Defining Distance Learning

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November 5, 2012 by idinnovation

Before beginning a dialogue on distance learning it is important to understand the history of the convergence of technology and education.  The development of information technology directly impacted education and encouraged what we now call distance learning – the bridging of these two schools.  Pedagogy is very interesting in and of itself but the amalgamation of education and technology brings with it new and innovative methods of learning.  It occurred rather quickly with the introduction of the internet in 1969 and online courses fourteen years later.  In the twenty years that span the creation of the internet significant strides were made in 1970 Walden University was established and specialized in limited residency graduate programs, the first edition of the Bears Guide was published in 1974 which is one of the world’s best information sources for opportunities available in distance learning, in 1975 and 1979 learning materials were distributed on video and The University of Mid-America was established and in association with nine Midwestern universities create and provide distance learning courses via video tapes respectively. By 1983 organizations where delivering distance learning courses via satellite television and in 1984 by the Electronic University’s Network used proprietary software for DOS and Commodore 64 computers to launch the first online courses (Simonson, 2012).

While distance learning was being utilized as early as 1833 with European newspapers offering courses through the mail the progression detailed above allows us to look at the definitions of distance learning without recapping  definitions that have now become void.  As distance learning began to develop and move away from the more traditional forms of distance education that used broadcast media technology, printed materials, and virtual schools a new definition was needed.  According to Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek (2012) and adopted by the Encyclopedia Britannica distance learning can be defined as “institutionalized formal education where the learning and teaching groups are separated and active technological systems are used to connect resources, instructors and learners. While the aforementioned definition serves the purpose of introducing students to distance learning there are many other distance learning adult theories that deserve mentioning.  One of them is Malcolm Knowles, most consider his work on andragogy to be a theory of distance education because the concepts are based upon adult learner program development.  His spent his career developing the theory of andragogy based scholarly inquiry and experience that correlate to the characteristics of adult learners. Knowles’s andragogy proposes that a number of characteristics be present in distance learning designed for adult learners.  For example:

  • Distance learning courses should include clear and concise course descriptions, learning objectives, resources and timelines for contributions by learners;
  • The learners needs and interest should be the foundation in which the course is designed;
  • The learning environment should encourages and promotes respect, dignity, support – when criticism is part of the discussion it should be directed at the content and ideas rather than the individual (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek, 2012).

Moore (2007) also presents a concept that I ascribe to which contends that teaching and learning behaviors are executed separately this would constrain communication between teacher and learner to occur through print, electronic, mechanical or other devices as necessary. The final theorists that will be discussed are Garrison and Shale (1987) who do not define distance learning but instead list three criteria that are crucial to the classification of distance learning:

  • The majority of communication between participants whether teacher – learner or learner – learn must occur asynchronously.
  • Two-way communication must occur between the teacher and student to facilitate and support learning.
  • Technology must be utilized to facilitate communication between participants.

While these definitions correspond more to the traditional approaches to distance learning I find it difficult at this time to move to far from these views until instructional design professionals lead the evolution of e-learning in a manner that produces products the personify systematic design processes that lead the e-learning industry in a clear and concise direction (Moller, Foshay, and Huett, (part 1) 2008).  The Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) estimates that there will be an increase of 300% over the next five years and refers to distance education as a mainstream educational system. As IDs move to address the current pedagogical issues surrounding: student interaction, content and course design, delivery methods, communication, performance expectations and assessment and evaluative techniques I believe that a new and improved consensus will present itself and become widely accepted in the field (Moller, Foshay, and Huett, (part 2) 2008).

My experience with e-learning has been phenomenal and altered my notion of what a finalized e-learning program should resemble.  Thus I think it is important to note that this reflection on distance learning does not intend to take away from current e-learning methodologies but to question them.  To press both new and experienced instructional designers to conduct research and ask innovation questions about technology and learning and how traditional views of education can be implemented while embracing the fact that the same methodologies that are utilized in traditional learning settings will not all be applicable in distance learning.  Even the most thought out and well-designed training programs effectiveness can come under question.  As noted by Moller, Foshay and Huett (2008) web-based training products can lack effectiveness because of they violate basic principles of instructional design and ID professionals can underestimate the significance of this damaging trend. Finally it is necessary to develop competencies, academic requirements, professional certifications that confirm that those that are creating content have the specialized e-learning design and development skills.  By creating standards to e-learning consumers will be able to distinguish between materials that follow design principles and those that do not.


Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 2: Higher Education). TechTrends, 52(3), 66–70.

Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 1: Training and development). TechTrends, 52(3), 70–75.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (5th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.

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