As online higher education emerges as a mainstream means of earning a degree, the learning style has branched into several different forms, making the industry difficult to define. From “blended learning” to “mixed learning” to “telecommuting” classes, online higher education can be found in various levels, with some students often meeting with in-person counselors or mentors as part of their virtual curriculum, and others depending completely on online resources.

Even the name of online learning has been hard to define, from “e-learning” to “online learning” to “distance learning,” and those differences in terms have hindered the improvement and refining process of online higher education.

Researchers at the University of Missouri (MU) have been met with obstacles in studying the nature of online learning because of the lack of common definitions and terms for the type of learning, which make it difficult to generate Internet searches relating to the topic.

The fact that e-learning does not have an across-the-board spelling (because of the hyphen use) also makes the research process difficult, said Joi Moore, associate professor in the School of and Learning Technologies in the MU College of

With MU doctoral students Camille Dickson-Deane and Krista Galyen, Moore said these seemingly small issues in definition will have a major impact on the future of online learning, and education as a whole.

Because educators in the field of online learning explain the tools and process, but do not classify their education style, education researchers like Moore cannot identify a constant variable for testing and studies, making it impossible to compare long-term effects of online learning, Moore said in a press release.

Some educators may be encouraged to conduct online classes, and education researchers should be able to explain which styles and methods are most affective teaching aids. But with the current lack of definition of online higher education, researches have not been able to provide this information.

Still, the future for online higher education is bright. Most researchers say that online education is the mode of the future for all levels of education. They believe this future might be achieved by developing a mode of education that includes strong levels of teacher-student engagement rather than loads of worksheets and “busywork,” according to MU’s press release.

Doctoral student Camille Dickson-Deane cited overseas schools that teach with blogs as exemplars of successful online learning, but recognizes that these schools require cleared definitions as well.

“We need educators to learn from that, and clearly share that information across the discipline. For the field to progress, we need a common ground that we can evaluate and judge,” Dickson-Deane said in the press release.

Within the United States, other members of the field are doing their part to create clearer definitions of online learning.

For example, University of Maine System (UMS) is launching a Web site offering a one-stop spot for information about online and blended education programs at Maine’s public universities, hoping the source will raise awareness of the various forms of online higher education.

Seven universities of Maine have gathered their information in one online location, making it easier for students to compare their options, as well as more clearly defining the meaning of online education.

The Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C), an organization for integrating online education into the mainstream of higher education, has also made strides in defining online education, endorsing a “Quality Scorecard for the Administration of Online Education Programs.”

The scorecard includes 70 quality indicators that will standardize the industry, create a measuring stick on the quality of online education programs and help identify areas for improvement in the field.

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