Rethinking Distance Education

July 1, 2011 at 10:35 pm 1 comment

In the mid-nineties, I was working for a national non-profit organization. We had some pressing training needs for field staff but no real way to make it happen due to resource constraints. We had just started using a service that allowed us to have conference calls and I thought this might be a potentialOrange Phone solution. We could send people a slide presentation to follow on their computer and deliver the lecture over the phone. It was a pretty novel idea at the time – distance staff education.  If you had asked me at the time, I would have defined distance education as content delivered to participants who were physically separated from the instructors. Since then, my conceptualization of distance education has evolved.

Distance education has been defined as “institution-based, formal education where the learning group is separated, and where interactive telecommunication systems are used to connect learners, resources and instructors (Simonson, et., al., 2009).” The interaction between the learners and instructors can occur at the same time (synchronous) or there can be a delay in the interaction (asynchronous).  My idea to train field staff over the phone technically fell within this definition of distance education.  However, I was thinking of simply delivering my in-person course over the phone without taking into account the limitations of the technology or its potential advantages.

According to the Sloan Consortium the ideal online learning environment for learning effectiveness includes interaction with classmates and instructors, course design that takes advantage of the medium’s capabilities, an emphasis on communications and community building, and courses that are instructor led (Moore, 2005).  While this description focuses on the online environment, I think it offers a useful vision for distance education delivered using any telecommunication platform.  Distance education isn’t classroom education that happens to be delivered over the phone, webcam or via webinar. It is an educational strategy that leverages the capabilities of the medium to promote collaboration and learning.

Beyond the Next Button

Had I narrated my slides and sent them out to participants, I don’t think it would have fallen within the above definition of distance education because of the lack of interaction between the learner and the instructor. This point has actually been a more recent “a-ha” moment for me in the evolution of my thinking on distance education. In focusing on bridging the distance, I think I may be neglecting the “education”. Distance education holds the promise of delivering educational activities to large groups of people, fairly quickly and at a lower cost than in-person training.  In a rush to convert all of our training to e-learning have we considered that a person sitting at their desk clicking through slides is not education when it lacks interaction between the learner, other learners and the instructor? Simonson et., al.’s review of various definitions of distance learning all include interaction with an instructor (2009). A learner working alone at their desk is self-study. Education involves assessment and guidance from an instructor (Simonson, 2009).

Finger clicking a mouse buttonI think web 2.0 social networking technologies hold the potential to put interaction into e-learning activities. Instead of learners clicking the next button, they can tweet an idea or response to a question to the instructor or subject matter expert.  In fact, new e-learning software is allowing designers to integrate Twitter into e-learning courses (Adobe, 2011). Learners could also click a link to join an online community of practice or contribute to a course wiki. They could share a video with classmates and the instructor, and the instructor could share one back. Instructional designers can leverage collaborative Web 2.0 tools to bring instructor interaction, community building and communication into e-learning, making it a true distance education experience.

 Take Home Message

How would I define distance education now? Education where the learner and instructor are separated, that has been specifically designed to leverage interactive telecommunication technology to connect learners to resources, instructors, subject matter experts and a community of learners.  It is not a way to deliver your in-person lecture over the phone. It is an approach to education that takes full advantage of telecommunications resources to support learning.

Mind map of my definition of distance education

My evolving definition of distance education


Moore, J.  (2005). The Sloan Consortium Quality Framework and the Five Pillars. Sloan-C, accessed July 1, 2011 from

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


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Lucia  |  November 9, 2011 at 2:39 am


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