DETA Definitions | Definition of Distance Education

Distance Education

When DETA was founded in 2014, we discussed what the name of the "Center" would be.  In the grant summary from ED FIPSE and the U.S. Congress, the name was listed as the CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF DISTANCE EDUCATION AND TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENTS PROGRAM.  However, we knew that there were more common terms that were being used, such as eLearning, Digital Learning, Online Learning, Online Education, and others.  We embarked on a exploration of the history of terminology over the past several decades before make the decision on what to call the center and that we would retain the term, distance education.




Distance education is a term that has history and longevity.  While we definitely understand the need for other terms due to the evolving nature of learning that happens in using technologies to help manage student expectations or that resonate with the student market, distance education is a term that has been used for decades and has persevered.  While other terms have come and gone, distance education is still here.  It is most popular search word on Google, it is the name carried by journals, it is the common term used by the government and postsecondary institutions, and it has familiarity internationally.


This discussion highlights the criticality of continuing to define the context or phenomena in being studied since there are so many terms that have similar definitions and the importance of sharing definitions broadly.

When prescribing a national definition for distance education, you will not find any difficulty in the “What?” and “How?” questions.  Understandings of what distance education represents and what is required to achieve distance education are largely and unanimously recognized.  However, stretching beyond the simple definitional questions and launching into the “Why?” or “So what?” questions presents a variety of responses from scholars in the field.  Depending on whom you ask, distance education is an entire movement within higher education broadening the reach of postsecondary education making education accessible to those who are geographically, financially, or developmentally unable to attend a traditional university.  Mathews and Diane (1999) described it as extending the traditional university to overcome problems of scarcity and exclusivity, ” while Beldarrain (2006) describes it as a response to the need of providing access to those that cannot participate onsite.  Yet, others will describe distance education as a methodology for disseminating knowledge through technology or taking on the role of pedagogical innovation.


In its simplicity, distance education is the act of planned teaching and learning that occurs without teacher and learner physically being in the same place (Alshaher, 2013; Holmberg 1989; Matthews & Diane, 1999; Moore & Kearsley, 2011).  Consequently, some form of communication technology is required for successful implementation of distance education (Moore & Kearsley, 2011).  Communication technology is by no means limited to 21st-century-only forms of communication.  In it’s infancy, communication between teacher and learner was done so through snail mail on the pony express.  Yes, technically distance education has been around that long.  With obvious advancements in technology and how communication is performed long distance, distance education followed suit, adopting and implementing internet-based methods of distance education (Moore & Anderson, 2003; Holmberg 1989). 


Joosten, T. (2017). Distance education. In M. Allen (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of communication research methods. SAGE Publishing.

Distance Education

Distance education is defined as education where instruction and learning takes place at a distance or not in the same physical space.  Many times this type of education spams temporal boundaries since it is predominantly delivered asynchronously or not in real time using an array of digital technologies.  However, there are situations where instruction and learning can happen synchronously (in real time) using web-based technologies, such as digital collaboration tools (LMS synchronous tools, BB Collaborate, Adobe Connect, Skype, GoToMeeting, and more).  Distance education is appealing because it allows instructors and students to push time in order to accomplishing learning objectives providing more flexibility in when and where students participate in activities.


With advancements in online technologies, distance education today is more commonly known as online learning where a good portion (usually 100%) of learning takes place online.  Blended learning could be described as another form of distance education where a portion of the activities (20%-99% usually) of the activities take place online.  Although definitions of the percentage of online may differ based on the institution or the national study, there may also be differences in the pedagogical approach as well as the amount of activity that takes place online.  For instance, defining courses can focus on the planned pedagogical integration of the environments or the implementation of active learning pedagogies along with the amount of activity that is conducted online.




The communication field has contributed a significant amount to distance education.  The initial growth in practice and research in distance education can be contributed to schools of continuing or external education and social scientists studying human communication and technology. Later, researchers for an array of disciplines have become interested in the phenomenon because of the practical implications in courses, programs, and institutions.  In communication research, scholars became interested in how technology could mediate the social process of teaching and learning.  Media comparison studies and the development of studies of computer-mediated communication (CMC) are a foundation for much of the research in distance education.


Since there was already scholarship that focused on human communication and technology, computer-mediated communication, and human computer interaction, it was natural for these researchers to investigate the impact of technology on an array of social processes.  Technology mediated processes became an interest as researchers started examining how telephone communication systems impacted the way people interacted and communicated.  These studies historically examined telecommunications with the development of group audio systems, video telephones, conference television systems, and computer mediated conference systems in developing their theory of social presence, which has grown in attention by distance education research over the last decade.  The research conducted by these scholars addressed questions focusing more on the ways technology can effectively facilitate certain activities in a course (e.g., group processes) and aligned with the group and organizational communication studies of the time.  The potential for technology to mediate instruction soon became realized.


