Defining Distance Learning

My personal definition of distance learning prior to enrolling in the Distance Learning graduate course was that it only applied to online collegiate and university credit courses administered via a course management system such as eCollege or Blackboard. Little did I know distance learning actually has a rich history dating back to the early 1800s when a Swedish newspaper published an advertisement for the first print-based correspondence study, enabling people from all levels of society, including women to study composition (Bratt, as cited in Verduin & Clark, 1991, p. 15, and cited again in Tracey & Richey, 2005, p. 17). From this week’s course readings, I also learned the satellite instructional television I experienced as a K-12 student in the 1960’s and early 1970s is considered one of the early technologies of distance education (Tracey & Richey, 2005, p. 18).

Through the course readings, multimedia and video programs, I learned the terms Distance Learning and Distance Education are used interchangeably. This concept is also referred to as “open learning, networked learning, distributed learning, independent study, and online learning” (Tracey & Richey, 2005, p. 17). There are almost as many definitions of distance learning as there are names for this concept. Let’s look at four of those definitions:

  1. “Distance Education is an institution-based, formal education where the learning group is separated, and where interactive telecommunications systems are used to connect learners, resources, and instructors” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012, p. 32). To simplify this definition, think of it as four distinct components; institutionally based; teacher and student are separated; data, voice, and video are shared learning experiences; and includes interactive telecommunications (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 33).
  2. “Distance education is a structured learning experience that can be engaged in away from an academic institution, at home or at a workplace, and can lead to degrees or credentials” (Gunawardena & McIsaac, 2004; Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2000, p. 17; as cited in Tracey & Richey, 2005, p. 17).
  3. Moore (2007, as cited in Simonson et al., 2012, p. 34) defines distance education in this manner, “as a planned and systematic activity that comprises the choice, didactic preparation, and presentation of teaching materials as well as the supervision and support of student learning, which is achieved by bridging the physical distance between student and teach by means of at least one appropriate technical medium”.
  4. Keegan’s definition of distance education includes five elements: “The quasi-permanent separation of teacher and learner throughout the length of the learning process; the influence of an educational organization both in the planning and preparation of learning materials and in the provision of student support services”; the use of technical media – print, audio, video, or computer – to unite teacher and learner and carry the content of the course; the provision of two-way communication so that the student benefits from or initiates dialogue; and the quasi-permanent absence of the learning group throughout the length of the learning process” (as cited in Simonson et al., 2012, p. 36).

While all four of the above definitions are good, my personal favorite is by Perraton (1988) which states, “distance education is an educational process in which a significant proportion of the teaching is conducted by someone removed in space and/or time from the learner” (as cited in Simonson et al., 2012, p. 34). By utilizing this definition and information contained in this week’s resources, I now understand distance learning has grown to include synchronous and asynchronous learning programs in all sectors of education including training and development, higher education, and K-12 education (Moller, Foshay, & Huett, 2008). I also learned the three learning management systems (LMS) I have managed for the last nine years of my professional career are components of distance learning. With 3200 employees scattered among multiple sites, working rotating shifts, and needing to complete a minimum of 13 ‘mandatory’ courses annually, e-learning which is available “anywhere, anytime” (Carnwell, 2000; Salmon, 2004; as cited in Lewis & Price, 2007, p. 139) is essential for a large healthcare organization where I am employed.

The evolution path for distance learning has often paralleled advances in technology, though its evolution has also been influenced by changing educational values and philosophies (Tracey & Richey, 2005, p. 17). According to the International Association for Distance Learning, the following advancements and changes will impact the future of distance learning (IADL, 2012, January 13):

  • Continuous learning will be essential.
  • International study will not be as dependent on travel.
  • Distance learning will impact the operations of traditional schools.
  • Technical familiarity will have increasing value.

In addition, to meet the learning needs in a changing world, distance learning will need to evolve by being (IDAL, 2012, January 13):

  • Time flexible
  • Free of geographical barriers
  • Competitive in cost and value
  • Learner-centered
  • Incorporating high-technology media and computer applications into instructor presentations and course work
  • Culturally diverse
  • Adaptable to the needs of the global marketplace
  • Growth oriented from the perspective of the individual and organization
  • Contemporary material, relevant to the times

My vision for the future of distance learning as depicted on my mind map includes a continuing expansion of virtual universities and the creation of global mega universities; increased number of cyber charter schools and home school charter schools; increased utilization of mobile devices for mobile learning; expanded variety of options for cloud storage, cloud computing, and cloud presentations; enhanced technology for open source applications and freeware; beginning use of massive open online courses (MOOCs) for certifications; increased use of virtual worlds, social networking, and social media in the promotion of distance learning. As these examples suggest, the future of distance learning is very bright.


International Association for Distance Learning (2012, January 13). What is the future of distance learning? Retrieved from

Lewis, P. A., & Price, S. (2007). Distance education and the integration of e-learning in a graduate program. The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing, 38(3), 139-143. Retrieved from

Moller, L., Foshay, W. R., & Huett, J. (2008). The evolution of distance education: implications for instructional design on the potential of the web, part 1. TechTrends, 52(3), 70-75. Retrieved from DOI: 10.1007/s11528-008-0158-5

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

Tracey, M. W., & Richey, R. C. (2005). The evolution of distance education. Distance Learning, 2(6), 17-21. Retrieved from

Future of Distance Learning-BakerP


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