Technology continues to evolve, and so does the learning and teaching environment. As teachers, we often find ourselves standing at a crossroads between traditional teaching methods (the way we were taught) and flexibility in teaching design, delivery, and assessment. Not surprisingly, the recent disruption of the education system caused by COVID-19 has forced us to try different technologies and teaching methods, which led to an immediate shift from a face-to-face teaching model to technology-based learning. The following graphic illustrates the continuum of technology-based learning (modes of delivery).


The continuum of technology-based learning. Adapted from Bates and Poole, 2003.

Face-to-face Delivery

Face-to-face (f-2-f) education involves traditional classroom learning where the instructor and the students are not separated by geographic space or time. Face-to-face, in-person, traditional, and campus-based modes of delivery are often used interchangeably, as all involve classroom teaching with no technology at all (which is very rare these days), with classes running in real-time, and students and instructors coming together from different locations. Below are just a few teaching strategies used in face-to-face sessions:

  • lectures/presentations/seminars
  • demonstrations
  • classroom discussions/debates
  • role-plays
  • group projects
  • games

What is ODFL?

Open, distance and flexible learning (ODFL) – and online learning – are key to widening access to cost-efficient learning for remote populations of the Pacific region who are scattered across vast distances of ocean who cannot or who do not wish to attend campus-based study. A common thread that runs through ODFL is the application of educational technologies and the Internet enabling learning across vast distances.

According to Dr. Tony Bates, when we use terms such as ODFL and online learning, we are trying to describe a very dynamic and fast changing phenomenon, and the terminology often struggles to keep up with the reality of what is happening. He says that the terms are often used to mean the same thing, but nevertheless, there are significant differences. Below is a summary of Tony’s definitions of the terms.

Open learning

Open learning is primarily a goal, or an educational policy. An essential characteristic of open learning is the removal of barriers to learning. This means no prior qualifications to study, and for students with disabilities, a determined effort to provide education in a suitable form that overcomes the disability (for example, audio tapes for students who are visually impaired). Ideally, no one should be denied access to an open learning programme. Thus, open learning must be scalable as well as flexible. Openness has implications for the use of technology. If no one is to be denied access, then technologies that are available to everyone need to be used.

Distance education

Distance education on the other hand is less a philosophy and more a method of education. Students can study in their own time, at the place of their choice (home, work or learning centre), and without face-to-face contact with a teacher. Technology is a critical element of distance education. However, distance education programmes may not be open.

Flexible learning

Flexible learning is the provision of learning in a flexible manner, built around the geographical, social and time constraints of individual learners, rather than those of an educational institution. Flexible learning may include distance education, but it also may include delivering face-to-face training in the workplace or opening the campus for longer hours or organising weekend or summer schools. Like distance education, it is more of a method than a philosophy, although like distance education, it is often associated with increased access and hence more openness.

Online learning

A form of distance education where the primary delivery mechanism is via the internet and where a course or programme is intentionally designed in advance to be delivered fully online. Faculty use pedagogical strategies for instruction, student engagement, and assessment that are specific to learning in a virtual environment. Online courses or programmes could be delivered synchronously or asynchronously. All instruction are conducted at a distance, although ‘online learning’ is sometimes used for blended learning where most of the study time is spent online but not all.

Differences and similarities: Open, distance, flexible and online learning are rarely found in their ‘purest’ forms. No teaching system is completely open (minimum levels of literacy are required, for instance), and few students ever study in complete isolation. Even fully online courses may encourage students to meet face-to-face for short periods, with or without an instructor, and most fully online courses supplement the online study with print readings such as textbooks. Thus, there are degrees of openness, ‘distance’, ‘flexibility’, and ‘virtuality’.

Although open and flexible learning and distance education and online learning mean different things, the one thing they all have in common is an attempt to provide alternative means of high-quality education or training for those who either cannot take conventional, campus-based programmes, or choose not to.

Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication in ODFL

In ODFL contexts, there are two types of communication, synchronous and asynchronous, which happen by using digital tools and platforms. In synchronous communication, the instructor and the students in the course engage with the course content and each other at the same time, but from different locations. Whereas in asynchronous communication, the instructor and the students in the course engage with the course content at different times (and from different locations). Both synchronous and asynchronous communication have their place in ODFL, depending on what an instructor is trying to achieve, and the guidance they may have received from their institution, faculty, or department. For example, a synchronous (live) presentation allows students to ask questions while the presentation is in progress; an asynchronous (recorded) presentation allows students time to deliberate and reflect before asking their questions, perhaps in an online discussion group. Live, synchronous chat office hours allow the instructor and a student to have an interaction that resembles a real conversation; using an asynchronous discussion forum to collect and respond to questions works better for students whose schedules wouldn’t permit them to engage in a live chat.

The following video provides a useful summary on synchronous versus asynchronous communication tools [Watchtime: 2.50 mins].

By John Spencer

Strengths and Limitations of Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication

The interactive image below highlights the strengths and limitations of synchronous and asynchronous communication in ODFL environments.

Both face-to-face and ODFL modes of delivery have their place in education. Face-to-face mode is the more traditional way of instruction, where students and teachers attend in-person sessions simultaneously. Synchronous ODFL mode can also be considered face-to-face, as learning takes place in real-time. ODFL modes of delivery include the use of internet and communication technology and is regarded as an ideal alternative for remote learners. No matter which approach teachers use, either synchronous or asynchronous, clear communication is crucial to convey timely course instructions and expectations to learners accurately.