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Distance Learning in Higher Education - Related Terms and Concepts, Goals of Distance Learning, Technologies Used in Distance Learning

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For more than a century, distance learning in higher education has constantly evolved–both in practice and in the definition of the term. As in many academic pursuits that are still in a state of development, there have been debates not only about the definition, but also about the words distance and learning themselves. While there is no one authority to arbitrate this issue, reviewing some well-researched definitions yields some common concepts.

In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Department of Education undertook two studies that tallied the number of U.S. institutions offering distance-learning courses, the number of courses that they offered, and the number of students served by the courses. The studies defined distance education as "education or training courses delivered to remote (off-campus) location(s) via audio, video (live or prerecorded), or computer technologies" (Lewis, Farris, and Levin, p.2). To gain a precise count, the Department of Education listed what should and should not be counted as distance education. For example, they asked that courses taught by faculty traveling to a remote site not be included.

In the late 1990s the American Association of University Professors addressed the rapid adoption of distance learning in their Statement on Distance Education. This document defined distance education (or distance learning) as education in which "the teacher and the student are separated geographically so that face-to-face communication is absent; communication is accomplished instead by one or more technological media, most often electronic (interactive television, satellite television, computers, and the like)" (American Association of University Professors website).

Also late in the 1990s, the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) developed a publication entitled The Distance Learner's Guide to assist learners in successfully finding and taking courses at a distance. The authors sought a definition that did not focus on technology and would be easy for anyone to understand: "Perhaps the simplest definition is that distance learning takes place when the instructor and student are not in the same room, but instead are separated by physical distance" (Connick, p. 3).

Three main concepts are common to these definitions:

  • Education. A course of study is being undertaken involving both teaching and learning.
  • Overcoming barriers of place and/or time. Teachers and learners traditionally meet at an appointed place at an appointed time to pursue a course of study. Distance learning originally developed to overcome the difficulties of teachers and learners who were not in the same geographic location. More recently, distance learning may also serve those who might be at the same location, but choose not to meet at the same time.
  • A tool is used to facilitate learning. To overcome the distance of place or time, some form of technology is used to communicate between the teacher and learner. Originally, the technologies of pen, paper, and the postal service were used to connect them. As electronic communication technologies (audio, video, and data) became readily accessible to learners, these have been increasingly used.

Related Terms and Concepts

While the term distance learning is widely used, the rapid development of communications technologies in the late 1990s and early 2000s created many variations on the theme. To understand distance learning, it is helpful to examine other closely related terms and concepts.

Correspondence study. The original form of distance learning, correspondence study involves the exchange of the written word, on paper, between teacher and learner. Improvements in transportation technologies (i.e., trains, trucks, planes) have assisted the postal service in making this an increasingly more viable method of study.

Distance education. Those wishing to focus on the learner as the center of the instructional process favor using the word learning. Others insist that the higher education institution cannot force someone to learn, and that the activity undertaken by the institution is education, not learning.

Distributed education. As electronic technologies provided more assistance to overcome the barriers of time, instead of just distance, some felt that the focus on distance had outlived its usefulness. In distributed education, education is available (or "distributed") to any location at any time. Often a mix of technologies is proposed, including face-to-face instruction.

Hybrid classes. These courses use a mixture of distance learning and face-to-face techniques. For example, a group of learners in a biology class may meet face-to-face for their laboratory work, but the remainder of the instruction may be offered via television or computer.

Open learning. This is a term for distance learning commonly used in the British Commonwealth countries. The term derives from the Open University of the United Kingdom. To assist those not privileged to attend Britain's selective universities, the Open University began offering classes in the 1960s via a combination of written materials, televised programs, and local tutors. Open universities have spread throughout the Commonwealth countries and serve millions of students throughout the world.

Online learning. Distance learning where the bulk of instruction is offered via computer and the Internet is called online learning.

E-learning. Gaining popularity in the early 2000s, the term e-learning refers to any electronically assisted instruction, but is most often associated with instruction offered via computer and the Internet.

Goals of Distance Learning

Educational opportunities are numerous: There are colleges and universities throughout the world, and there are specialty colleges that teach trades of every kind. Why then is distance learning needed?

