Glossary of Online Education Terms

This list is presented to encourage the use of common terms to describe the universal components, ideas, and issues around Distance Education and Online Learning. These terms and their definitions and descriptions have been taken from many sources (references below) and are also a compilation of several years of work at the Northwest Educational Technology Consortium. Note that where there are several definitions for a term, we have listed them all in order of current importance and usage.

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Acceptable Use Policy (AUP)
This policy outlines the responsibilities, limits, and restrictions for students, staff, and others as they use technology and software applications owned and operated by a school or school district.

The process used in U.S. education to "ensure that schools, post-secondary institutions, and other education providers meet, and maintain, minimum standards of quality and integrity regarding academics, administration, and related services." (U.S. Network for Education Information, n.d.)

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and 508 Compliancy
The Americans with Disabilities Act gives "civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, State and local government services, and telecommunications." (U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, 2002) Section 508 requires that individuals with disabilities, who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal agency, have access to and use of information and data (including electronic and information technology) that is comparable to that provided to the public who are not individuals with disabilities, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the agency.

Asynchronous Cohort System
Allows students to enroll at any time and proceed at their own rate. This is also called, "continuous enrollment."

Asynchronous Communication
Communication in which the participants interact in the varied time-spaces (e.g., e-mail, threaded discussions, posted homework, message boards). This also refers to the way students come into and go through an online class or program; in the synchronous process, all students in a class enroll at the same time and adhere to the same calendar for the class. average daily attendance (ADA)
ADA is "(i) the aggregate number of days of attendance of all students during a school year; divided by (ii) the number of days school is in session during such school year." (U.S. Department of Education, 2002)

Average Daily Membership (ADM)
ADM is the total days of attendance and absence divided by the number of days taught. The ADM reflects the number of students the district must be prepared to serve. (Arkansas Department of Education, n.d.)

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Barter Share Model
Funding model in which participating schools, brick-and-mortar, online, etc, all develop class(es) that can be delivered over a distance, and in return can sign up a given number of students (say 30) from their school/district.

Brick-and-Mortar School
face-to-face school; onground school
These all refer to the traditional physical school, and are educational agencies that enroll students primarily in classroom-based courses.

Bulletin Boards
Bulletin boards are asynchronous, electronic means of displaying messages or personal work via the Internet.


Certified Instructor
A face-to-face or online instructor authorized by a state licensing agency to teach in the public schools. Licensed and/or certified teachers have met established state education and training requirements in specific curricular areas in order to qualify. Accredited online programs utilize the services of licensed teachers.

Competency-Based Content/Learning, Standards-Based Content/Learning, and Course Completion Standard vs. "Seat Time"
When K-12 online programs began several years ago, credit was often given for "logging on," for "posting," and for time spent online, that amounted to cyber seat time. Now, it is realized that every online experience must be based upon good instruction and completion of standards-based content lessons. Assessment is of competency and not based upon time spent.

Completion Rate
A student is said to have completed an online course if and when he/she has met the academic work and testing requirements set by the course instructor, with the understanding that the academic content work is based upon state, district, and school standards of achievement. Contact time, or time online, is not considered sufficient for "completion." Additional requirements set by the instructor for participation in discussions, posting answers to survey questions, and participation in class chat sessions may be part of the class, but alone are not sufficient to warrant an indication of "completion." Completion components will vary by program, and may not be consistent across states and districts.

Cost Share Model
Funding model in which participating brick-and-mortar schools pay a supplementary online program certain portions of cost fees and the cost of program delivery to their students.

Course Completion And Completion Rate
For the purpose of transcript recording and statistical enrollment reporting, this indicates a student who registered for an online course and who, over the required time period, successfully met school, district, state, and accreditation curriculum standards and requirements. Typically, this "completion" is demonstrated through examination, project completion, and/or other performance measures. "Contact hours" are not part of this calculation.

Course Management System (CMS)
The technology platform through which online courses are offered. A CMS includes software for the creation and editing of course content, communication tools, assessment tools, and other features designed to enhance access, communication, and ease of use. Also called an LMS, or Learning Management System, or Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

Cyber Charter School
Similar to a brick-and-mortar charter school but instruction is primarily delivered over the Internet.

Cyberschool And Digital School
An online learning program in which students enroll and earn credit towards academic advancement (or graduation) based on successful completion of the courses (or other designated learning opportunities) provided by the school. In some states, many cyberschools are charter schools. NOTE
These schools may or may not provide content that is standards-based, and may or may not be accredited (sometimes referred to as "virtual school")

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Discussion Groups
Groups formed usually for a particular topic or theme using computer conferencing software or listservs. An example of discussion groups are UseNet groups.

Distance Education
This term refers to any learning that occurs when the teacher and the student are separated by distance or time. Teaching from a distance requires special techniques of course design, instructional techniques, and methods of communication by electronic and other technology, as well as special organizational and administrative arrangements. Course credit and graduation diplomas awarded are considered equivalent in standard and content to a face-to-face program. Classes may include any or all types of media and access technology, and are generally classified based on the predominant mode of delivery. Distance Education originally was book-based and was typically known as "correspondence" schooling.

Distance Learning
See Distance Education


This refers to distance learning that is conducted through electronic technology, such as email, Internet Web links, and other electronic media.


The online course instructor is often referred to as the course facilitator. Online instructors do not retain their traditional "teacher-centered" roles from the brick-and-mortar, face-to-face paradigm. Instead, they become the medium through which discovery learning is facilitated in a student-centered environment. The facilitator is often referred to as the "course moderator." In Interactive Videoconferencing (IVC) the far-end helping staff person, whether teacher or para-educator, is called the "facilitator."

Full-Time Equivalent (FTE)
The number of students at a given institution if every student were full-time. "Full-time" status is determined by the institution according to the total number of credit hours a student takes.



