Defining distance learning

Mindmap Distance Learning Definition

When I realized I was going to follow a course called Distance Learning, I was quite intrigued to know what will be covered during the 8-week class. At that time for me, Distance Learning referred to learning that was happening through anything else than face-to-face interactions. A few years ago, I followed journalism course by correspondence. This is for me distance learning: I was receiving books and audiotapes, with the course content. I was working on my own and was taking an exam at the end of each topic. This exam, or essay, would be sent to the teacher, for grading and feedback. This was the way I was learning. This was giving me freedom to work when I had free time, and move on at my own rhythm. In my mind, this was the main characteristic of distance learning.

In this week resources, Dr. Simonson defines distance learning as an asynchronous process: teacher and students are separated by geography and time (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012). A learning community has to be established in order to enable the learning process. This process will happen through a two-way communication, facilitated by “interactive telecommunications” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012, p. 33).

Studying for this current online master degree gave me the opportunity to get direct experience about distance learning. If I were to come up with my own definition of distance learning using the new knowledge gained this week, I would organize it around three main characteristics. First, distance learning is offering remote access to education to any student around the world, allowing them to work where and when they want. Second, interactivity is crucial to distance learning. Within a learning community, learning will happen through the two-way communication process taking place between the students and a teacher. Third, distance learning will be possible only using technological tools, to connect the students, the teacher and the resources.

Technology played, and is still playing, a major role in the evolution of distance learning. Correspondence study was actually the first type of distance learning, which started in 1833. “The history also shows that advances in technology have promoted key changes in distance education” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012, p. 58). As presented in the multimedia program, it all started through post, then telegraph, TV, video recordings, computers, and is now available on Internet. The technological development guided an “explosive e-learning growth” (Moller, Foshay, & Huett, 2008, p. 67). More and more universities are moving toward that path, creating online programs. In the future, as the technological tools will continue to evolve, we can expect the distance learning to follow this development. Using those tools, instructional designers will be able to increase the interactivity and the various activities designed for the students. The purpose is to improve the overall learning experience of the students as well as limit and even eliminate some of the barriers currently faced in distance learning. These technological tools are also a way for distance educators to follow the evolving students’ needs (Moller, Foshay, & Huett, 2008).

A recurring question is: would education move completely online in the future? I personally believe it will not. Distance learning and actual classroom learning are, and will continue to be, complementary, simply because they do not target exactly the same type of students. I went to a “real” school and college when I was young, but today, the virtual classroom is matching better with my needs of active adult. Would I have been successful following my bachelor degree online when I was 19? Probably not, merely due to the motivational aspect that is necessary when studying online. In a previous class, we discuss andragogy, and the main characteristics of adult learners. Those elements are relevant when assessing distance learning efficiency, depending on the students… but this is can open a whole new debate!



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(4), 66-70.

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


5 responses to “Defining distance learning

  1. I think there will always be a market for both distance learning and the face-to-face learning environment. There are some subject matters that are better taught in a face-to-face learning environment. Would you want someone to give you a shot who learned how to do so in an online learning environment?

    • Melanie,
      In the instance of learning to give someone a shot the course may be better taught in a blended environment where part of the course is online and part is face-to-face. I believe the online part would be lecture based with simulated exercises and delivery of course material. The face-to-face portion would be for labs where you would actually be shown how to give a shot, and then demonstrate that you can administer a shot by actually doing it. We can uses blended courses to teach many different things like this situation. Another course which my organization is getting ready to teach our managers is taught in a blended environment. It is a course on teamwork.

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