The main goal of distance learning is to overcome barriers of place and time. Learners may live in isolated, rural areas and have no access to education. Other learners may have ready access to a college, but that college might not offer the course of study needed by that learner. Distance learning allows education to reach those who are not able to physically attend courses on a campus. Further, as learners attempt to balance family, work, and education, time becomes a precious commodity. Driving to campus, parking, and spending time in class at an appointed (and probably inconvenient) time may not fit into the learner's overall schedule. Distance learning courses increasingly allow learners to participate at a time that is most suitable for their schedule.

Distance learning can also overcome barriers of learning styles. "We now know that people learn in different ways, and that because some students do not absorb information well from a lecture style of instruction does not mean they are stupid…. But research won't change things until its findings are put to use" (Hull, p. 7). The common complaint about distance learning is that "it is not for everyone." While this complaint could also be made of the lecture method of teaching, it still predominates on campus. Electronic education tools, formerly used only in distance learning, are increasingly being used in both on- and off-campus courses. "Almost two-thirds (64.1%) of all college courses now utilize electronic mail, up from … 20.1 percent in 1995" (Green, p. 7). Using video, audio, active learning, simulations, and electronic advances can overcome problems encountered by learners who do not adapt to just one learning style.

Other educational barriers can also be overcome by distance learning. Learners with physical or mental handicaps have attained degrees without going to a campus. Distance learning allows those with physical handicaps that prevent or hamper their attendance in person to pursue an education. Distance learning allows those with mental handicaps to follow the instructional materials at their own pace.

Workers may find that they are in need of additional skills to maintain a job or advance in the workplace. Distance learning allows these workers to obtain these skills without quitting their jobs, uprooting their families, and moving to a campus.

Distance learning can help students advance toward a degree more quickly. Utah has made a statewide strategic plan to use distance learning to allow high school students to take college courses while still in high school. Distance learning allows students to enter college with credits and obtain a higher education degree in less time.

Learners already enrolled on a campus may seek specialized courses not available on that campus. Distance learning has allowed some learners to transfer courses into their program that are only available at other campuses.

There is also a cost avoidance, or cost saving, factor. Some countries and U.S. states have avoided or delayed investments in campus buildings by serving some learners via distance or open learning. Sometimes erroneously labeled a cost savings, the investments in distance learning assist the government in avoiding the higher costs of building new campuses or campus buildings.

Technologies Used in Distance Learning

Various technologies have been used to overcome the distance between the teacher and the learner. Using these technologies, the teacher prepares the lesson and sends it to the learner, and the learner then interacts with the lesson and sends feedback (questions, assignments, tests) to the teacher. As technologies have improved, so has the quality of this interaction.

An important concept to understand is the difference between two distinct forms of communications: synchronous and asynchronous. " Synchronous communication is communication in which all parties participate at the same time. Synchronous communication in distance learning emphasizes a simultaneous group learning experience. Teachers and students communicate in 'real time"' (Connick, p. 8). An example of synchronous (happening at the same time) communication is a conversation. Whether face-to-face or on the telephone, to have a conversation both parties in the conversation must participate at the same time.

" Asynchronous communication is communication in which the parties participate at different times. Asynchronous communication offers a choice of where and, above all, when you will access learning … you may read or view these materials at your own convenience" (Connick, p. 8). Examples of asynchronous (not at the same time) communication include letters and e-mails. To communicate by letter does not require both parties to communicate at the same time. One person composes a letter and mails it. The other reads the letter upon receiving it and then responds.

Most teachers and learners are much more familiar with synchronous communication in education. All teacher and learners come to the classroom at the same time, make presentations, and hold discussions. As communication technologies have developed, distance-learning teachers have experimented with them to find ways to improve teacher-learner and learner-learner interactions.

Advances in printing, writing, and transportation led to correspondence study, the first major form of distance learning. Teachers would identify books, prepare lessons, and mail them to the learner. Initially, these materials were completely in printed or written form, and the learner would study the lessons, complete the assignments, and mail them back to the teacher. Communication depended on the speed of the postal service. Given the long lag time between lessons, learners often failed to complete the courses.

