First, let’s clarify that these terms are synonymous: Distance Learning, Distance Education, e-learning, online learning.  My chosen term is “distance learning”, so because this is my blog, that is the term that will be used 🙂
Now for a definition . . . I had considered distance education to be any education that was not done face-to-face.  It seems a bit too simple, and in fact, it is too simple.

My second attempt at a definition included technology.  So, now I defined distance learning as: education that did not happen face-to-face and was facilitated through the use of technology.

At this point in the evolution of a definition I decided to take an online course. 


It was education,

we were not face-to-face

and it was conducted over the internet; but, something was missing – it was awful.

We had a paper textbook with chapters and questions at the end of the chapters and we were assigned a chapter to read and the questions to answer.  The “online” part was the fact that the course syllabus was online and we our assignments were submitted via e-mail.

Yikes #2: what we submitted via e-mail looked like this:

I’m not kidding – I wish I was kidding, I had to copy my answers into an e-mail (and try to copy them correctly or my studying and problem-solving would have been a waste of time)
Now let’s talk about supplemental material. Material that was not in our textbook was presented to us online in the form of a PDF document.  Yikes #3: the PDF document consisted of pages of text from a book that someone had scanned.  Some of the text was clear but some would be fuzzy because the original did not lay flat on the scanner similar to this:

Yikes #4: some people may have had this exact experience with distance learning and began their own “Yikes” list and vowed to never take an online course again.  A tragedy because I have grown to love distance learning and want everyone else to love it too.  I hope their path followed mine and they continued  re-definition distance learning for themselves.

My next experience was dramatically different (thank goodness) the course was formatted within a CMS (Course Management System) which takes the course from orientation to final exam and puts it into a clear template of tabs, drop-down menus, grade sheets, etc.  The result is that the learner has all of the course information in one place and can see their progression through the lessons.

So my definition of distance learning became: education that is not face-to-face, uses technology effectively and presents the course material in a learner-friendly format.
Yes!  That was it!, until . . .

I began a course titled “Distance Learning”

Now I realize that my definition of distance learning MUST include:

  • that a contract is needed: From education-expert Grenville Rumble (1989, as cited in Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009) I learned that there needs to be an understanding between the teacher and learner of the expectations and assumptions (I guess I had assumed that the learner knew they had to submit stuff and the teacher knew they had to give feedback on the stuff that was submitted)
  • a connection between the learner, resources, and instructor (a connection between the learners would be good too).  This is a large part of the reason for my first Yikes: I did not feel any connection with the professor, or with the course resources.  I was alone and struggling with really poor quality materials.
  • an interactive component.  The example of this is in my Yikes #2 where I had to type my pencil/paper answers into a e-mail message.  Gosh, it would have been great if the instructor had created a simple Google Docs form like this one:

  • part of the education can be face-to-face.  This is often termed “blended” course delivery and exists where any part of the process is done face-to-face (even if the learners and instructor only meet at the start of the term)
  • did I mention two-way communication?  well, it is worth mentioning again.  The learner needs to feel they are “in-touch” with the instructor and, possibly, the other learners.  The two-way communication can even be “canned”, for example midway through the term a supportive, encouraging e-mail message could be triggered to be sent to the learner.
  • a support-system for the learner and teacher.  This can take the form of a CMS as described above or it can just be support information given to the student “call this number if the material does not download”, “click on this link if you want to see your current grade in the course”
  • the learning/teaching can happen synchronously or asynchronously.  I had assumed that distance education meant you would never have a chance to be “live” with your professor or classmates but this is not true.  Live chats where all parties type to teach other in “real time” are popular as are “webinars” which are seminar’s held online with a lecturer speaking live (usually supported visually by a PowerPoint type presentation) to a type-chatting audience.  Like Elluminate, shown here

What will the future hold?

Huett, Moller, Foshay & Coleman say that: What we are witnessing with the current evolution of distance education and the technologies that support it is nothing less than the single most important reorganization of how we will engage learners since we started to gather students together in school buildings. (2008, p. 65-66)

Here are my hopes for this grand evolution:

  • distance learning being defined as having an attitude of collaboration between learners teacher seen as “guide” not “expert”
  • value placed on achieving a new understanding of a defined issue/problem/project/theme (as opposed to value placed on one person’s achievement).  Further explained by Moller, Foshay, & Huett:  “Web-based instruction thus holds the promise of increasing communication among learners, including re-conceptualized learning from a one-shot fixed term to an on-going event that is intermingled with the actual work processes.” (2008, p. 73)
    • An example of a rich environment of sharing not motivated by individual goals is:   Decameron Web which I talk about in a post on July 9, 2010.  I want to share this very long excerpt from the “about the project” page of the web-site, to make it a shorter (more blog appropriate post entry I have bolded some of the text for you):

“The guiding question of our project is how contemporary informational technology can facilitate, enhance and innovate the complex cognitive and learning activities involved in reading a late medieval literary text like Boccaccio’s Decameron. We fundamentally believe that the new electronic environment and its tools enable us to revive the humanistic spirit of communal and collaboratively “playful” learning of which the Decameron itself is the utmost expression. Through a creative use of technology, our project provides the reader with an easily accessible and flexible yet well-structured wealth of information on the literary, historical and cultural context of the Decameron, thus allowing a vivid yet rigorously philological understanding of the past in which the work was conceived. At the same time, our project is meant to facilitate the creative expression of a multiplicity of perspectives which animate our contemporary readings. By reconciling in a collaborative fashion the reader’s freedom with a sound cognition of serious, scholarly achievements in the study of the Decameron, our project is also an example of how new technologies can provide an innovative pedagogical medium for a fulfilling educational experience based on a literary text that is open to a variety of cultural interests and levels of learning.”  About the Project

  • technology used creatively and effectively by teachers and learners
    • There are some great great great stories about professionals who are doing this right now, here is one example:
      • Teacher/Guide: Cherrie MacInnes; Project Name: Chatting Across the USA; Project Overview: Third grade students connecting with their peers to share information about their states; technology used: e-mail and twitter to find peers, skype to make a live connection for sharing between the two classes, google earth to map the states they had connected with, an online journal to record their experience and provide a data bank to build-on in Fourth Grade or for next year’s Third Graders to build-on

(Information about this project is at: Education Week, June 2, 2010:

(I learned about the project in a live-chat with the Seedlings group on the webinar forum EdTechTalk.  Here is the link to that program:

Finally (I hear you saying: thank goodness), we hear a lot about 21st Century Skills: what they are, why they matter, and how to teach them.  I believe that replacing the Information Age is the Collaboration Age and for this to be a richly productive Age we must begin to view technology as a creative medium with which we can connect learners across the world in new and exciting avenues of exploration.

Cited resources:

Huett, J., Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Coleman, C. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 3: K12). TechTrends, 52(5), 63–67.

Moller, L., Forshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008). The Evolution of Distance Education: Implications for Instructional Design on the Potential of the Web. TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning, 52(3), 70-75. doi:10.1007/s11528-008-0158-5.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.