Distance Education

I. Scope

This policy applies to all for-credit undergraduate and graduate courses, both fully online and hybrid, at George Mason University.

II. Policy Statement

To be considered an online program at George Mason University, all courses required for program completion, including any required general education courses, shall be offered in a fully online delivery format. Courses must be offered frequently enough to enable online students to progress through and complete the program in a timely manner. Any on-campus requirements must provide added educational value that cannot be achieved online. Information regarding any required face-to-face, on-ground work (e.g., internships, residencies, practicums, specialized laboratory work, etc.) must be made available to students prior to enrollment.

All courses offered through distance education must demonstrate “regular and substantive” interactions. Faculty shall use a variety of instructional strategies and resources to facilitate an engaging learning environment.

III. Definitions

The University defines distance education in alignment with the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) in 34 CFR 600.2 as amended, the Commonwealth of Virginia (8VAC41-30-10) and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

Distance education” is the delivery of online teaching and learning activities using University-approved technologies, including plug-ins and publisher resources, within the Learning Management System (LMS) to deliver instruction synchronously or asynchronously to students who are in different locations from faculty.

The LMS is used to:

  1. Support regular and substantive interaction between students and faculty;
  2. Verify student identity (University Policy 3004);
  3. Provide instructional continuity; and
  4. Ensure course accessibility requirements (University Policy 1308).

Mason categorizes types of distance education as follows, which are based in part on guidance from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV):

  • Fully (100%) online course: A course in which all of the learning activities are supported using University-approved technologies, including plug-ins and publisher resources, within the Learning Management System (LMS). Therefore, face-to-face sessions such as orientation, laboratory, exam review, and/or in-person exams shall not be required as part of a student’s graded activity. Fully online courses are taught through two delivery modes:
    • Synchronous Online: Synchronous courses specify a required time in which faculty and student meet live, in-real-time. Courses have a set time in which students must participate each week. Synchronous courses allow for real-time communication, providing space for faculty and student-led discussions and interaction. Synchronous courses must include the required meeting time at the point of student registration.
    • Asynchronous Online: Asynchronous courses do not have a required time in which students and faculty must meet; though, asynchronous courses may include optional, live meetings or office hours. While there are weekly deadlines, schedules are flexible. Information regarding proctored exams and/or the use of webcams must be outlined in the course syllabus.
  • Hybrid course: A course in which a majority (more than 50% but less than 100%) of the planned learning activities occur using University-approved technologies, including plug-ins and publisher resources, within the Learning Management System (LMS), when the students and instructor are not in the same place. Mandatory face-to-face sessions shall occur between 2% and 50% of the planned instructional time.

Courses which meet face-to-face for more than 50% of the planned instructional time are categorized as “on-ground” or “in-seat” courses and not as distance education.

In alignment with The Glossary of Education Reform and standard practices in higher education, the University adopts the following definition of “direct instruction”:

Direct instruction refers to instructional approaches that are structured, sequenced, and led by qualified instructors and/or the presentation of academic content to students by those qualified instructors. See University Policy 3005 and the Mason Faculty Credentialing Manual for information regarding instructor qualifications.

The university defines “regular and substantive interaction” as instructor-driven interaction that is “engaging students in teaching, learning, and assessment, consistent with the content under discussion,” and includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  1. Providing direct instruction;
  2. Assessing or providing feedback on a student’s coursework;
  3. Responding to student questions; and
  4. Providing information, content, and asynchronous activities through announcements, e-mail, media, and/or other relevant technologies.

Other interactions that may be considered “substantive” include:

  1. Leading and facilitating discussion forums or group discussions; and
  2. Providing and engaging in other instructional activities outlined by a program’s accrediting agency.

Examples of direct instruction include intentionally sequenced modules using University-approved technologies, including plug-ins and publisher resources, within the Learning Management System (LMS), instructor-created or instructor selected videos, and synchronous class sessions.

“Regular interactions” between faculty and students shall provide the opportunity for substantive interactions with the student on a “predictable and regular basis commensurate with the length of time and the amount of content in the course; and monitor the student’s academic engagement and success, ensuring that an instructor is responsible for promptly and proactively engaging in substantive interaction with the student when needed, on the basis of such monitoring, or upon request by the student.”

IV. Responsibilities

Faculty have primary responsibility for the content, interaction, quality, and effectiveness of the curriculum, regardless of instructional modality. Faculty shall engage students on a regular and substantive basis (as defined above) per 34 CFR 600.2.

In conjunction with faculty, department chairs, school directors and college deans, the Office of the Provost is responsible for coordinating the development and implementation of distance education at the University, working with program leadership in maintaining compliance with federal, state, institutional policies, and regulations related to distance education, identifying new distance education opportunities, and coordinating with units to ensure quality and continuous improvement.

The Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning provides support for faculty members engaged in distance education courses. Support may include training and development, centrally managed learning resources, instructional design, and other support services and resources. The center also provides Online Course Quality Assurance guidelines for online courses and provides course reviews and recommendations to faculty and academic units.

As with all teaching modalities, faculty are responsible for delivering course-accessible content and must meet the qualifications for instruction established by the University for on-campus courses, as required by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, University Policy 3005, University Policy 1308, and Mason’s Faculty Credentialing Manual. Faculty who teach distance education courses are selected in the same manner as those teaching on-campus courses. These faculty shall be responsible for acquiring the skills necessary to teach course content and related material effectively in an online learning environment.

V. Compliance

College/school-level administrators will ensure compliance with this policy through existing processes, including:

  • Analysis of student course evaluations;
  • Annual faculty evaluations;
  • Academic Program Review; and
  • Alignment with George Mason University’s Quality Assurance Guidelines for Online Courses

The Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning provides Quality Assurance guidelines, professional development, and course development support to ensure high quality program design.

The Office of the Provost is responsible for ensuring availability of student services in programs that use technology to serve the University’s distance education students.

VI. Procedures:


VII. Dates:

 A. Effective Date:

This policy will become effective upon the date of approval by the Senior Vice President for Administration and Finance and the Provost and Executive Vice President.

B. Date of Most Recent Review:


VIII. Timetable for Review

This policy, and any related procedures, shall be reviewed every three years or more frequently as needed.

IX. Signatures


Carol D. Kissal
Senior Vice President, Administration and Finance

Mark R. Ginsberg
Provost and Executive Vice President

Date approved: June 29, 2021