options. They are designed to meet students' needs with a variety of schedule, lesson structure, and location options. Learners can now find many different options at top online schools.

Keep reading to learn about some of the best online education types for accredited degrees at every level.

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Synchronous vs. Asynchronous

Most students considering their online learning options know about synchronous and asynchronous course formats, as many schools routinely use both.

Synchronous programs require students to participate in live virtual classes where students and professors meet in real time for lectures. These programs often appeal to students who want a "real" college experience but need to study online due to personal or professional factors.

Some schools offer blended synchronous coursework that allows both online and campus-based students to learn together during live sessions.

Asynchronous programs, conversely, feature pre-recorded lectures that allow students to complete classroom requirements at times that work best with their schedules. Students with busy schedules who cannot fit random class times into their existing responsibilities often favor asynchronous programs due to their added flexibility.

In general, asynchronous and synchronous programs cost the same.

Synchronous Pros: Provides a great learning method for degrees focused on speaking, such as foreign languages, communication, or counseling.

Synchronous Cons: Requires students to log in on specific days at set times. This can make it more difficult to fit in school around existing personal and professional responsibilities.

Asynchronous Pros: Provides a lot of flexibility while still encouraging regular engagement with fellow students and professors.

Asynchronous Cons: Can sometimes feel less personal since students rarely interact with peers and teachers in real time.

Open Schedule

At first, open schedule classes may seem similar to asynchronous learning options. However, key differences exist.

While students following open scheduling do not need to log in at specific times and can instead watch pre-recorded lectures, they also do not have deadlines throughout the semester. Instead, students must simply complete all assignments by the end of the semester.

Open scheduling can be used at every academic level, though nontraditional students — as opposed to recent high school graduates — typically do better with this less structured learning method. Open schedule classes may sometimes cost less than others since students can decide how quickly they complete the coursework.

Open Schedule Pros: Maximum flexibility for students who may not otherwise be able to fit college coursework into their schedules.

Open Schedule Cons: Open scheduled coursework can sometimes feel lonely since students are not required to check in with their peers or professors during the semester.

Blended

Blended courses, also known as hybrid programs, allow students to complete their education both online and in person.

Many students who decide to enroll in a subject that requires laboratory sessions or hands-on learning components complete a blended degree since some of these topics do not translate to online learning.

Blended programs work best for students who enjoy the best of campus-based and online learning formats. They can also suit those studying STEM topics with more scientific classes. Blended coursework works for students at every academic level.

Blended Pros: Allows students to experience both online and in-person learning without depending on either fully.

Blended Cons: Students who want to complete their degrees fully online may find this impossible based on their subject area. This makes blended learning a necessity rather than a desired choice.

Massive Open Online Courses

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) provide individualized classes that are accessible and free to anyone who wants to attend.

These computer-managed learning experiences typically include pre-recorded lectures, discussion forums, readings, and computer-graded assessments that can sometimes lead to a certificate for a small fee.

Many companies offer MOOCs in trademarked topics, such as Google and Microsoft. Universities also offer MOOCs, including Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford, among others. Many students use MOOCs as a form of continuing education and take them from online course platforms such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX.

MOOC Pros: MOOCs are free, making them accessible to anyone looking to learn a new skill or develop more knowledge around another subject. They can also be accessed at any time.

MOOC Cons: MOOCs can often feel impersonal since computer systems administer them rather than actual professors and teaching assistants.


Styles of Online Learning

Online and blended education programs typically follow different teaching styles based on factors such as degree level, class size, and desired learning outcomes. This section looks at several popular styles of online learning.

Rotation Model

The rotation model allows professors to move students through several different types of learning activities within their class. Rather than depending entirely on a single learning modality, the rotation model allows both students and teachers to engage in different settings and learning styles throughout the semester.

The rotational model is used in K-12 and higher education settings alike. It can include different types of learning activities.

Example of a Rotation Model

Within a station rotation, a single group of students rotate through several different stations within one class period.

For instance, students might begin the class with one-to-one or small group time with their professor before rotating into a laboratory station. From there, they may spend the remainder of the class participating in independent study.

Flipped Classroom Model

When thinking about the traditional classroom model, professors use class time to provide lectures and review materials. They then assign homework that learners complete before the next class session.

The flipped classroom model swaps these methods, providing pre-recorded lectures that students can watch on their own time. Classroom time is reserved to provide specialized attention and oversee what may traditionally be seen as homework.

Example of a Flipped Classroom Model

In a flipped classroom model, students come to class having already reviewed the professor's lecture. They bring questions, get clarification on points they did not understand, and work directly with the professor to make sure they get the most out of the class. They can also work on assignments with the instructor nearby in case anything seems unclear.

