Defining Distance Learning and Looking to its future…

Online Learning Definition Mind Map

Although my job for more than two years now has entailed working in a distance learning environment, this week marked the first time that I had the opportunity to study the topic academically in real depth. It was fascinating to begin to realise the limitations of my knowledge on the subject area that takes up so much of my daily life in every single working week, and, of course, to set about rectifying these shortcomings.

Up until this week, distance learning had two manifestations in my mind: correspondence learning and online learning. I had the vague notion that distance learning had set its roots in the relatively recent past with correspondence learning and then online learning had been developed from this into an alternative learning method. Correspondence learning, to me, entailed Universities delivering textbooks to remote-based students, and then tasking them with writing exams on these texts to be mailed back to the University so that they could be evaluated. Online learning was the type of distance learning I was most familiar with as it is the form of education I deal with every day in my work. If pressed I would have defined distance learning simply as studies carried out by an individual, either through correspondence learning or online learning, in a location physically removed from the educational institute offering the programme of study.

Simonson et al.’s (2012) definition of distance learning as ‘institution-based, formal education where the learning group is separated, and where interactive telecommunications systems are used to connect learners, resources, and instructors’ (p.32) did not seem, at first reading, to be too at-odds with how I initially considered distance education myself. However, further examination of Simonson et al.’s definition and a study of distance education’s history opened my eyes to the many forms that distance learning can take and enlightened me on my ignorance of distance learning’s long-reaching legacy.

The first revelation that really surprised me was that distance learning has been a factor in education since the 19th century. Simonson et al. mention that early evidence of distance learning being in operation dates back as far as Sweden in 1833 (p. 37). This education was provided through the post. Hearing this fact triggered a recent memory in my mind. I, quite recently, visited the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, and read extracts from her famous diary detailing both her and her fellow clandestine housemates’ study of languages through the post. This recollection, more than anything else, was the most ground-breaking of my discoveries this week, as it made me consider for the very first time that examples of distance learning, the field of education I work in and should be very familiar with, have been visible to me on occasions past but due to the very narrow definition through which I considered distance learning, as stated above, I was unable to see these examples as such. Simonson et al. (2012) clarify that ‘telecommunications’ in their definition can, in fact, mean any kind of communication from a distance, regardless of whether the medium is electronic or otherwise (p.34).

My own definition of distance learning has certainly developed over the past week. Where before my idea of distance learning was quite rigid, I now see that distance learning can come in many shapes and forms and is not a new concept. As long as the study is organised (i.e. not merely self-study) and the learning body are not studying in the same place, you have distance learning. I would thus now seek to define distance learning, very simply, as ‘Education offered in a structured manner, studied by individuals who are not physically in the same place yet are connected to their instructor(s) by some form of communication’.

Looking to the future, I see distance learning’s development lying very much in the field of online study. As of now, online learning has already become ‘a popular choice for continuing professional education [and] mid-career degree programmes’ (Moller et al., 2008, p. 66), and online learning seems very much to be where the future of education lies. It is already quickly becoming a standard means of education with, as of 2013, 32% of third-level students in the US studying at least one course online and the number of students beginning online studies is continuing to rise year-on-year (Allen and Seaman, 2013, p.4). In Anderson (2008) it was predicted that ‘as the cost of hardware, software, and telecommunications declines, even developing countries can look forward to a future where access to the wealth of the world’s knowledge is commonplace’ (p. 160). The recent soaring popularity of massive open online courses (MOOCS) has made online education extremely accessible globally, and, echoing the Anderson prediction above has created the possibility of a ‘much higher standard of knowledge transmission worldwide’ (Stromquist and Monkman, 2014). I wrote above of ‘looking to the future’, it may well be, as per Anderson, that ‘the future has arrived’ (p.160).




Allen, Isabel Elaine, and Jeff Seaman. Changing Course Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States. United States: Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, 2013.

Anderson, Terry. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. 2nd ed. Edmonton: AU, 2008.

Moller, Leslie, Wellesley R Foshay, and Jason Huett. “The Evolution of Distance Education: Implications for Instructional Design on the Potential of the Web.” TechTrends 52.4 (2008): 66-70.

Simonson, Michael, Sharon Smaldino, Michael Albright, and Susan Zvacek. Teaching and learning at a distance: foundations of distance education. Boston, M.A: Pearson, 2012.

Stromquist, Nelly P., and Karen Monkman. Globalization and Education: Integration and Contestation across Cultures. 2nd ed. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.


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