Guidelines for eLearning in Graduate Academic Programs

Executive Summary

Local, provincial, national, and international interest among faculty and students continues to grow in eLearning at the graduate level1. eLearning includes online learning and delivery of curricular content in courses and programs. The Offices of the Vice‐Provost, Graduate Education, the School of Graduate Studies (SGS), and the Vice‐Provost, Academic Programs, provide advice to Faculty Deans and their academic units on appropriate academic structures and program content in the development of new graduate programs. The inclusion of eLearning may be deemed as a minor or major modification to existing programs.

Clear terminology, effective guidance and appropriate resources facilitate the development and ensure the quality of online graduate courses and programs. These eLearning guidelines serve as a reference for academic administrators and graduate faculty members who plan to create online courses and programs, and for the administrative staff members who provide support for those endeavours.

The guidelines provide terminology and definitions, outline the required approvals, and guide the reader’s thinking to broad questions of appropriate use, to quality and technical considerations, to principles and practice, to approval paths, and finally to resources. See Freq​uently Asked ​Que​stions (FAQs)​​​, below. These guidelines replace the previous SGS guidelines of 2009.

1. Terminology


eLearning describes the delivery of online and hybrid courses, and online and hybrid programs using audio, video or computer technologies singly or in combination. The definitions in this Terminology section are drawn from the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities reporting definitions found in the Multi‐Year Accountability Agreement.


Faculty members interested in developing online courses and programs first will contact their graduate unit chair/director. The chair/director then contacts the Vice‐Dean or Associate Dean of Graduate Studies in the Faculty Dean’s Office.


References to approval routes below align with the University of Toronto Quality Assurance Process (UTQAP).


Regular Course (also known as “face-to-face” or “traditional”):

A regular course is one in which both the instructor and the student are in the same physical location at the same time for most or all of the teaching and learning involved in the course components, usually on campus. While online components may be included as part of the course design, they do not constitute the majority of academic activities.

Approval: Regular courses are proposed as Minor Modifications under UTQAP. Final approval rests with the divisional Council or delegated governance body.

Hybrid Course (also known as “blended”):

A hybrid course includes a majority of online instructional components, with some face‐to‐face components.

Online instruction may be via synchronous or asynchronous web‐based learning technologies including, for example, online instruction, webcasts, podcasts, etc.

Assessments for hybrid courses may be conducted face‐to‐face and/or online. Students must be informed at the outset of the course of components or assessments that will be conducted face‐to‐face, if any.

Approval: Hybrid courses require initial course approval as a Minor Modification under UTQAP when a new course is proposed; however, a hybrid course does not require governance approval if it is already being offered as a regular course.

Online Course:

An online course is delivered online such that the instructional components occur without the student and instructor being in the same physical location.

Instruction may be via synchronous or asynchronous web‐based learning technologies including; for example, online instruction, webcasts, podcasts, etc.

Assessments for online courses usually are conducted online. Students must be informed at the outset of the course of components or assessments that will be conducted face-to-face, if any.

Courses that are delivered face-to-face in one section and online in another section (that is, a separate offering that is online), whether offered in a synchronous or asynchronous manner,must receive approval as online courses. Students are registered in separate sections of one course.

Online courses have an indicator on the electronic student record system.

Approval: Online courses require approval as a Minor Modification under UTQAP when a new course is proposed. If an existing regular course is converted to an online course or a section of an existing regular course is delivered online, then approval as a Minor Modification is required.


Regular Graduate Program (also known as “face-to-face” or “traditional”):

A regular graduate program is one in which both the instructor and the student are in the same physical location at the same time for most or all of the teaching and learning involved in the program requirements, usually on campus. While online components may be included as part of the program, they do not constitute the majority of program elements.

Approval: New graduate programs require the approvals of the divisional council, U of T Governing Council committees as appropriate, Quality Council, and MTCU.

Hybrid Graduate Programs (master’s, doctoral, or diploma; also known as “blended”):

Hybrid master’s, doctoral, or diploma programs are designed in such a way that while the majority of the coursework components are online, students are required to be in attendance on campus for a portion of the program activities over the program length.

Assessments may be conducted either online or face-to-face. Students must be informed at the outset of the course/program of which components will be conducted face-to-face.

Approval: See requirements for Regular graduate program (above) if the proposed program is new. If the proposal is to convert or extend an existing program to a hybrid offering, approval as a Major Modification is required.

