EDUC 6135-1: Week 1 Assignment – Defining Distance Learning

This week’s materials and my peers’ reflections have brought me to take a deeper and broader view of distance education. Now new to distance education experiences though I am, it has never entered my mind to define the concept of distance learning even for the sake of personal understanding. On the surface, it has all seemed quite clear to me. However, with the reading done this week, I see that quite a few aspects of distance education have escaped me so far, and now I have more questions than answers. The thinking I have done in the past few days has brought me to the Socratic paradox: “ipse se nihil scire id unum sciat” (“I know one thing: that I know nothing” [taken literally, but not in Socrate’s actual context]).

The first thing that set me thinking was the need for a definition, which is both a basis for and a product of accepted theory. I was most impressed by Keegan’s argument (as quoted in Simonson et al, 2012, p.42) in favor of developing an accepted theory of distance education: “Lack of accepted theory has weakened distance education: there had been a lack of identity, a sense of belonging to the periphery and the lack of a touchstone against which decisions on methods, on media, on financing, on student support, when they have to be made, can be made with confidence.”

Keegan’s view is supported by Todhunter (2013), who believes that without research-based theory, distance education will be viewed as inferior and its status as a self-sufficient and effective mode of learning and instruction, as well as its right to occupy a separate niche in the education service market, will not be recognized: “The implications can be quite significant as there are still jurisdictions where qualifications from a distance education university are not recognised [sic]” (p.237).

With distance education having been around for over a century and a half, it is, indeed, surprising that no universally recognized definition should have yet been offered, which may be due to the fact that distance education is an ever-changing, multifaceted field and it is hardly possible to produce a single definition that would embrace a concept as complex as distance education – the very concept of ‘distance’ appears to be broader than I would have ever thought it to be, being not merely spatial and temporal, but also intellectual (Simonson et al, 2012).

Therefore, it is no wonder and, to my mind, even reasonable that researchers view distance education from different angles, and emphasize different aspects of it. While definitions produced this way are rather restrictive (Spodick, 1995) for failure to address the full scope of issues related to distance education, they are valuable for each seems to target a particular segment of the stakeholder population, which is highly diverse in terms of needs and vested interests. Moreover, the numerous definitions that exist share a common core (the four components suggested by Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek [2012]), they do not contradict but, rather, complement each other.

Trying to develop an understanding of distance education and define it for myself, I first ask myself the question concerning what a definition should be based on. The options are numerous: Desmond Keegan (as cited in Simonson et al, 2012) focuses on the differences between distance and other modes of instructional delivery; Grenville Rumble (as cited in Simonson et al, 2012) tends to put emphasis on the administrative aspects; Garrison and Shale (as cited in Simonson et al, 2012) argue that more stress should be put on the technological issues, while Spodick (1995) is critical of such approaches for, according to him, they fail “to recognise [sic] the actual needs of distance education users and providers” (p.77), “educational opportunities for broader segments of the population, accommodating different situations and needs” (p.78).

All these perspectives appear to me to be equally important, and an ideal definition should certainly cover them all. However, how far should each aspect be specified for the definition not to become overly-restrictive, to remain flexible enough to provide for regional, national, and cultural differences and different stakeholder groups’ needs, and at the same time not blur with the modes of education (Todhunter, 2013)? Perhaps, in order to be comprehensive, a definition should be nothing more than a skeleton describing the more nationally / regionally / culturally generalizable features of distance education? These are the questions that I am yet to answer for myself.

For now, I can only go so far as to identify the primary domains to be specified for distance education: Who is involved, Where and When learning and instruction occur, How learning occurs, and Why students and institutions engage in distance education. These seem to me to be the most salient features of each mode of education that can help distinguish it from all others. Answers to these questions lead me to define distance education as a learning/instructional process involving an accredited formal educational institution and officially selected and admitted students, during which a student engages in active learning through mediated student-student, student-instructor, and student-resources synchronous or asynchronous interactions in order to obtain an official degree.

Distance education is constantly undergoing the process of evolution and change, which can be attributed to the ever-increasing attention that it attracts from more and more segments of society and business as a flexible, cost- and time-effective way to acquire new knowledge and skills.

Currently, “despite the huge number of accredited distance programs and research that has been done showing that they are often equal or superior in quality to campus-based programs, ministries and other entities in some countries still do not recognize even accredited degrees earned through distance methods” (AMIDEAST, 2013, para.3). I am certain, the situation will change, and distance education will be recognized as the most adaptable, high-effective field of learning/instruction capable of combining meaningful quality standards (Moller et al, 2008) with cutting-edge pedagogical / andragogical practices and learner-needs-driven customization of content (Beldarrain, 2006).


AMIDEAST. (2013). Evaluating a distance education program. Retrieved from http://www.

Beldarrain, Y. (2006). Distance education trends: Integrating new technologies to foster student interaction and collaboration. Distance Education, 27(2), 139-153

Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 2: Higher education). TechTrends, 52(4), 66-70.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (5th ed.). Boston, Massachussetts, United States of America: Pearson Education, Inc.

Spodick, E.F. (1995). The evolution of distance learning. Proceedings 1st Asian Information Meeting, Hong Kong, 27039 September 1995, 77-88.

Todhunter, B. (2013). Reflection. LOL – limitations of online learning – are we selling the open and distance education message short? Distance Education, 34(2), 232-252.


References for the Mindmap:

  1. Davis, A., Little, P., & Stewart, B. (2008). Developing an infrastructure for online learning. In T.Anderson (Ed.), The theory and practice of online learning [2nd ed.]. Canada: AU Press.
  2. Holmberg, B. (2008). The evolution, principles, and practices of distance education: Volume 11. BIS – Vertag der Carl von Ossietzky Universitaet Oldenburg.
  3. Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education(5th ed.). (K. V. Canton, Ed.) Boston, Massachussetts, United States of America: Pearson Education, Inc.
  4. Spodick, E.F. (1995). The evolution of distance learning. Proceedings 1st Asian Information Meeting, Hong Kong, 27-31 September 1995, 77-88.

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