In the first half of the twentieth century, broadcast technologies, such as radio and television, became staples in every home, and colleges experimented with offering lectures via radio as a way to supplement correspondence courses. "The advent of television brought Sunrise Semester and its relatives: the first telecourses. Professor Frank Baxter introduced Shakespeare to millions … there was a heavy instructional component in the schedules of America's first educational television stations in the 50's and 60's, well before the creation of PBS" (Witerspoon, p. 5). In the early twenty-first century, open universities (in the United Kingdom and throughout the British Commonwealth) and the Public Broadcasting System in the United States still broadcast many courses via television. The increasingly high production values and use of experts of world-renown have increased the educational effectiveness of these courses. With the advent of cable television, federal regulations in the United States required that a few channels be set aside for public, education, and government use. Some colleges broadcast classes to cable television subscribers.

Recording and playback technologies are asynchronous technologies that have also found their ways into the homes of learners. Colleges in metropolitan areas have used audiotapes of lectures to reach learners who spend a considerable amount of time commuting to work. Videotapes of lectures and classroom interaction have been used to supplement correspondence course materials. Some colleges have also created highly produced courses that rival those made by PBS. CD-ROMs have increased in popularity as a recording medium as they can contain audio, video, and data files. CD-ROMs are durable, easy to reproduce, and inexpensive to mail.

All of these technologies have relied on consumer products that are available in many homes. There is also experimentation and widespread use of closed-circuit technologies that require special equipment and often require the learner to travel to a local college, library, or other learning center to access the instruction. "In 1959 … two DC-6 aircraft became high-altitude TV stations, operating from Purdue University and flying figure eights over Indiana to serve K–12 schools in portions of six Midwestern states" (Witerspoon, p. 5). That experiment was the precursor of satellite transmissions of courses. National Technological University still transmits engineering courses via satellite from its member colleges to corporate sites throughout the world. Students may participate synchronously, or they may tape the courses and view them later. In the United States, the federal government has set aside a portion of the microwave broadcast spectrum for educational use only. Colleges use the resulting Instructional Television Fixed Services (ITFS) to transmit courses to sites and homes that have special receivers. In the late 1980s and into the mid-1990s, two-way video was adopted by a large number of colleges. This synchronous technology employs cameras and monitors at geographically dispersed sites, allowing teachers and learners to both see and hear each other.

The most recent advances in technologies have focused on computers and the Internet. The popularity of these technologies has grown as an increasing number of personal computers entered homes, and as an increasing amount of data could be transmitted over regular telephone lines. The 1960s and 1970s saw experiments using computer-assisted instruction, which were self-contained computer programs that led the learner through the lessons. Given the speed of the computers, many of these programs were originally text-based, and they were greatly improved in later years when graphics, pictures, animation, video, and audio could be added. The Internet created a boom in online learning at the end of the twentieth century. The choice of either synchronous or asynchronous communications options, the ability to add audio and video, as well as a variety of new teaching techniques has made the online learning environment more attractive to both teachers and learners.

In the future, computer processing power should continue to increase at the same great rate that it did during the 1890s and 1990s. Internet 2, a high-speed Internet focused on education and research, is one of many high-speed communications options that are under development. Such advances will allow distance learners to have more access to both synchronous and asynchronous audio, video, and computer simulations. As teachers become more familiar with these technologies, they will continue to become part of nearly every class, both on and off campus.


CONNICK, GEORGE P., ed. 1999. The Distance Learner's Guide. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

GREEN, KENNETH C. 2001. Campus Computing 2001. Encino, CA: Campus Computing Project.

HULL, DAN. 1995. Who Are You Calling Stupid? Waco, TX: Cord.

LEWIS, LAURIE; SNOW, KYLE; FARRIS, ELIZABETH; and LEVIN, DOUGLAS. 1999. Distance Education at Postsecondary Education Institutions: 1997–98. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

WITERSPOON, JOHN P. 1997. Distance Education: A Planner's Casebook, revised edition. Boulder, CO: Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications–Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education Publications.




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