The concept of distance learning seems like a simple one – until you get into the fine details of the definition. Prior to my introduction to this course, my personal definition of distance learning was a simple one: learners complete courses online, while physically distant, and sometimes temporally distant, from the instructor of the course. These courses could include a variety of activities, such as video lectures/tutorials, interactive media, assigned readings, social interaction (e.g., discussion boards), and graded or ungraded assignments. I also assumed that the courses could be instructor-led or instructor-developed but taken without any instructor guidance. As it turns out, I had conflated several distinct educational terms into one definition.
Distance learning is sometimes called open education, but open education technically refers to informal education that is generally free and that does not typically provide recognized qualifications (Bates, 2013; Simonson, 2015). Additionally, open education could also be conducted on-campus (Todhunter, 2013). Other common terms that are confused with distance learning are online learning and eLearning. These terms differ because eLearning does not necessarily require the use of the internet, whereas online learning does (Todhunter, 2013). Furthermore the term online learning can be used assuming that at least 80% of the course is online (Todhunter, 2013). This then blends into the territory of hybrid learning, which has both an online and face-to-face component (Bates, 2013; Todhunter, 2013). Of course, things are further intermingled because as technology improves, often even on-campus, so-called face-to-face courses require a certain degree of online coursework (Todhunter, 2013).
This mix of terms certainly muddies the waters in terms of defining distance learning. To better understand the term, it is worth looking at the history of distance learning, which traces back to the 1800s and was intended to provide educational opportunities to those who might not otherwise have them (Tracey, 2005). This original form of distance education was print-based correspondence study between a learner and an instructor. Later, with the creation of radio and television stations, distance education evolved to include audio and/or interactive components. Following this, audio cassettes, video cassettes, CDs, and DVDs took over as the primary format for distance learning. Finally, computer- and internet-based courses became the standard for distance learning (Tracey, 2005). It is worth noting, however, that in some rare cases other forms of distance education (e.g., print-based, radio-based) are still in use (Tracey, 2005). One major drawback in the co-evolution of technology and distance learning is that the wide access once provided by this form of education has narrowed. In many cases, learners are required to have access to broadband internet to view media-heavy content (Naidu, 2014).
Based on what I have learned this week, I have developed a new definition of distance learning that considers the history and the evolution of distance learning, its relationship with other forms of learning, and the requirements laid out by Simonson (2015). I now define distance learning as learning wherein learners complete accredited courses, using generation-appropriate technological tools, when physically distant, and sometimes temporally distant, from the instructor of the course, who is actively involved in the teaching of the content and in regular contact with the learners.
At this point it is worth considering the future of distance learning. As I have described, distance learning methods and tools have transformed over time and there is no reason to think that distance learning will halt its progression. One concept that is often volleyed about, yet is difficult to attain is course personalization/flexible learning (Todhunter, 2013). Compared to the standard on-campus learning methods, distance education provides a far better platform for personalization. Furthermore, this would help bring distance learning back to its roots as a method to educate those who have limited access to educational opportunities (Tracey, 2005). To achieve personalized distance learning, I believe that technology will play a large role, just as it has in the evolution of distance learning to this point. The main technology that could help achieve this ambitious target is artificial intelligence (AI). As AI develops, it could become a useful tool to bridge the gap between learner preferences/abilities/access and learning content. Of course this technology would need to be embedded in the course itself, so that those with limited technology access could be provided with personalized courses which do not require access to multimedia. Similarly, those who require additional support could be provided with an almost endless supply of remedial work. With distance learning, this personalization could become a possibility because learning is self-paced and is not restricted in time, location, or access in the same ways as on-campus learning.
When I now look back on my original definition of distance learning, I recognize the flaws. Little did I know, there was a rich history of distance learning prior to the use of home computers and the internet. Similarly, there is likely a rich future to distance learning, beyond our current capabilities. Luckily, I am at the beginning of my career, with many decades to go, so I eagerly wait to see how the future of distance learning unfolds.
[Note: see the attached mindmap #1 for my image-based representation of distance learning and mindmap #2 for my image-based representation of the future of distance learning.]
Bates, T. (2013, October). Is there a future for distance education? Retrieved from https://www.tonybates.ca/2013/10/23/is-there-a-future-for-distance-education/
Naidu, S. (2014). Looking back, looking forward: the invention and reinvention of distance education. Distance Education, 35(3), 263-270.
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., & Zvacek, S. (2015). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (6th ed.). Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing Inc.
Todhunter, B. (2013). Limitations of online learning – are we selling the open and distance education message short? Distance Education, 34(2), 232-252.
Tracey, M., & Richey, R. (2005). The evolution of distance education. Distance Learning, 2(6), 17–21.