Defining Online and Blended Learning

Well established K-12 online learning programs are more than ten years old, and many programs have between five and ten years of operating experience. The newest programs are building on the expertise of those early adopters, as well as the experience of online learning in postsecondary institutions and the corporate world. Because there are so many types of online programs (full-time, supplemental, state-led, district-level, consortium), there are also many different approaches to teaching, student support, professional development, and other issues. Blended learning means many things to many people. It is referred to as both blended and hybrid learning, with little or no difference in the meaning of the terms among most educators. In general terms, blended learning combines online delivery of educational content with the best features of classroom interaction and face-to-face instruction. These models promote personalized learning, thoughtful reflection, and differentiated instruction from student to student across a diverse group of learners.

A. Online and Blended Learning Defined

Online learning is "education in which instruction and content are delivered primarily over the Internet (Watson & Kalmon, 2005). The term does not include printed-based correspondence education, broadcast television or radio, videocassettes, and stand-alone educational software programs that do not have a significant Internet-based instructional component (U.S. Department of Education Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service, 2010)." It is "used interchangeably with Virtual learning, Cyber learning, e-learning."1

According to the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation's (formerly Innosight Institute) 2013 report, "Is K-12 Blended Learning Disruptive? An introduction of the theory of hybrids," the authors Christensen, Horn, and Staker defined blended learning as:

"...a formal eduction program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home. The modalities along each student's learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience."2

A growing number of online schools and programs are combining online teaching and face-to-face instruction in some way. Blending may be at the course level, combining both online and non-online instruction within one subject. The blending may also occur at the institutional level. For example, online schools gathering their students on a regular, scheduled basis, with the teacher physically present or remaining at a distance. Finally, some students are taking one or more fully online courses and attending a traditional classroom for one or more face-to-face courses, another type of blended model.

In her book, Blended Learning in Action, Catlin Tucker states that, "When successfully implemented, blended learning enables these hallmarks of best teaching and learning practices:

  • Personalization: providing unique learning pathways for individual students
  • Agency: giving learners opportunities to participate in key decisions in their learning experience
  • Authentic Audience: giving learners the opportunity to create for a real audience both locally and globally
  • Connectivity: giving learners opportunities to experience learning in collaboration with peers and experts locally and globally
  • Creativity: providing learners individual and collaborative opportunities to make things that matter while building skills for their future."3

If you missed the video of Catlin Tucker's Introduction to Blended Learning on page 5 of the Pre-Course Exploration module, please take a look.

In this brief video Michael Horn discusses the "Benefits of Online and Blended Learning Models."

Video captured 12-19-14 from

Khan Academy's Introduction to Blended Learning is another excellent resource for defining and outlining the elements of blended learning.

Content in this section is adapted from Watson, John. PROMISING PRACTICES IN ONLINE LEARNING, Blending Learning: The Convergence of Online and Face-to-Face Education, Evergreen Consulting Associates.

iNACOL Blended Learning Article cover

B. The Evolution of Online and Blended Learning

The following section is taken in its entirety from,"Blending Learning: The Evolution of Online and Face-to-Face Education from 2008-2015" which explores the development of blended learning from 2008-2015, the evolution of definitions across blended learning models and effective blended instructional strategies grounded in case studies. The paper depicts how schools are implementing blended learning, increasing student engagement and academic success, and using digital content and curricula for data-driven instructional models while empowering youth. The case studies illustrate a range of blended learning implementations and provide insights for increasing program effectiveness.

In 2008, iNACOL produced a series of papers documenting promising practices identified throughout the field of K–12 online learning. Since then, we have witnessed a tremendous acceleration of transformative policy and practice driving personalized learning in the K–12 education space. State, district, school, and classroom leaders recognize that the ultimate potential for blended and online learning lies in the opportunity to transform the education system and enable higher levels of learning through competency-based approaches.

We worked with leaders throughout the field to update these resources for a new generation of pioneers working towards the creation of student-centered learning environments.4

Blended Learning Models

Clayton Christensen’s research on blended learning schools and programs found that the majority of blended programs fall into one of four models: Rotation, Flex, A La Carte, and/or Enriched Virtual.