Online Professional Master’s or Diploma Program:

An online professional master’s or diploma program is designed in such a way that the curricular components are delivered online and students are not required to be in attendance on campus. All courses inthe program are online courses (not hybrid). Non‐course components are delivered via online learning.

Assessments usually are conducted online. Students must be informed at the outset of the course/program of which components, if any, will be conducted face-to-face.

Approval: See requirements for Regular graduate program (above) if the program is new. If the proposal is to convert or extend an existing program to an online offering, approval as a Major Modification is required.

Online Research-Stream Master’s & All Doctoral Programs:

Research-stream master’s programs and doctoral programs of any type are not delivered online at this time but may be delivered as hybrid graduate programs.

2. Preliminary Considerations

Decisions to use eLearning to support course and program delivery must be based on both a clearly developed academic rationale and a robust instructional model. These must align with institutional expectations for engagement of graduate students in scholarly learning and related activities. In cases where online offerings develop within existing programs, the degree level expectations for online courses and programs should be in alignment with the regular offerings.

Faculty members who are creating online courses and programs require support in terms of training, delivery, and assessment methods. Various technology mediated options should be assessed to ensure that the ones selected are compatible with the teaching and learning outcomes envisaged. Technical supports must be in place to ensure a smooth and rich teaching and learning environment for both graduate faculty and graduate students. Some educational components in graduate studies may not be suited to eLearning, including various types of placements, some aspects of supervision, for example. 

Other aspects of graduate education such as relationship and community building in some programs must be addressed in novel ways if online learning is utilized. It may be appropriate to include only some online elements in courses and/or other program components in order to facilitate learning. Discussion within the graduate unit and with the Vice‐Dean or Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, in the appropriate Faculty is a necessary and important step in developing online courses and/or programs.

3. Quality Considerations

Courses and programs delivered through eLearning must meet the same quality standards as all University of Toronto graduate courses and programs. Proposals for new programs or major modifications that involve delivery of the program through eLearning must include discussion of the appropriateness of eLearning modes of delivery in terms of the intended program learning outcomes and degree level expectations. Proposals should also include an indication that appropriate planning has occurred to ensure the adequacy of central or local infrastructure and support strategies for eLearning delivery of the course/s and/or program.

The previous section directed those in graduate units involved in development of online courses/programs to consult with their Faculty Dean’s office. This is important since generally, according to the UTQAP4 framework, Faculties “are responsible for curriculum design, the identification of program objectives, the development of learning outcomes and degree level expectations, and generally for the assembly of human, instructional and physical resources. . .” All proposed courses/programs utilizing an eLearning strategy must meet UTQAP quality expectations and provide a clear rationale for using this mode. Admission and program requirements for online or hybrid courses or programs must be consistent with the regular course or program, if one exists. The required learning outcomes should be consistent within the context of program design.

4. Principles, Process, & Practice Considerations

The following table identifies five Principles (drawn from “pillars” defined in the Sloan Consortium model5 and reworked to suit the U of T environment) of program planning and support required for graduate courses and programs. These Principles offer a useful, research-informed model for quality considerations in online courses/programs. The Process and Practice Considerations column lists components to be considered when proposing the use of eLearning in courses or programs.

