What is distance education?

"Distance learning, or 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." (Joosten, 2017, p. 399).


"Online and distance learning are learning that takes place at a distance where the learner or student and the instructor are distanciated in space or not present in the same physical space. More recently, this distance learning is happening in online environments. Although in most contexts these words can be used interchangeably, distance learning is a broader construct and online learning is a form of distance learning that takes place predominantly online. Today, online learning is more generally used. Millions of students across the country are enrolling in formal online learning opportunities, while millions more are taking advantage of informal and sometimes open online learning experiences to gain skills and knowledge to advance their careers or for personal interest. Education is transforming as the potential of having learning at one’s fingertips on their laptop or mobile device is a reality. Furthermore, online learning has the potential to increase access to formal and informal education and increase the quality of learning due to the functionalities offered by enterprise, 3rd-party, and open technologies.




Distance learning was a term that sprouted from external education or education that was usually considered continuing education where learning was outside of the traditional postsecondary education degree path. Early forms of distance education included correspondence learning, which has a history over a hundred years. These forms of education were considered a method of receiving an education to advance one’s career and not necessarily to earn a degree. The ability to deliver an education at a distance was particularly useful to individuals that were unable to access traditional forms of education due to physical distance or demands on their time. The ability to design and deliver a learning experience completely online became a reality and online learning has become the more common terminology used to describe distance learning that takes place online or through digital media. Moreover, online learning became more prominent in the last couple decades due to the advancement of the Internet and online technologies that can facilitate quality learning. These technologies have the ability to create a sense of proximity even though students are not in the same place. Furthermore, many educators prefer the term online learning since it does not connote students are distant from each other emotionally, cognitively, or behaviorally.


Distance and online learning are appealing because they allows instructors and students to push time in order to accomplish learning objectives providing more flexibility in when and where students participate in activities. Distance and online learning now offer an alternative delivery mode to face-to-face instruction. These delivery modes have extended beyond external and continuing education to undergraduate and graduate degree programs throughout the country. There is now broad diffusion of these modes of learning with millions of students in our country taking an online course, but not all online learning experiences are the same. There are several defining characteristics that can help illustrate the similarities and differences between distance and online education models.


Defining characteristics


Online learning is defined by various characteristics beyond the boundary of space and use of an online medium. One key characteristics is time or the temporal boundary of when learning occurs. Many times online learning is seen as learning that can happen anywhere and anytime. Yet, many times the learning happens at a specific time. The temporal characteristic is usually determined based on whether the learning was designed as synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous is learning that happens in real time. It is a key characteristic in the traditional, face-to-face instruction since students meet in a classroom at the same time. Some early forms of online and distance learning replicated face-to-face classroom learning and was synchronous. However, in online learning, a preference has been given to facilitating asynchronous learning or learning that pushes time allowing students flexibility in not only where they learn, but when they learn.


Another key characteristic in defining distance and online learning is the richness of the media. Face-to-face is considered the richest medium since all cues are available (e.g., verbal, nonverbal). Early distance learning or correspondence learning could be seen as lean since the instructional materials were usually written and distributed to students via the postal mail system. As distance learning transformed into online learning due to the advancements of technologies, the richness of the technology or media became a more pertinent defining characteristic because more variations of richness became available. Lean media are considered media or mediums with less cues available to communicate the message (e.g., text sent in an electronic mail system), while rich media have more cues available to the receiver or student (e..g, audio or video sent to a student via television or on the web). The richness or leanness of the media or technology-enhanced mediums used or the mixed used of different richnesses to accomplish different pedagogical goals is an important characteristic in defining different approaches to delivering online and distance learning.


Technology used to deliver the instruction and learning is another important characteristic in understanding online learning. Technologies provide a broad array of functions that can assist in the educational process. For instance, they can help reduce instructor workload and increase efficiency of instructor tasks, such as delivering content, collecting assignments, providing feedback, conducting assessments, documenting interactions, and sharing grades. Another example is in the ability to use technologies to increase student interactivity with content, the instructor, and their peers. Student and instructors can annotate texts, aggregate open education resources, discuss topics amongst the participants, collaborate on projects, and get frequent updates on learning happenings. As illustrated, every task of the learning process can be completed online today due to the advancements in technology.


Through the decades technologies have advanced in the areas of hardware, software, Internet bandwidth, and Internet access. Traditional technologies used to deliver early distance and online learning included televised or recorded broadcast video and audio technologies, web sites, and electronic mail. More recently technologies used include learning management or instructional systems containing tools, such as discussions, chat, content, news, course information, quizzes, and gradebook. These systems are many times integrated with other 3rd-party tools that facilitate such functions as online collaborative meetings with audio and video, media storage and delivery, open education resources curation, publisher content delivery, plagiarism detection, online proctoring, and adaptive learning. Notably, a current movement in open online learning has led to a move outside of such systems using open social media tools.


