Photo of hands on laptop keyboard, screen showing a video conference with four multi-ethnic students

Reclassifying Online Learning in Response to Disruption

In this milestone year for benchmarking, AACSB has expanded its online program classifications to reflect impacts of the pandemic on educational delivery.

These last few months have clearly impacted the way higher education institutions deliver their degree programs. Specifically, online course delivery became the sole delivery vehicle for most universities and colleges all over the world, in many cases mid-term. Years from now, when we look back at this academic year, it will no doubt be considered a milestone year for all educational organizations.

Recent changes to AACSB’s categories for tracking program delivery formats mean it is also a milestone year for benchmarking trends in global business education. AACSB member schools have long had the ability to compare, via a single custom report, the delivery methods used by their peer schools. Historically, schools participating in the Business School Questionnaire (BSQ) have been able to benchmark against peer schools delivering programs primarily online.

This year, in response to member demand, the data collected will reflect a broader spectrum of program delivery variations, just in time to capture the pre-COVID-19 landscape and the subsequent impact of the pandemic on delivery options. The new classifications draw on input from members of AACSB’s Online Learning Affinity Group, and a subsequent pilot survey undertaken by 27 member schools in December 2019.

As a result, new delivery categories are included in this year’s BSQ program data. Instead of having the singular category of “Online” (applicable when a program was available mostly online), the following delivery vehicle selections are now available (at least one must be selected for each reported program):

  • Fully On-Campus; Face-to-Face: The degree program may be completed fully on campus in a face-to-face setting on one of the school’s physical campuses.
  • Primarily Online (OL): The degree program may be completed in full by students enrolled only in courses taught online. Includes programs in which some limited residency is required for orientation or testing. Only selected if the program curriculum can be completed in full online. (Note: This definition corresponds to the former singular “Online” category.)
  • Exclusively Online (OL): The degree program may be completed in full by students enrolled only in courses taught online, including all testing and orientations (e.g., the student can complete all transactions at a distance). Only selected if the program can be completed in full online, where the student would never need to come to campus for any reason.
  • Multi-Modal: The degree program can be completed in full either face-to-face or online, where all required courses are available via both delivery modes, and students can choose the method of delivery for each of their courses. Students could possibly be in both distance and face-to-face courses during the same semester, quarter, etc.
  • Blended/Hybrid (B/H): Completing the degree program requires the student to take courses that are face-to-face and courses that are delivered online, such that students must attend courses that may be a combination of both online and face-to-face delivery, online only, and face-to-face only. Selected if a combination of both delivery methods are required.

What’s the Difference?

At first glance, it may seem there is an overlap with some of the definitions, but in fact there are meaningful distinctions that help schools, as well as potential students, drill down much more precisely on how programs are delivered.

Many schools have programs that allow students to choose to take part or all of their courses online for one semester, and then take courses face-to-face in the following semester. This would be the Multi-Modal category. If a student never has to come to campus for any reason to complete a degree program, this would be an Exclusively Online program. Having all the courses for the program available online, but requiring the student to come to campus for such activities as orientation or exams, would be considered a program that is Primarily Online.

In addition, many schools offer programs in which many or most of the courses are offered online, but parts of the degree program may require the student to be present on campus. This would be considered a Blended/Hybrid program. This category would also apply to programs where a single course (or set of courses) is offered face-to-face for part of the grading period and online for another part of the grading period. Such scenarios might be something that many schools will be reporting for the 2020-21 academic year, in the next iteration of the BSQ.

By submitting this year’s BSQ, AACSB member schools will have the opportunity to access an October 2019 baseline dataset to use for strategic planning. That access includes multiyear trend data that can help schools understand shifts in program portfolios over time.

This year will indeed be a milestone year for online learning, raising interesting questions about the long-term impacts of the rapid shifts that schools and learners have had to make during the pandemic. This enhanced dataset will lend richer insight into that impact.


Jeanine Romano, Director Business Education Data Benchmarking and Analysis, AACSB International, Tampa, FloridaJeanine Romano is director of business education data benchmarking and analysis at AACSB International and is located in the Tampa, Florida, office.