There is a tight connection between research and practice in distance education.  Many of those researching distance education were practitioners in the space.  They were teaching at a distance or implementing communication technologies to explore the efficacy.  In particular, many researchers were interested in determining if mediated interactions were as effective as face-to-face (F2F) interactions.  As telecommunications, broadcast, and digital technologies have developed and evolved, researchers have compared them to F2F communication in many areas of communication, such as relational, group, and organizational.  The study of distance education depicts the same desire for comparison studies to determine efficacy of the technologies in mediating human interaction and communication.


Types of research


There are several types of research that are being conducted in distance education.  Although early research focused on comparison of course modes to determine efficacy, there are new practitioners examining this same research question in discipline-specific settings that are more new to the designing and delivery of distance education courses, including blended and online.  The comparison studies have identified student outcomes, learning and satisfaction, which have been studied in examining an array of process variables.  While some process variables include measures include examining the quantity and quality of student interactions with content, each other, or the instructor, and can look to compare that to F2F interactions, most may move beyond the comparison studies and examine the influence of these interactions on the student outcomes identified in the comparison studies.


Comparison studies

A predominant amount of research and literature regarding distance education examines efficacy or whether or not it can produce the same desired result as F2F or traditional education.  These comparison studies examine distance education in comparison to traditional education.  Early CMC research compared how people built relationships and worked F2F versus using CMC and many of these early studies explored whether or not CMC was as effective as F2F communication in accomplishing relational, group, or organizational tasks.  The same is present in distance education research.


When distance education became more popular due to broadcast technologies, many instructors wanted to replicate and broadcast the F2F environment.  Some used high tech systems to broadcast themselves live to remote location, while other others resulted in videos being recorded and distributed through CDs and later online.  Researchers performed these comparison studies examining primarily televised or video and audio broadcasting of instruction in comparison with a traditional F2F classroom.  Later, more distance education courses more fully utilized computers and the Internet, specifically CMC (email, asynchronous communication tools) or websites, to facilitate activities (e.g., group work) or entire courses.  Websites and email became easier to use for instruction, which led to advancement in fully online and blended courses delivered.  Likewise, there were comparisons of F2F and CMC activities.


Just like the early studies of CMC in different contexts, the research on distance education followed the same path initially focusing on comparisons between mediated communication and F2F in determining a difference or similarities in the impact on outcomes.  Despite the context, research focused on performance, more or less, answering the question can individuals perform online or using CMC at the same level as they do F2F.  In comparison studies, the researchers examined the effectiveness between the two mediums viewing mediated communication as the variable and F2F as the control in an effort to replicate an experimental design in their studies.  Several meta-analyses have been conducted, in part, because of the array of studies that have conducted comparisons examining the impact of course mode (F2F or online) on student outcomes, learning or performance and satisfaction.


Student outcomes


There are two student outcomes that are prevalent in comparison studies, satisfaction and learning, which is sometimes referred to as performance.   Satisfaction is a measure of whether students enjoyed their experience in their online course.  Since students will choose the format of their future instruction based in part on their previous experiences with that format, satisfaction is an important outcome variable to better understand the efficacy of online learning and usually is compared to F2F instruction.  Also, student satisfaction can have implications for the recruitment and retention of students.  Traditional teacher and course evaluations have measured whether students found the instruction and course satisfying along with other measures.  If students are unsatisfied with a method of instruction and learning, it is less likely that they will complete the course or pursue enrollment in future courses or programs of the same nature.


Second, student learning effectiveness has been documented by most as the primary outcome of online or blended instruction.  Some researchers refer to the variable of performance described previously as learning.  Performance measures the output of a particular process.  In examining online learning, student performance is a measure of the output of teaching and learning, which is most often in the form of a grade.  The grade in a class is whether or not students performed well or poorly in the course.  Other performance measures may include students’ scores on exams, test, assignments, or other assessments of student performance.  Performance is a measure across contexts.  Individual's’ ability to achieve outcomes successfully or desired results resonates in groups, organizations, relationships, and instructional contexts as well.  Although the goal of teaching is for students to learn, documenting learning can be challenging beyond course grades, typically a performance measure.