Principle Process & Practice Considerations​
​1. Learning effectiveness Online program ​​design, delivery methods and standards of academic integrity are effective and meet University of Toronto’s expectations for rigor and depth of scholarly activity at the same or higher level than regular programs, as evaluated through UTQAP processes. Assessment of student learning is equivalent to traditional methods and is in keeping with the University Assessment and Grading Practices Policy. Delivery mode(s) contribute to and enhance the creation of academic community among students and between students and faculty members. Admission and program requirements for eLearning offerings are not altered compared to the existing courses/programs.
​2. Scale (cost effectiveness and institutional commitment) The division and graduate unit both demonstrate appropriate continuing budgetary and technical commitment to its online offerings, including plans for upgrading technology, as required. Existing resources are leveraged to optimize use of existing support and infrastructure; institutional stakeholders have been consulted. Program personnel and those working in the information technology infrastructure employ strategies to ensure online tools and systems are reliable, secure, supportable, scalable, and accessible while protecting confidentiality and integrity of personal data. Risk assessment planning is conducted and includes a disaster recovery plan, data and technology back-up, and documentation, as applicable.
​3. Access Online course(s) and/or program is responsive to one or more of the following considerations: facilitates wider access including geographically distant learners, traditionally under-represented groups, and others; addresses demand for new fields of study;increases enrolment capacity.​ Admissions, registration, orientation, ongoing learner support, faculty consultation, and other academic services are appropriately available to all students accessing programs and program components through eLearning.
​4. Faculty satisfaction (and engagement) Appropriate and ongoing faculty development opportunities and support for those teaching and supervising online courses and programs is available (e.g., orientation and training; coaching in online instructional practice and student engagement; copyright and IP issues; course design and assessment methods); there are resources available through the Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation and via the Director of Online Learning Strategies in the office of the Chief Information Officer.
5. Student satisfaction (and engagement) Positive student experience includes active learning, access to online tools, regular interaction with instructors, shared participation in learning activities with peers, learning outcomes that match expectations and align with assessments and instructional activities, and access to academic services and support. Students feel part of an environment and community of scholars and development of a high-quality learning community in which students interact with each other and with faculty is promoted

5. Technology Infrastructure & Support Considerations

The following technical infrastructure and support are highlighted among many important considerations6:

  • establishment, maintenance, and reliability of technical infrastructure and support, including resources, system stability, recovery, data security, accessibility, scalability, etc. to meet current and projected needs;professional development for faculty in online teaching, learning, and pedagogy;
  • ongoing technical training and support for faculty and others;
  • ongoing access to online course design support for faculty;
  • choice of online learning environment(s);
  • ongoing student technical orientation and support;
  • student access to academic support services (e.g., library, writing centres);
  • creation of feedback and assessment processes to monitor and improve the effectiveness of course/program design and support.

6. Resources for eLearning Course & Program Design

University of Toronto:

Within the University of Toronto (U of T) advice regarding effective infrastructure resourcing and development strategies for online courses, programs and program components, and the reasonable support thereof, is available through:

(i) the Director of Online Learning Strategies, Office of the CIO

(ii) the Director of Academic and Collaborative Technologies, Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation (CTSI).

(iii) the Director of the Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation.

The Directors provide support for planning academic technology use, acquisition and integration to meet online course and program requirements.

CTSI’s Online Learning Strategies website7 provides information specific to the U of T context, including links to local instructional technology resources and policy documents. The guides and documentation provided by CTSI are continuously updated. CTSI also provides information on instructional methods and examples of best practice from across campus. The following resources are examples of those featured on the CTSI website:

Engaging Students Online

An overview of pedagogical models, online tools, and instructional activities including discussion-based frameworks, group projects, case studies, real time webinar formats, and authentic learning through use of interactive tools for student engagement.

Online Course Design

Checklist of components that have been demonstrated to increase student success by fully engaging the learner in the course experience and providing appropriate linkages to student services and academic support.

Alternative Online Environments

Guidelines for those considering moving beyond U of T’s portal (Blackboard) including implications for divisional support, FIPPA policy, accessibility and data security requirements, as well as use of third party online tools.


See the CTSI website for assistance with developing educational assessments.

Other Resources & Guidelines

There are a number of excellent research-informed documents from other institutions and research centres that provide guidance on key principles in effective teaching online and characteristics of high quality, effective curriculum component design and student engagement. These include:

Rubric for Online Instruction8

This document was developed by the California State University — Chico campus as a framework for course design as well as communication strategies, student support and related academic/instructional considerations.

Best Practice Models for eLearning9

This practical instructional strategy development framework comes from the Learning Development and Innovation team at Staffordshire University with short, clear summaries of good practice and related research.

Community of Inquiry10

This is a high-level research-informed model that provides useful guidance on underlying principles of effective online pedagogy, particularly applicable to graduate programs. The original research reflects asynchronous course design; nevertheless, it is also relevant to synchronous models in terms of the importance of teaching presence and social presence in building a community of scholarly inquiry.

See also: Addendum below, which provides definitions of various types of eLearning communication and related resources. 

7. Frequently Asked Questions

1) Do the regulations of the School of Graduate Studies permit the design and delivery of online programs?

Yes. Master’s, doctoral, and diploma programs may be delivered as hybrid (also known as “blended”) graduate programs. Currently, only professional master’s degree or diploma programs may be delivered as online programs

2) Is the conversion of an existing regular program to eLearning mode a Major Modification under the UTQAP?

