Online Learning Glossary

Considering becoming an online student? A first step is understanding some common – and confusing – terms used in online education. 


Our e-learning glossary clarifies the meaning of MOOCs, synchronous learning and other commonly used phrases in online education.  


Academia isn't known for its rapid embrace of change. Yet when it comes to online learning, the field is constantly evolving. Hardly a day goes by without a university announcing a new online program or a company revealing a new tool to help online learners. Massive Open Online Courses are giving students all over the world access to courses taught by some of the best professors – for free. At some online schools, students can cobble together degrees using credit by exam, testing out of courses at their own pace. 

To help online students keep up with the latest trends, U.S. News has compiled a glossary of important terms specifically about online education. While this list is not exhaustive, it can help you make sense of new terminology and maybe even find the best online program for you.

We want to hear from you! What words are missing from this glossary? Comment below or send us an email with your thoughts and suggestions.

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    American Council on Education: An advocacy group for American colleges and universities, it operates a credit recommendation service that evaluates individual courses. As of April 2014, ACE had endorsed five science and math massive open online courses for academic credit. Although ACE has a membership of more than 1,800 colleges and universities, it's still up to each school to decide which courses they will recognize. To date, only a few institutions have taken ACE's recommendation on MOOCs. 

    Asynchronous: Learning in which interaction between instructors and students occurs intermittently with a time delay. Students in asynchronous courses are not required to log in at a specific time to watch a lecture or participate in a discussion, but rather can do their work on their own schedule.


    Council for Higher Education Accreditation: An evaluator of accrediting bodies which determines whether they maintain academic quality, improvement and accountability standards. CHEA posts a list of accrediting organizations that have been recognized by CHEA or the U.S. Department of Education.

    A for-profit education company founded by two Stanford University professors, Coursera offers more than 630 massive open online courses on a range of topics in partnership with universities. Courses are free, though students have to pay a fee to earn a verified completion certificate. Coursera offers several MOOCs recommended for credit by the American Council on Education.

    Credit by Exam
    A means of earning college credit through taking an exam. The College Level Examination Program, developed by The College Board, allows students to take 33 exams in five subject areas. Students can also take tests through DSST, a standardized test process first established by the Department of Defense, as well as through Excelsior College, Thomas Edison State College and a handful of other schools.


    Digital badges: An image posted on a website, online resume or social media profile that validates someone's subject knowledge or achievement as measured by a credible organization.

    Discussion boards:
    An online forum where students can interact with their classmates and instructor by posing and answering questions in the form of short posts. Participation in discussion boards is a requirement in many online courses.   

    Distance Education and Training Council: A national accrediting body, recognized by CHEA, that evaluates online schools and other distance education programs from high school through the doctoral level. 


    EdX: A nonprofit organization founded by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, edX offers more than 160 courses in an open-source online learning platform, meaning that other institutions will be able to host the courses themselves. Courses are free, though some courses have a fee for identification-verified certificates of achievement.


    Learning Management Systems: The platform where students can view their syllabus, learn how to contact their professor and access most course materials, including online readings, videos, audio files and other resources. In some systems, students can also email and message their classmates and instructors. Common learning management systems include Blackboard, Moodle and Desire2Learn.


    Massive Open Online Courses: These courses, commonly known as MOOCs, are entirely online and open to anyone with an Internet connection. MOOCs differ from typical online courses in two ways: They can draw hundreds or thousands of students; and they are usually, but not always, free. Students enrolled at universities offering MOOCs can get credit for the courses. The American Council on Education has also recommended several MOOCs for credit.


    Proctoring: Online students can be monitored by proctors both in person, if their program requires that they take tests at a specific location, or online, via webcam. Proctoring aims to combat cheating by ensuring students are who they say they are.


    Residency Requirement: The amount of time a specific distance education course or program requires an online student to spend on campus.


    Synchronous: An online class structure similar to that in an on-ground class, in which students meet with their instructor in real time and communicate with each other. Students and their instructor log on at the same time, using tools such as SkypeGoogle and other platforms to interact.
    Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.