Promote active learning in different instructional modes

Nhi Nguyen
Rebecca LeBoeuf
Rebecca LeBoeuf
November 16, 2023
Table of Contents

This article is part of the ebook: 'Online, Hybrid, or HyFlex? How to balance different modalities for active learning'

Consistent, clear, and nuanced terminology surrounding instructional modalities allows faculties to have a deeper understanding of educational settings, thus making it easier and more effective for cross-modality teaching. This article then aims to elaborate on a framework to help institutions establish a universal definition of different learning modalities (online, hybrid, HyFLex, in-person), and highlight the pros and cons of each mode in relation to active learning.

Online, Hybrid, or Hyflex? This ebook proposes 3 strategies for institutions to help faculties teach effectively across different learning modalities.
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University teaching should focus on active learning in the wake of the rise of artificial intelligence, the “600-pound gorilla in the room”. - Focus on active learning urged in response to rise of ChatGPT

This is the key takeaway from the *Times Higher Education*’s MENA Universities Summit on November 13-15, which aims to promote innovation, agility and strong national and regional collaboration across institutions. During the conference, participants emphasized the importance of active learning in “creating communities of people are self-aware, who can question” the capacity of AI.

Despite the benefits, active learning implementation can be challenging, due to the demanding nature of cross-modality teaching. Education is no longer confined to physical classroom, but has expanded to many forms (online, hybrid, HyFlex, etc.) to embrace technology advances and speak to learners’ diverse needs.

Therefore, institutions need to develop a deep, universal understanding of different instructional modes to promote an active learning environment. The next section will elaborate on the definitions of each learning modality, as well as it pros and cons.

Define the learning modalities: Revised model of learning spectrum

The 2023 Educause Horizon Report | Teaching and Learning edition emphasizes the importance of developing a common language for instructional modalities:

“Without common language to describe learning modalities, discussion between and even within institutions can be challenging. Establishing clear and agreed-upon definitions for various learning modalities helps faculty design their courses and find the right types of support (e.g., instructional technology, instructional design, faculty development)."

Developing a shared understanding of different instructional modes is absolutely critical for institutions when designing courses and delivering expectations to the students. As for the learners, “a clear vocabulary” lets them know what they are expected to learn and achieve in different formats of learning.

When it comes to defining different course delivery modes such as “online”, “hybrid”, “blended”, “HyFlex”, “in-person”, and “synchronous and asynchronous”, there has been a lack of consensus among institutions, their policies, and individuals regarding what these terms entail and the type of learning experiences involved.

The rise of different learning modalities was sparked by the introduction of the World Wide Web (WWW) during the 1990s. As the learning materials could then be accessed easily via the Internet, this created a learning experience commonly referred to as e-learning or online learning. Institutions later on attempted to further integrate technology into educational practices, which led to the emergence of several new learning modes namely hybrid, blended, and HyFlex.

“A side-effect of having an expansion in delivery modes over a relatively short span of 30 years was the simultaneous eruption of naming conventions to describe idiosyncrasies in course delivery.” (Johnson, Seaman, & Poulin, 2022)

Upon the COVID-19 outburst and the rise of AI within just a few years, institutions have realized the importance of varying course modalities and technology-enhanced education. Such demand necessitates a universal understanding of different delivery modes across faculties, thus the need for consistency in defining online, hybrid, in-person, and Hyflex learning.

That’s why Johnson, Seam, and Poulin (2022) introduced the Revised Modes of Learning Spectrum, which describes and categorizes different learning modes into either “Distance learning” or “In-person learning”. This framework is based on an in-depth study of how administrators and faculties representing different higher education institutions understand and implement different learning modes.

Revised Modes of Learning Spectrum (Johnson, 2022)
Revised Modes of Learning Spectrum (Johnson, 2022)

According to this framework, the learning modes are categorized into two extremes: distance learning and in-person learning.

Distance learning refers to all learning that takes place remotely. Online learning (where the learning experience is delivered via the Internet either synchronously or asynchronously) is the predominant mode of distance learning; however, distance learning also includes offline distance learning (where the learning experience is fully remote but does not use Internet technology, such as a course being delivered in print format via mail).

