Distance Learning: A brief survey

Having completed a Masters using a hybrid online/face-to-face application I felt intimately acquainted with what constituted a distance education experience.  Prior to digesting the definition of distance education given by Simonson et al in Teaching and Learning at a Distance I would have also included my self-study via resources like Lynda or Skillfeed within the purview.  My definition of distance learning was essentially synonymous with the widely accepted definition of e-learning–learning conducted through an electronic medium; typically the internet.

My uninformed definition represented only one-fourth of the components necessary for a learning experience to bear the distinction  of distance learning.  As outlined in Teaching and Learning at a Distance, distance learning must be institutionally based, include a geographic separation of teacher and student, utilize interactive telecommunications, and facilitate the sharing of data, voice and video (2012).  There are many definitions out there regarding what constitutes distance learning but  this definition feels comprehensive and sufficient.

Accepting  those parameters it would hold that while I participated in e-learning (to increase my skills in certain applications or gain new skills) and assigned online modular learning to volunteers who I managed, these instances don’t necessary qualify as distance learning because while there was a separation between the “teacher” and student and video and data was shared, these experiences were not institutional based  and there was no interactivity.  And I use the term teacher loosely because the instruction was very generalized, and the teacher had little engagement beyond providing the content for users/students to digest as they saw fit.

Between 1833 and 1873 the idea of distance education was established and began to be developed and explored.   In its nascent stages those in the industry recognized the implications this medium held for educators and those who sought education.   The Distance Learning Timeline Continuum multimedia program notes that between 1873 and 1892 New York state gave a university permission to award degrees through mail correspondence.  Very early on the standard of accreditation was applied to the distance learning model so the institutionally based piece is an essential  and long-standing component–what complicates the issue is what qualifies something as an institution.

With the introduction in recent years of MOOCs and tutorial repositories such as Lynda a discussion around redefining this element might be in order.  At the crux of the argument for distance learning solutions is the flexibility and convenience that they offer.  If the spirit in which the Hermod’s institution (founded in 1898) is to be followed, distance learning should also consider those having “limited traditional education opportunities”.  What does this look like?  I’d say redoubling the efforts of those “educators and trainers [who are] advocating the accreditation of institutions that offer distance education to add credibility” (Simonson et al, 2012, p. 33).   As such, my personal definition of distance education is learning that takes place where teacher (an actively engaged instructor) and student are not in proximity of one another, that uses state-of-the-art communication tools to facilitate learning and that can originate from non-traditional institutions like MOOCs or training repositories.



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