Homegrown Content
Original, online course content developed by the education institution. The teacher developing the content may or may not be the teacher of record who delivers the online content to students. This sort of offering may or may not meet state standards.


Interactive Videoconferencing (IVC)
Courses in which content delivery and interaction are primarily through live television hook-ups (see synchronous below) connecting a teacher to groups of students on-site and in distant locations. (see for specific IVC terms.)



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Licensed Content
Content purchased and used by an education agency, which has not developed it but has entered into a formal agreement for its distribution with the original developer. A teacher hired by the education agency (school/district) may be assigned to deliver the purchased material in the online environment as part of his/her regular assignment. (also, third-party content)

Local Control
Local districts, rather than the state, independently make decisions on policies regarding curriculum and its compliance to state standards, teacher requirements, evaluation processes, and other specifications.


A mentor is someone in a face-to-face environment who helps online students as they work through class lessons. The mentor is a school employee and may or may not be licensed/certified.

Multi-District Online Program
Program administered by multiple districts, often in a formal consortium. Not to be confused with a program that is administered by a single district even though it accepts students from multiple districts.

Multi-User Environments
MUDS or MOOS are multi-user environments that allow for people to interact in a complex network of simulations and role playing.


Netiquette is a combination of two words, Internet and Etiquette. It refers to necessary and appropriate behavior that occurs online when communicating via the Internet. This is often spelled out an Acceptable Use Policy (see above.)


Online Classes
Primary means of content delivery is via text and other media on the Internet, and in which the primary means of communication is through email, group discussion bulletin boards, chat rooms, file transfer and attachment, etc. Online students may read material online, or may print hard copies.

Online Learning
Instruction and content are delivered primarily via the Internet. Online learning is a form of distance education.

Online Learning Program
An educational organization that develops and offers online instruction and content. An online learning program may be a cyberschool, or it may provide supplementary learning opportunities for students enrolled in physical schools or cyberschools.

On-Site Mentor
Person designated by an institution to provide face-to-face support to students taking online courses (sometimes referred to as a "surrogate nag. Person serving in the Mentor role may also be known as the Site Coordinator.)

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Per-Pupil Revenue (PPR)
An FTE funding model that sets a minimum level of funding, which is adjusted upward based on a number of factors (primarily district size).

"Portal" Site
The Web site surrounding the online courses that provides information for the online program, course listings and/or schedules, and may allow registration and other student services.

Primary Sources
Online students are able to directly access primary documents, such as the Declaration of Independence; they are able to read and interpret it from the original document.

Proctored Exams
Tests directly monitored by an adult authorized by the school district or program. Many online courses require exams to be proctored to insure that the student registered for the class is actually the one who completed the required online work.



A single student signing up to take a course in an online program. (Registration is distinguished from enrollment, which means that a student is counted by a school towards the school's share of state FTE funds.) Schools generally count and report "course enrollments" as full time, _ time, or partial time; this is important information for determining the funding base.

Retrieval Courses
A class taken by a student to earn credit for a face-to-face or online class they took and did not pass.


Seamless Technology
In an online course, technology is said to be seamless (or transparent) when it is easy to use, intuitive in nature, and is NOT the focus of the learning experience. If applications are difficult to use and the system has frequent breakdowns, the technology is not seamless and hinders the learning process. Technology should merely be a means to deliver course content, facilitating the learning process. Increasingly, it is becoming a requirement for students to learn how to work in the online environment.

Seat Time
The actual physical presence of a student in a brick-and-mortar school setting calculated in attendance and traditional funding formulas. Seat time cannot be calculated online - performance is a truer indicator. Online educators sometimes refer to "contact hours;" seat time not part of appropriate completion rate calculations (see above.)

Single-District Online Program
Program administered by a single district and provided to students within that district. This may also include single districts that offer online classes to students outside district residence boundaries.

Statewide Online Program
An online learning program created by legislation or by a state-level agency, and/or administered by a state department of education or another state-level agency, and/or directly funded by a state appropriation or grant for the purpose of providing online learning opportunities across the state.

Student To Teacher Ratio, or Teacher Load
The number of students each teacher is assigned to teach.

Streaming Media
The ability to access video or audio via the Web without downloading an entire file. The video is continuously sent to the user in small chunks and is not stored in a file on their hard disk. If there is a heavy load on the network (or in the Internet) the streaming media may sound or appear "jerky."

Synchronous Communication
Communication in which the participants interact in the same time-space (e.g., telephone calls, face-to-face meetings, physical classrooms, instant messenger, chat rooms, and videoconferencing).

System Requirements
Technical requirements that must be met in order to access and work within the online class environment.

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Teacher Share Model
A specific teacher in a school is paid to develop a course, and may or may not actually teach the course, and an agreed-upon specified number of students are given the opportunity to sign up for that course in trade for the teacher's paid development time.

Classes for which the primary mode of content delivery is via pre-produced video lessons (or other asynchronous media), and the primary mode of interaction is print materials, or real-time meetings between the teacher and the students.

Online students often have to pay a per course or per semester fee to take an online class.







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Glossary of Online Learning. (2003). Retrieved July 12, 2005, from Colorado Department of Education, Education Technology Center Web site

Glossary of Terms. (n.d.) Retrieved July 12, 2005, from Illinois Online Network Web site:

United States Distance Learning Association. (n.d.). Dl glossary. Retrieved July 12, 2005, from

Watson, J.F., Winograd, K., Kalmon, S. (2004). Keeping pace with k-12 online learning
A snapshot of state-level policy and practice.
Retrieved July 12, 2005, from North Central Regional Educational Laboratory Web site:

What is Distance Education? (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2005, from The Pennsylvania State University, Department of Distance Education Web site

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