A final defining characteristic is the pedagogy facilitated through course and instructional design embedded within the technology systems. Primarily, there have been to main approaches to pedagogy in online and distance learning: 1.) teacher-centered, and 2.) student-centered. These are not necessarily an either or situation, but a course can have elements of both. It is best to consider these has a dialectical tension where a course may lie to one end or the other, or in the middle. Historically, face-to-face education has been teacher-centered. Many times this has been referred to lecture-based courses with the instructor being the sage on the stage. Student-centered seems to focus less on the transmission model of learning and more on the instructor taking on the role of guide on the side where they design and facilitate activities between and among students to accomplish the desired learning outcomes for the course. More recently, new pedagogical or instructional models have become relevant in online learning. These models include self-paced learning which may be self-paced, mastery-based, competency-based, personalized, or adaptive. The pedagogy can range from very structured to very unstructured and can take place in varying degrees of open or closed systems. Again, the pedagogy in the course and instructional design may take on elements from several of these approaches.




There are is an extensive list of different models of online and distance learning. In the following, a few prominent models through the past several decades will be described. With the rise of broadcast and communication technologies and computer-mediated communication, exploration into distance education delivery via electronic technologies and computers began. These explorations happened in traditional courses and degree programs as well as in distance education for external and continuing education.


One early model is considered the broadcast model of distance and online learning. This model is popular when educators are looking to replicate the face-to-face, lecture environment. Audio and video lectures were delivered via radio, television, or other broadcast systems to a remote location. Many times these lectures were recorded and delivered to students on a cassette tape, videotape, or CD when these technologies were available. This model is still used today using online systems to live stream lectures or pre-record lectures for later retrieval or delivery online. These technologies are now accessible due to their reduction in cost and ease of use from any computer. The broadcast model can be synchronous or asynchronous or a mix of both and tend to be seen as a richer media since the cues of the instructor are available to the student. Yet, they usually lack in their ability to provide interaction among students and between the instructor and students (beyond the one-way lectures). The pedagogy of broadcast models of distance and online learning tend to facilitate a teacher-centered pedagogy. Supplemental activities to drive student interactions may be included. Research comparing these distance courses to face-to-face instruction was conducted and no significant difference in students outcomes was reported.


As time progressed, distance and online learning experiences more fully utilized computers and the Internet, specifically computer-mediated communication (e.g., email, asynchronous communication tools) or websites, to facilitate activities (e.g., group work) or entire courses with an emphasis on collaboration. Websites and email became easier to use for instruction, which led to advancement in fully online course delivery. This model focused on networked and collaborative learning through asynchronous communication tools to create learning networks. The focus shifted from content-driven or transmission model to a more constructivist approach to learning. However, there usually was still a lecture component that was a written or pre-recorded. Learning was designed to utilize tools that increased the connection among students and with the instructor. Interactivity and dialog became important components of the learning experience. The development of learning management and instructional systems led to a more structured approach to this model with an array of tools and 3rd party tools to drive learning, yet led to a great focus on interactivity through communication and collaboration tools (LMS synchronous tools, BB Collaborate, Adobe Connect), assessment and feedback tools (LMS Dropbox, Gradebook), and content delivery tools (LMS Content, Kaltura, Gingkotree, WordPress). An array of technologies with differing richness are used in the networked and collaborative learning model. Likewise, there were comparisons of the modes with no significant differences found.


More recently, there has been a move for advancement of online learning models providing students even more flexibility in when, where, and how they complete their learning or show evidence that they have learned. Several new forms of online and distance learning have developed by providing open opportunities for online learning through more structured technology systems (e.g., LMS) and open learning through less structured systems through social media. These models are referred to as Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs. Specifically, content-driven MOOCs or MOOCs that follow the broadcast model of online and distance learning are referred to as xMOOCs, and connection-drive MOOCs that follow the networked and collaborative learning model are referred to as cMOOCs. The xMOOCs grew out of the delivery of recorded lectures from prestigious experts through technology systems developed by private companies. These were teacher-centered content driven pedagogies, yet many offer opportunities for interaction through large discussions and assessment of learning through auto-grading tools. The cMOOCs were developed as a connectivistic experiment to bring together individuals using a learner-centered approach using free and open social media tools, such as wikis, blogs, and microblogs, to facilitate the aggregation of content and building peer networks and collaborations. These open models of online learning allow individuals beyond institutional and national boundaries to come together and learn about a topic of interest for little or no cost to the learner. Although both models are predominantly asynchronous, there may be synchronous elements. Again, an array of technologies with different functionality and richnesses are used.


Another model that recently has unbundled online learning is an online learning model that has developed that focuses more on documenting or assessing students aligned with learning objectives at the student’s own pace with amplified support from instructional staff. However, sometimes these models are asynchronous with a more traditional temporal timeframe. These models are usually different in that they have an instructional approach that focuses on gathering assessments or direct assessment of students ability to illustrate mastery or demonstrate a competency. The common term today is called competency-based education that happens online, so it can be considered a distance and online learning opportunity. Although competency-based education is not new, the current use of it in designing learning experiences combined with self-pacing and personalized support is growing in popularity across the U.S. An array of technologies with richness and functionality are used as with the networked and collaborative model, yet there is little focus on creating substantial interactivity among students. The primary interactions the student has is with the content, the assessment and feedback, and their instructional support staff" (Joosten, 2017, p. unknown).




Joosten, T. (2017). Distance education. In M. Allen (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods. SAGE Publishing.


Joosten, T. (2017). Distance and online learning. In K. Peppler (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Out-of-School Learning. SAGE Publishing.


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.