Sunday, September 8, 2013

Defining Distance Education

             The concept of distance education is not new. Distance education has had a presence around the world for over a century. It has evolved from correspondence courses to electronic communications to distance courses offered online through the use of the Internet such as the courses I am currently taking to pursue my graduate degree in instructional design and technology (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012). The progression of distance education has been impacted by needs or demands from society as well as advances in technology.
            Distance education in the 1800’s began with correspondence studies where students were offered instruction through print-based correspondence (Tracey & Richey, 2005). As correspondence studies grew during the 1800’s instruction became more formalized with the development of correspondence societies and provision of academic degrees offered through correspondence courses at different institutions (Simonson, at al., 2012). Distance education expanded in the 1900’s from correspondence studies to educational opportunities that were provided through advancing electronic communication technologies such as the use of television to deliver educational programming and later in the 1900’s the use of fiber-optic communication systems to create two-way communication opportunities (Simonson, at al., 2012). In the past decade advances in technology including the use the internet has allowed for further enhancements in distance education to provide students with opportunities to complete courses online (Tracey & Richey, 2005). One of the consistent characteristics of distance education throughout its progression and growth is that the instructor and learner have been separated by geographic location and sometime time.
            Prior to enrolling in a distance education program I defined distance education similar to the consistent characteristic of distance education throughout both the 1800’s and 1900’s. I have thought of distance education as a learning experience that takes place without having direct instruction from an instructor where the learner and instructor are separated by distance and learning is supported through course materials, resources, and feedback from the instructor on completed assignments. My definition of distance learning was impacted by an experience I had in my undergraduate coursework where I was unable to take a macroeconomics course required by my program due to schedule constraints. Instead I was offered the opportunity to take the course through watching lectures via VHS and completing coursework that I mailed to the professor. I did not have any direct contact from the professor other than the feedback provided on my assignments which were mailed back to me and one instance of meeting with the professor on campus at the end of the course to discuss my final paper. My definition of distance education has also been influenced by learning provided at the organization I work for. Distance education experiences that I have participated in through my job are often times completed via elearning courses or by participating in training sessions via webinars.
            My previous definition of distance education has been redefined and expanded this week. Similar to my previously held definition of distance education, Dr. Simonson explains distance education as formal education in which the learning group is separated by geography and sometimes time (Leaureate, n.d.). As an adult learner time is a critical issue for me for furthering my education academically as well as through trainings offered through my place of employment. Being able to access courses through asynchronous distance learning is an important factor that is being addressed through technology that enhances an asynchronous learning experience where the learner can access the course when it is convenient for the them (Simonson, at al., 2012).
            While my previous experiences in distance education have all been formal education both in higher education and in a business setting I never included formal education as a defining characteristic of distance education as suggested by Dr. Simonson (Laureate, n.d.). This is an important characteristic to include when defining distance education however. As distance education opportunities continue to increase in popularity it is imperative that it be delivered to the learner with high quality instruction, content, assessment, and resources (Simonson, at al., 2012). This is also of particular importance in higher education as negative perceptions of online degree programs being diploma mills continue to be dispelled which is achieved through accreditation of academic programs that are evaluated by the same accrediting agencies that evaluate traditional brick and mortar schools (Simonson, et al., 2012). Whether in higher education, corporate education, or K-12 education the definition of distance education should include the defining characteristic of being a formal education or institutionally based instruction that is evaluated for quality.
            In addition to being separated by location or time and formally based I have also expanded my definition of distance education to include interactive communication between the instructor, the learner, and the course materials and resources (Simonson, at al., 2012). Interactive communication between the learner and instructor in distance education has been enhanced in the past decade as a result of advancements in communication technology through the use of e-mail, webinars, online chat programs, and much more. With increased access to the internet through mobile devices a distance learner can interact with their instructor, the course content and their fellow classmates online regardless of the location and often regardless of time (Tracey & Richey, 2005). Interactive communication is a necessary defining characteristic to distance education to create a more effective learning experience where the learning community is enhanced by the interactions that take place between the instructor and the learner and the interactions that takes place between learners other learners within the course.
            Simonson, at al. (2012) suggest that evidence supports that distance education is effective at all age levels and the demand for distance education opportunities continues to increase. As a result the definition of distance education will continue to evolve and expand to include additional defining characteristics that are impacted by advances in technology or needs in society. The future of distance education must continue to discover ways to improve and enhance learning through delivering high quality courses that are designed effectively with the learner in mind (Simonson, et al., 2012). My vision for the future of distance education includes continued professional development for instructors that focuses on how to effectively teach distance courses. It also includes continued development opportunities for instructional designers to stay abreast of the most effective methods of delivering education at a distance. I also envision investment in highly skilled instructional designers by organizations, K-12 education, and higher education to ensure that when distance education opportunities are being developed they are high quality and will benefit the learner and the organization implementing the distance education. As the demand for distance education increases and the effectiveness of distance education in comparison to traditional education becomes increasingly accepted as being equal I envision further growth of distance education that will allow individuals around the world to expand their knowledge and skills through accessing interactive, formal educational opportunities regardless of location and time.
Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer) (n.d.) Distance education: The next generation. [Interactive       
     media] [with Dr. Michael Simonson] Retrieved from     
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a              
     distance: Foundations of distance education (5th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.
Tracey, M., & Richey, R. (2005). The evolution of distance education. Distance Learning, 2(6),     


  1. Hi Amber,

    Great Mindmap. You covered an array of areas. What program did you use to create it?


  2. Hi Cheryl,

    Thanks for checking out my post! I ended up using Prezi to create it. It was my first time using it so a few areas that are more cumbersome than other programs. I have a mind mapping app on my iPad that it super easy to use though that I love called SimpleMind, but figured Prezi would be more visually appealing and easier to embed on my blog. I use SimpleMind a lot for putting my ideas together for projects and papers. Here is the link in case you want to check it out:


  3. Amber - Good job with the definition of distance education and mentioning the how it is supported (through course materials, resources, and feedback from the instructor on completed assignments).

    Thanks for sharing about SimpleMind. I will check it out as well.