In addition to grades, other movements to better document learning are becoming evident in the research.  Today, educators are using rubrics more, which is traditionally a qualitative or subjective measure that can be quantified into a numeric representation of learning or performance.  Also, other researchers may use pre and post testing to document a change in knowledge, yet others argue that examinations and testing do not effectively measure certain learning outcomes.  Therefore, there are several methods that result in a grade or numerical representation that documents student performance or the ability to achieve learning outcomes in courses or programs.


Many scholars from a more interpretive or humanistic paradigm may focus on the process with a goal of change in knowledge, behavior, and abilities rather than focus on a performance measure, per se.  These scholars may focus on more qualitative methods to document the growth or learning.  The only quantifiable measure may be an overall grade for the course since all other assessment may be subjective.  The ability to quantify learning does not necessarily lie as an issue in measurement, but one in paradigmatic approach to instruction.  Other alternatives are considered for understanding whether students have learned, such as students’ self-reports of learning or perspective on whether they learned.  To better understand the influence of instructional and social variables on student outcomes, the research documenting the effectiveness of online learning is expanded.


Focus on process


Practitioners and researchers have realized to better understand distance education, research needs to move beyond mode and examine more specific process variables that can be manipulated.  As this line of research progresses, research examines an array of communication variables, such as interactivity, engagement, presence, and others, and how they impacted learning and satisfaction.   LMS functions, communication or social technologies, and digital media used more ubiquitously offering increased media characteristics with the opportunity for greater interactivity than seen in previous technologies.  Many researchers use student self-reports of their perception of the communication in the course.  These self-reports can be compared between F2F, blended, and online courses.  They can also be matched to student identifiers to student perceptions of learning, including overall grade, and satisfaction through self-report or actual learning or performance and student satisfaction data mined through the LMS, student information systems (SIS), or instructor documents to model the relationships between process and student outcomes.


More recently, courses are delivered through a learning management system (LMS) that may provide digital content (written, audio, or video), and/or be facilitated through the use of asynchronous and synchronous communication technologies connecting peers to each other and the instructor.  These courses administer assessments and collect student work documenting their learning.  LMS’s have assisted in advancing research in online learning, in part, due to their ability through their embedded tools to facilitate synchronous and asynchronous group and class communication as well as student communication with their peers and the instructor.  Furthermore, LMS’s capture data around classroom interactions and assessment of students, including assignment and overall grades.


Data mining


The digital archive of student interaction and data that is present in instructional systems, such as the LMS, has led to great growth and potential new growth in research on distance education.  Researchers can use interaction data (with content, peers, and instructors) through the data mined from the LMS to understand the relationship to and influence on student outcomes.  For example, one can examine the examine students’ interaction with content, such as did they access the content, how many times, and for how long (frequency and duration) and the relationship with student outcomes.  Or, the media characteristics of the content (text, text+images, audio, audio+images, video, length) and the anticipated learning outcome (recall or interpretive) can be included in the model.  Another example is that researchers are examining student interactions with other students.  Students interactions may include whether a student participated in a class or group discussion, how often a student interacted with other students or the instructor, what was the quality of the interaction (potentially a numerical representation or grade based on a rubric), or the strength of a student’s networks in a discussion.  These communication measures can be used to examine the ability to predict student outcomes.  Some of this data can be mined manually, through reporting tools, or through big data analyses.



Further readings:


Allen, M., Bourhis, J., Burrell, N., & Mabry, E. (2002). Comparing student satisfaction with distance education to traditional classrooms in higher education: A meta-analysis. The American Journal of Distance Education, 16(2), 83-97.


Allen, M., Mabry, E., Mattrey, M., Bourhis, J., Titsworth, S., & Burrell, N. (2004). Evaluating the effectiveness of distance learning: A comparison using meta‐analysis. Journal of Communication, 54(3), 402-420.


Allen, M., Witt, P. L., & Wheeless, L. R. (2006). The role of teacher immediacy as a motivational factor in student learning: Using meta-analysis to test a causal model. Communication education, 55(1), 21-31.


Bernard, R. M., Abrami, P. C., Borokhovski, E., Wade, C. A., Tamim, R. M., Surkes, M. A., & Bethel, E. C. (2009). A meta-analysis of three types of interaction treatments in distance education. Review of Educational Research, 79(3), 1243-1289.


Lehman, R. M., & Conceição, S. C. (2010). Creating a sense of presence in online teaching: How to” be there” for distance learners (Vol. 18). John Wiley & Sons.


Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. US Department of Education.


Moore, M. G., & Kearsley, G. (2011). Distance education: A systems view of online learning. Cengage Learning.


Moore, M. G. (Ed.). (2013). Handbook of distance education. Routledge.

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