1. Rotation Model – Any course or subject in which students rotate—either on a fixed schedule or at the teacher’s discretion—among learning modalities, at least one of which is online learning. Often students rotate among online learning, small-group instruction, and pencil-and-paper assignments at their desks. Or they may rotate between online learning and some type of whole-group class discussion or project. The key is that the clock or the teacher announces that the time has arrived to rotate, and everyone shifts to their next assigned activity in the course. The Rotation model includes four sub-models: Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom, and Individual Rotation.

Lab Rotation – A course or subject in which students rotate to a computer lab for the online learning station. Take a look at a description and short video of the Lab Rotation Model by the Clayton Christensen Institute.

Flipped Classroom – A course or subject in which students participate in online learning off-site, in place of traditional homework, and then attend the brick-and mortar school for face-to-face, teacher-guided practice or projects. The primary delivery of content and instruction is online, which differentiates a Flipped Classroom from students who are merely doing homework practice online at night. Here is a video showcasing the Flipped Classroom with Catlin Tucker. More information on the Flipped Classroom Model can be found on the page 2 subpage.

Station Rotation – A course or subject in which students experience the Rotation Model within a contained classroom or group of classrooms. The Station Rotation Model differs from the Individual Rotation Model because students rotate through all of the stations, not only those on their custom schedules. In this video, Catlin Tucker discusses and models the Station Rotation Model (Part 1) and Station Rotation Model (Part 2) in her classroom.

Whole Group Rotation- (A Modern Spin on Lab Rotation) - With Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), 1:1 initiatives, and transportable technology in schools (e.g.. iPad or Chromebook carts) becoming more common, the Whole Group Rotation allows teachers to rotate an entire class through a series of online and offline activities while remaining in a single classroom. This approach may be more manageable for teachers beginning to explore blended learning because the class is moving through the same activity or task together instead of having multiple groups working on different tasks.5 Here is a video with Catlin Tucker modeling the Whole Group Rotation model in her classroom.

Individual Rotation – A course or subject in which each student has an individualized playlist and does not necessarily rotate to each available station or modality. An algorithm or teacher(s) sets individual student schedules.

2. Flex Model – A course or subject in which online learning is the backbone of student learning, even if it directs students to offline activities at times. The teacher of record is on-site, and students learn mostly on a brick-and-mortar campus, except for any homework. Students move through a Flex course according to their individual needs. Face-to-face teachers are on hand to offer help, and in many programs they initiate projects and discussions to enrich and deepen learning, although in other programs they are less involved.6 Take a look at a description and short video of the Flex Model by the Clayton Christensen Institute..

3. A La Carte Model – A course that a student takes entirely online to accompany other experiences that the student is having at a brick-and-mortar school or learning center. The teacher of record for the A La Carte course is the online teacher. Students may take the A La Carte course either on the brick-and-mortar campus or off-site. This differs from full-time online learning because it is not a whole-school experience. Students take some courses A La Carte and others face-to-face at a brick-and-mortar campus. Take a look at a description of the A La Carte Model by BlendMyClassroom.

4. Enriched Virtual Model – A course or subject in which students have required face-to-face learning sessions with their teacher of record and then are free to complete their remaining coursework remotely from the face-to-face teacher. Many Enriched Virtual programs began as full-time online schools and then developed blended programs to provide students with brick-and-mortar school experiences. The Enriched Virtual Model differs from the Flipped Classroom Model because in Enriched Virtual programs, students seldom meet face-to-face with their teachers every weekday. It differs from a fully online course because face-to-face learning sessions are more than optional office hours or social events; they are required.7 Take a look at a description of the Enriched Virtual Model by BlendMyClassroom.

1 International Association for Online Learning. (2011). The Online Learning Definitions Project.

2 Christensen, C. M., Horn, M. B., & Staker, H. “Is K-12 Blended Learning Disruptive? An introduction of the theory of hybrids.” 2013 San Francisco, CA. Retrieved from

3 Tucker, C., Wycoff, T., Green, J. (2017) Blended Learning in Action: A Practical Guide Toward Sustainable Change. Corwin, 6.

4 "Blending Learning: The Evolution of Online and Face-to ... - iNACOL." Accessed 12 Apr. 2017.

5 Tucker, C., Wycoff, T., Green, J. (2017) Blended Learning in Action: A Practical Guide Toward Sustainable Change. Corwin, 131,132

6 Horn and Staker. (2014). Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. Jossey-Bass.

7 Clayton Christensen Institute. Blended Learning Model Definitions. Retrieved from