Flex Model

The flex model closely resembles blended or hybrid learning, but it emphasizes completing basic coursework online and more advanced classes face to face with peers and professors. This allows students to benefit from live learning sessions. And it gives them opportunities to ask questions in person for topics that are considered more challenging.

Example of a Flex Model

Students who choose the flex model may take three classes in person and two online, providing both flexibility and structure. They learn at their own pace when studying online and can review pre-recorded lectures. Their in-person classes provide direct interaction with faculty members and fellow students.

A La Carte Model

The a la carte model supports students who take most of their classes in person but want to supplement their studies with a couple online classes.

This model works well for students who feel comfortable covering their core, required topics in person, while taking electives and general education courses online. It often works best for students with at least one year of studies under their belts.

Example of an A La Carte Model

A student enrolled in a mechanical engineering degree program may find in-person learning beneficial when it comes to advanced engineering topics that require more explanation and detailed learning. That said, they feel confident taking a class like Western civilization, which does not directly relate to their major, online in a more flexible setting.

Enriched Virtual Model

The enriched virtual model can be a great fit for students who want to learn online primarily but still want occasional face-to-face sessions with their professors.

This learning style often supports majors when most coursework can be done virtually, but students occasionally need to visit campus for particular skills and/or knowledge mastery. It also supports those who at least want to meet their peers and professors but cannot visit campus regularly.

Example of an Enriched Virtual Model

Many advanced degrees use the enriched virtual model, allowing students to complete most of their coursework online but incorporating campus-based intensive learning sessions lasting anywhere from 2-7 days. These experiences allow students to interact with coursework and each other in meaningful ways without distracting from personal and professional responsibilities.

Which Online Learning Format Is Right for Me?

Best Format for… Learning Format Key Features
Hands-on learners Blended
  • Allows for online and in-person learning
  • Provides hands-on learning opportunities
  • Works with varied schedules
Schedule flexibility Asynchronous
  • Allows students to study from any place at any time
  • Often taught by same professors leading campus-based classes
Affordability MOOCs
  • Offered free through learning platforms
  • Colleges now offer MOOCs of some coursework
  • Asynchronous learning
The self-starter Enriched Virtual
  • Allows for primarily online learning
  • Offers access to short-term campus visits
Those seeking the "college experience" Flex
  • Allows students to experience both online and in-person learning
  • Can still regularly interact with peers on campus

Frequently Asked Questions About Types of Online Education

Do I have time for an online program?

Online programs typically provide more flexibility for students with existing personal and professional responsibilities. However, learners should not underestimate the amount of time they will need to spend on class requirements.

Most schools suggest that students dedicate between 10-15 hours per three-credit class each week watching lectures, participating in discussions, and completing assignments.

That said, not having to attend in-person classes at specific times can make it easier for degree-seekers to fit in requirements around existing schedules. Learners cannot attend campus-based classes on the weekend, but they can watch pre-recorded lectures.

What is the difference between synchronous and asynchronous programs?

Both asynchronous and synchronous courses are common within online learning, and some degrees use both methods for coursework. Asynchronous programs allow learners to watch pre-recorded lectures at times that work with their scheduling needs.

Synchronous courses take place in real time and require online students to log in at specific times to participate in live lectures and discussions. These types of classes can help build more camaraderie with students and professors, but they may be difficult for busy learners to schedule around.

What type of online program is most affordable?

Learners looking for online programs for continuing education rather than a full degree program often choose MOOCs since they are available for free. Students sometimes pay a small fee to receive a certificate in their chosen subject area.

Students interested in completing a full degree program typically find that public colleges and universities in their state of residence offer the cheapest tuition. That said, some online schools allow learners to pay in-state tuition regardless of where they live.

I want a fully online education program. What are my options?

Countless colleges and universities now provide fully online programs at every degree level, making it easy for students to find a variety of options to meet their needs. That said, some programs still require some in-person components. For instance, learners looking to earn a bachelor's degree in nursing must visit campus to fulfill laboratory requirements.

Interested students should identify their chosen area of study before carefully researching online education options. A fully online or blended program usually can be found at various price points.

Are scholarships available for online education programs?

Since online education programs have become more common, many scholarships no longer differentiate between in-person and virtual learning.

In addition to awards directly from a university/academic department, online students can also find scholarships provided by local and state government agencies, professional associations, nonprofits, philanthropic foundations, and employers.

Because online scholarships tend to be competitive, prospective students should start their search early and prepare to apply for several different awards. They should also fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see what types of grants and other financial aid may be available as well.

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BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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