Yes. Consult the Vice‐Dean or Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, in your Faculty Dean’s Office.

3) What is the process for creating an online version of a Face‐to‐Face Course?

Under the UTQAP, this is a Minor Modification and is handled at the divisional level.

4) Can online courses be part of a research master’s or doctoraldegree program?

Yes. These must be approved at the divisional level as online courses.

5) Can some courses be delivered via online learning without the master’s or diploma program requiring approval as an online program?

Yes. Provided that the majority of courses are delivered in a face to face setting, the program may contain some online courses.

6) Can my graduate unit offer an online doctoral program?

No. It is possible for doctoral programs to be offered as hybrid programs, with appropriate governance approval, but not as online programs at this time.

7) My graduate unit currently is offering online courses that have not been approved as such. Do we need to bring these forward as Minor Modifications for governance approval?

No. Courses that have been operating as online courses are “grandparented.” Beginning with the 2012‐13 academic year, any existing courses that offer online or hybrid learning sections or are converting to online or hybrid courses require governance approval as Minor Modifications.

​Addendum (Types of eLearning, Recommended Journals)​

Types of eLearning Communication

Drawn from Brett, C. and E. Smyth, Integrating Online Technology for Learning, 201011 and edited with permission of the authors.

Lecture Capture refers to the process of digitally capturing and archiving the content of a lecture, conference, or seminar. The process requires both hardware and software components that work in together to record audio and visual components of the lecture. After processing, an archive of the event is then made available to learners to view at a later time.

Peer online discussion has a rich research history in education of supporting effective learning through interaction. It can be contrasted with teacher led discussion, which has a more linear and less learner-centered structure. Discussion tools that offer structured forums and threaded presentation of content support this process within online learning environments.

Podcasts or videocasts are audio or audio and video recordings available for download through the internet. “A podcast is a series of audio of video digital media files which is distributed over the Internet by syndicated download, through Web feeds, to portable media players and personal computers. The term is a portmanteau of the words “iPod” and “broadcast,” the Apple iPod being the brand of portable media player for which the first podcasting scripts were developed. Such scripts allow podcasts to be automatically transferred from a personal computer to a mobile device after they are downloaded. Podcasting is becoming increasingly popular in education. Podcasts enable students and teachers to share information with anyone at any time. An absent student can download the podcast of the recorded presentation. Podcasting can be a publishing tool for student oral presentations. Video podcasts can be used all these ways as well.”

Point-to-point videoconferencing: Videoconferencing between two locations and/or individuals. Typically the video quality from this method is higher than when the signal is sent over the internet (IP-based) to multiple users.

Screencasts are recordings of computer screen outputs, usually containing audio narration typically published as a video file. The term
screencast comes from the term screenshot; whereas screenshot is a picture of a computer screen, a screencast is essentially a movie of the changes over time that a user sees on a computer screen, enhanced with audio narration.

Skype (audio or video interaction), an Internet-based service that replicates the function of the telephone. Being softphone based, calls from Skype subscribers originate from their personal computers. All calls between Skype subscribers on personal computers are free, while “SkypeOut” lets users dial a regular telephone for a low per-minute charge.

Streaming video: When streaming video technologies are used, a user does not have to wait for a large file to download before seeing the video or hearing the sound. Instead, the media is sent in a continuous steam and is played as it arrives. The user needs a player, which is a special program that uncompresses the video and audio data. A player can be either an integral part of a browser or downloaded as a standalone utility.

Synchronous: means occurring at the same time. In an online situation synchronous usually refers to people being online and interacting at the same time, and is therefore the opposite of asynchronous.

Threading: is a feature of many discussion platforms whereby entries linked to each other by a reply or build in function are shown in reverse chronological order, allowing one to follow the “conversation”.

Text chat: Online chat can refer to any kind of communication over the Internet, but primarily refers to direct one-on-one chat or text-based group chat using integrated tools within an online platform. This simple technology is used synchronously and is characterized by real-time direct transmission of text-based messages from sender to receiver.

Web conferencing or Webinar technology allows interactive seminars or presentations to be shared with remote participants in real time. The university has licensed software that can be used for this purpose. The technology supports individual point-to-point audio, video and text communications, polls and quizzes, as well as lecture presentations, desktop sharing, web tours, and media file transfer from one sender to many receivers.

