Spectrum of Online Learning Models

Learning objectives.  By the end of this lesson, you will:

  • Introduce yourself to the different models of online teaching and learning including MOOCs, Blended Learning, Flipped Learning, and Synchromodal Learning
  • Critically reflect on the future of traditional teaching and learning in light of these new models
  • Consider what criteria to measure to evaluate the success of a new teaching and learning model


The New Media Consortium (NMC), a powerhouse in the area of emerging and innovative technologies, brings together researchers, scholars, and practitioners in educational technology.

Every year, the NMC and EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) team up to work on the  Horizon Project: A series of reports – Horizon Reports – that identify the current and projected trends in educational technology in K-12, Higher Education, and Museums.  Here are some of their more current findings:  

MOOCs, blended learning, flipped classroom, are all different models on a spectrum of online course design.  The spectrum looks a little like this:

3 Type of Instruction

Adapted from A Primer on Virtual Charter Schools: Mapping the Electronic Frontier (Vanourek, 2006)


In this lesson, we are going to explore the different models of online course design and their implications for teaching and learning.  Since we focused on (fully) online learning in Chapter 1, we are going to tackle MOOCs and blended/hybrid learning (including flipped classroom) next. 


The Open University, like many others that have followed its lead, offers thousands of amazing and free online educational resources.  These types of free and easily available resources are referred to as Open Educational Resources (OER) and other institutions and organizations are providing them to educators all over the world.  Who are these “others”?  Well, you might have heard of CourseraedXMIT OpenCourseWare, or other high profile universities like Stanford and Harvard that make their courses available freely online.  Do take a couple of minutes to check out a few of these sites.  

These sites also offer what are often referred to as MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses.  Check out the Wikipedia entry for a quick introduction.  There is a lot of buzz around MOOCs at the university level of education because open and free resources intersect with closed and tuition-based resources in interesting ways (i.e., professors incorporating some elements of freely available MOOCs into courses; MOOCs providers offering content for free but charging for certifications or to distribute resumes to interested employers).  As you develop your course, you may think about MOOCs both in terms of what you can find out there that’s freely available to you and also of the general philosophies supporting MOOCs’ use: That the learner is the central player in designing his/her own educational experience.  Also ask yourself when reviewing some of these sites:

  • What CMS platform are they using to make their courses available to their thousands and thousands of students globally?
  • Do you see possibilities in these examples that could work in your professional situation?
  • What is the role of the teacher in a MOOC?  
  • What is the role of the student in a MOOC?

Clearly, MOOCs and OERs are advantageous and offer many benefits to students and teachers alike.  What are the implications of MOOCs on teaching and learning?  Dennis (2013) wrote an article on the impact of MOOCs on higher education.  She examined their effect on book publishers, branch campuses, CIOs, IT managers (to name a few).  Please read her article and consider how MOOCs would affect you (as a student, teacher, parent, etc…).  

In addition, we want you to consider how these technology-rich and technology-enhanced learning environments can affect current educational practices.  Lucas (2013) considers the following question: “Can the current model of higher education survive MOOCs and Online Learning?” (this is also the title of his piece).  As you read, we want you to consider that same question.

Blended Learning

Blended learning or hybrid learning is a model that brings the best of both models – face-to-face and fully online learning – into the classroom learning environment.  In 2010, the Michigan Virtual University created the following summative representation of the dimensions of blended learning:

 3 The Defining Dimensions of Blended Learning Models

As you can see, blended learning is a spectrum on its own and can occur in a variety of ways.  Regardless of its implementation, the fact remains that over the years, blended learning has transformed how students and teachers alike access, share, and present information, construct knowledge, and assess learning.  Ask yourself, 

  • What is the role of the teacher in a blended learning environment?
  • What is the role of the student in a blended learning environment? 

Christensen, Horn, and Staker (2013) entertain the idea of blended learning as a type of disruptive innovation.  Now, let’s leave the task of explaining this term to the experts, specifically, to the scholar that coined the term.  According to Clayton Christensen,

Disruptive innovations, in constrast [to sustaining innovations], do not try to bring better products to existing customers in established markets. Instead, they offer a new definition of what’s good—typically they are simpler, more convenient, and less expensive products that appeal to new or less demanding customers. Over time, they improve enough to intersect with the needs of more demanding customers, thereby tranforming a sector. (Christensen et al., 2013, p.2) 

In their white paper, Christensen et al. (2013) present blended learning as a once-disruptive-now-sustaining innovation (a sustaining distruptive innovation or hybrid innovation) that has radically transformed how educators and researchers conceptualize both face-to-face and online learning.  It seems, that blended learning is on a “sustaining trajectory” (to borrow their expression).  What does this mean for the traditional, face-to-face classroom?  We want you to read their Executive Summary; and if you’re up for it, do take a look at their full paper. 

