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The Need for Better Terminology

By Lisa Neal / September 2005

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An email responding to "Is It Live or Is It Memorex," a column I wrote with Saul Carliner, asked if we were using "live session" to mean a class that uses synchronous technologies or one taught in the classroom. While the answer is the former, the question highlights a pervasive problem: We do not have good terminology to describe the various types of e-learning that now exist.

There are many terms that are synonymous with e-learning or that differ in poorly distinguished ways, such as "Web-based training," "distributed learning," and "distance education." But we need clear and concise labels for specific types of courses, including a self-paced asynchronous course with no instructor; an asynchronous course with start- and end-dates that includes peer and instructor interaction; and a course that has instructor-led synchronous sessions and a course Web site with materials and a discussion forum. Even with these lengthy descriptions, I found it difficult to unambiguously describe these three types of e-learning, and there are other types as well. Precise, short-cut terminology would be extremely helpful when trying to communicate these important distinctions.

Interestingly, the term in question in the column was "live session," one that I don't especially like. Saul and I use the term because it seems to be generally understood. I even conducted a small survey for a consulting project to determine the term people most easily understood for a synchronous session—including "synchronous session" itself—and found that "live session" was preferred.

The project I refer to above provides a great example of the terminology problem: I am helping develop a course on teamwork training for clinicians that has start- and end-dates, and includes instructor-led synchronous sessions; asynchronous materials students go through on their own but then submit responses to questions to peer leaders; and a discussion forum where students respond to and discuss "reflection" questions with their peers. Certainly e-learning is a great catch-all term for this. Blended learning is also accurate but dated (although I do not know the au courant replacement for it, if there is one). Is there a term that accurately describes how this course is conducted?

Remember the once-popular acronyms describing demographics: YUPPIE, DINK, etc? I propose we distinguish among types of e-learning in the same way. I haven't perfected my classification scheme yet, but I'm working on it. Any suggestions?


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