Wikis: A wiki is a page or collection of web pages designed to enable anyone who accesses it to contribute or modify content, using a simplified markup language. Wikis are often used to create collaborative websites and to power community websites.

Weblog (blog): is a website, usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse-chronological order…Many blogs provide commentary or news on a particular subject; others function as a more personal online diaries. A typical blog combines text, images, and links to other blogs, Web pages, and other media related to its topic. The ability for readers to leave comments in a interactive format is an important part of many blogs. Most blogs are primarily textual, although some focus on art, photographs, videos, or music. Micro-blogging is another type of blogging, one which consists of blogs with very short posts.

Recommended Journals

International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning (ITDL): This journal describes its focus as involving “research and innovation in teaching and learning are prime topics for the Journal. The Journal was initiated in January 2004 to facilitate communication and collaboration among researchers, innovators, designers, producers, practitioners, and administrators of education and training. The Journal is monthly, refereed, and global. ITDL is committed to publish significant writings of high academic stature for worldwide distribution to stakeholders in distance learning and technology.”

International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (IRRODL): “is a refereed, open access e-journal that aims to disseminate research, theory, and best practice in open and distance learning worldwide. IRRODL is available free of charge to anyone with access to the Internet.”

Journal for Asynchronous Learning Networks (JALN): describes its goal as “to describe original work in asynchronous learning networks (ALN), including experimental results. Our mission is to provide practitioners in online education with knowledge about the very best research in online learning.”

Journal of Distance Education: A Canadian journal that describes its mission as “an international publication of the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education (CNIE). It aims to promote and encourage Canadian scholarly work in distance education and provide a forum for the dissemination of international scholarship.”

Technology, Pedagogy and Education (TPE): This journal serves “the international education community by supporting educators in the integration of information and communications technology in teaching and learning. It focuses on research evidence and critical analysis on all aspects of ICT and its relation to teacher education and professional development in all phases of education. The journal aims to promote the advance of research and scholarship in its field; to provide a vehicle for the exchange and dissemination of reports of good practice and research; to offer a forum for the debate of major issues; to create an international arena for discussion of the role of ICT in education and professional development; and to develop greater awareness, understanding and cooperation between educations.”

American Journal of Distance Education: describes itself as an “internationally recognized journal of research and scholarship in the field of American distance education established with the mission of disseminating information about research and scholarship in the Americas. Distance education describes teaching-learning relationships where the actors are geographically separated and communication between them is through technologies such as audio and visual broadcasts, teleconferences and recordings; printed study guides; and multimedia systems. The principal technology of current research interest in the World Wide Web, and subfields of distance education therefore include on-line learning, e-learning, distributed learning, asynchronous learning and blended learning.”


1 The University of Toronto joined Coursera in the summer of 2012; the University is also a participant inEdX.

2 See the School of Graduate Studies’ Policies and Guidelines on Graduate Courses.

3 See the School of Graduate Studies’ Graduate Program Definitions.

4 University of Toronto Quality Assurance Process (2012). Retrieved June 25, 2013.

5 Sloan Consortium Pillar Reference Quick Guide. Retrieved May 23, 2013. For further discussion, see Moore, J. (2009). Synthesis of Sloan-C effective practices, December 2009. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 13(4), 73.

6 See the MTCU’s Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board‘s Review Guidelines: Capacity to Deliver Online Degree Programming 7 which highlights the following key characteristics of the technology involved in high-quality programs and may be helpful in eLearning course and program planning:student and faculty preparation and orientation to existing and new technologies; adequate resources and processes to acquaint faculty and students with new software or systems on an ongoing basis;regular opportunities for ongoing professional and course development for faculty and others responsible for program development; reliable, sufficient, and scalable learning technologies and appropriate technology support staffing to meet current and projected needs.

7 U of T Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation​ — Online Learning.

Rubric for Online Instruction (2009). Retrieved April 26, 2013.

Best Practice Models for e‐Learning. Retrieved April 11, 2012.

10 Community of Inquiry (2011). Retrieved April 11, 2012.

11 Brett, C. and E.M. Smyth. Integrating Online Technology for Learning, 2010. OISE Higher Education Teaching Series, Modules for Faculty Development, University of Toronto, paper and CD-ROM.