Christensen et al. (2013) write about the Flipped Classroom as one model that is contributing to the sustainabililty and longevity of blended learning in the classroom.  Let’s explore that next.

Flipped Classroom

Most of you will be familiar with the Flipped Classroom model of teaching and learning.  Very briefly, the Flipped Classroom or Flipped Learning refers to actually flipped when and where the learning primarily occurs.  In a traditional classroom, the teachers typically uses in-class, face-to-face time to lecture or teach.  Students then work on homework assignments at home.  In a Flipped Classroom, however, students watch the teacher’s lecture at home (through pre-recorded videos) and then come to class to practice engaging with the content.  As you can see, Flipped Learning and Blended Learning complement one another quite well!    

Here’s a quick read by Sams and Bergmann (2013) that will introduce you to the Flipped Classroom model.  As you read, we want you to keep in mind the online course module and lessons that you are developing and consider whether or not the specific content you are covering lends itself to being flipped.

Here’s another short article by Herreid and Schiller (2013) on Flipped Learning.  They take a more research-based approach and reference several case studies when describing this model.  While reading, we want you to focus on the various criteria that the different studies cited use to evaluate the success of their Flipped Classroom model.  Some of these measures include: student satisfaction, course evaluations, student performance, and so on. Now, we want you to put your researcher hats on…

  • What do you think of these “measures of success”?  
  • What measures would you use to investigate whether or not a flipped lesson was successful or not?       


Synchromodal Learning Environments

Now, what we’re going to cover comes to you from the College of Education’s very own CEPSE/COE Design Studio!  Since 2012 or so, the Design Studio has been working with faculty members a the College of Education to design learning environments that allow for online and face-to-face students to synchronously interact with one another during classtime.  These interactions are mediated by different technologies.  These learning environments are referred to as Synchromodal Learning Environments.  In other words, in a synchromodal learning environment, online students and face-to-face students attend class at the same time.  Face-to-face students are on campus, in a physical classroom; while online students are home and attend class remotely.  

The major difference (there are many) between face-to-face, online, blended, and synchromodal learning environments are the types of interactions between the students: In a face-to-face classroom the interactions are face-to-face and synchronous interactions, in an online environment, the interactions are online and (for the most part) asynchronous (and synchronous at times – more on that in Chapter 4).  In synchromodal learning environments, the interactions are face-to-face and online and mediated by technologies.

Bell, Sawaya, and Cain (2014) wrote about the different models/ways of implementing synchromodal learning environments.  Read more about synchromodal learning environments here!  


Required Readings

Bell, J., Sawaya, S., & Cain, W. (2014). Synchromodal classes: Designing for shared learning experiences between face-to-face and online students. International Journal of Designs for Learning, 5(1), 68-82. [LINK]

Christensen, C.M., Horn, M.B., & Staker, H. (2013). K-12 blended learning disruptive? An introduction to the theory of hybrids [White paper]. Retrieved from http://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Is-K-12-blended-learning-disruptive.pdf

Dennis, M. (2013). The impact of MOOCs on higher education. College and University, 88(2), 24-50. [PDF]

Herreid, C.F., & Schiller, N.A. (2013). Case studies and the flipped classroom. Journal of College Science Teaching, 42(5), 62-66. [PDF

Lucas, H.C. (2013). Can the current model of higher education survice MOOCs and online learning? EDUCAUSE Review, 48(5), 54-66. [PDF]

Sams, A., & Bergmann, J. (2013). Flip your students’ learning. Educational Leadership,70(6), 16-20. [PDF]

Additional Resources


Easy as 1,2,3,: A Primer on Using Open Education Resources to Create Lessons, Activities, and Courses: Check out this recorded Teacher Talk Webinar from the iNACOL website focused on the use of OER for content development. 

Open Educational Resources and Collaborative Content Development – A Practical Guide for State and School Leaders: This iNACOL report presents the benefits of OER as well policy-related information and strategies for using OER in classrooms.