In-person learning (or face-to-face and on-campus learning) involves the learning that takes place entirely in the physical classrooms with both students and instructors. In-person learning may utilize a variety of technologies (learning management systems, open educational resources, recorded lectures, etc.) to support the learning experiences. This is called In-person Technology-Supported Learning. On the other hand, face-to-face learning that uses no technology is referred to as In-Person Non-Digital Learning.

Standing between Distance and In-person learning is Hybrid or Blended learning, which combines both online and in-person instruction. Hybrid learning refers to an umbrella term “that captures all different types of hybrid learning such as flipped learning, HyFlex learning, and online learning with an in-person intensive component” (Johnson et al. 2022).

The variations of each learning mode are also included in the framework to show how these terms are being used in the real world and provide a path towards shared terminology, as stated by the authors.

Active learning in different modalities: Benefits and challenges

In this section you will find definitions of different learning modalities, along with its benefits and challenges when implementing active learning strategies.

You can also download these information in the table format.

1. Online learning

Online learning: all instruction and interactions are fully online (synchronous or asynchronous)


  • Increased flexibility for both instructors and students in terms of attendance and participation.
  • Creative management of out-of-class time


  • Lack of physical connection and interactions with peers and instructors, which makes it harder to maintain active engagement

2. Hybrid and Blended learning

Hybrid and Blended learning: a combination of online and in-person instruction (online instruction is synchronous or asynchronous)Blended learning: Can be used interchangeably with Hybrid learning. For Hybrid learning, Smith and Hill (2019) proposed that 30-79% of the content is delivered online” (p.7).


  • Combine and balance the best of both worlds: online and in-person learning
  • Accommodates diverse students’ needs and gives them increased flexibility and accessibility in learning
  • Enhanced student engagement and interactions before, during, and after classes
  • More opportunities for multi-level interactions, peer/teacher support, and knowledge sharing


  • More challenging and time-consuming to design and facilitate the courses, especially with a large student cohort

3. HyFlex learning

HyFlex learning: This modality lets students have more control and flexibility in choosing their preferred learning modes. This is also referred to as multi-access learning by Irvine (2020), in which students can move among 4 levels: face-to-face, synchronous online, asynchronous online, and open-access.

Read more: 4 main steps for a good HyFlex model implementation


  • Promotes an equity-centered environment by addressing diverse student needs and access
  • Enhance students’ autonomy and proactiveness by giving them control of their own learning


  • Requires extensive preparation and a shift in pedagogy to engage multiple audiences simultaneously
  • Virtual/remote students may find it more difficult to engage and participate
  • More support is needed to maintain interactions between in-person and remote students

4. In-person learning

In-person learning: All the learning takes place in an in-person setting.


  • Instructors can better control and observe students’ interactions during the learning process


  • More constrained by time and space
  • Not accessible to remote students
  • Instructors are less able to address individuals' needs
  • Lack of engagement outside of classes

5. Synchronous learning

Synchronous learning: Instruction takes place in real-time and requires student presence (in-person or virtual) at a set time


  • Enhanced real-time interactions and conversations
  • Direct response to students’ questions and problems


  • Students have less control over their learning
  • Higher risk of technological failure due to poor connections or technical issues
  • Requires more time and effort for planning and preparation

6. Asynchronous learning

Asynchronous learning: Instruction is available for students to access at a time that works best for them.


  • Increase student engagement with the materials outside classrooms
  • Accessible to all learners
  • Students have more control of their own learning
  • Frequent feedback opportunities


  • Lack of physical connections
  • Requires higher level of self-regulation and autonomy from students

More food for thought


Johnson, N., Seaman, J., Poulin, R. (2022). Defining different modes of learning: Resolving confusion and contention through consensus. Online Learning, 26(3), 91-110

Johnson, N. (2020). Evolving Definitions in Digital Learning: A National Framework for Categorizing Commonly Used Terms. Canadian Digital Learning Research Association.

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