Before starting my studies at Walden, I would define Distance Learning as “online learning” and “correspondence learning”. My exposure up to this point was completing MOOCs and one online course in my degree program which was more of a one-way video conference. I’ve also participated in Bible correspondence courses and have family members who participated in other correspondence courses over the years. However, I’m sure I never knew these correspondence courses are the foundation of distance learning until this week in our course. With my limited experience and knowledge under my belt, my definition of distance learning back then would be:
Distance learning occurs where learners and facilitator make use of technology to convey new knowledge and or build on existing knowledge.
After one year with Walden, my definition and appreciation for distance learning have changed. This week’s resources included a Distance Learning Timeline Continuum (n.d), which exposed me to the growth of distance learning over the years. I was surprised to learn that distance learning dated as far back as 1833 when European newspapers offered examination courses through mail correspondences! The continuum and other resources highlight how distance learning is continually changing and perhaps will continue to change to meet the needs of its consumers. Tracey and Richey (2005) explained how legislative changes in the USA paved the way for their development in distance learning. In fact, it was these changes that allowed universities such as Walden to increase their course offering with the inclusion of undergraduate studies.
As distance education evolved over the years so too did its moniker. Over the years distance education has been referred to as “distance learning, open learning, networked learning, flexible learning, distributed learning, independent study, learning in connected space and, today, on-line learning” (Tracey & Richey, 2005). We know though that while the term “distance education” may have over time been used interchangeably with the terms previously listed they are not one and the same thing. They all in varied degrees could be seen as distance learning but by strict definition they are not distance learning. I equate this to the ever confusing math fact: a square is a rectangle but a rectangle is not always a square. Take for example open learning, it implies that the learner has the choice to determine when, where, how, and what they learn (Calder & McCollum, 1998). On the contrary, while distance learning does allow the learner to determine where and when they will participate, they cannot necessarily determine what they will learn. This is because distance programs are generally “a structured learning experience that can be engaged in away from an academic institution, at home or at a workplace” (Tracey & Richey, 2005). The work of Calder and McCollum (1998) illustrates that the use of these terms are based on one’s perception and not necessarily a theoretical point of reference.
My distance education definition
Regardless of the moniker used Simonson, Smaldino, and Zvacek (2015) maintains that distance education has four components: they are institutional based, there is a separation of learner and facilitators, they involve interactive telecommunication, and the sharing of learning experiences. With this in mind I propose the following definition to guide the discussion here:
Distance education involves the sharing of learning experiences, at any level, via interactive telecommunication technologies where both learners and facilitator are separated by time and space but are members of the same institution.
Distance education in the future
The evolution of Distance education has kept pace with that of technology. Throughout the history of technological innovations, there is some evolution of distance education directly using those innovations (Tracey & Richey, 2005). This close correlation means as we see improvements in technology, likewise will we see improvements in distance education. I do believe that there are areas that could evolve even more with today’s technology. Areas such as teacher-student and student-student interaction could be enhanced through the use of video conferencing. The use of virtual reality, whether coupled with gamification or on its own could also play a major role in the evolution of distance learning today. This has been explored but more research can be done in this area. It could allow for personalised instructions and specifically for VR, the exploration of complex concepts via distance education. However, it should be our goal not just to strive for utilization but the effective employment of the new technology that will result from research (Moller, Foshay, & Huett, 2008).
Calder, J., & McCollum, A. (1998). Open and flexible larning in vcational education and training. New York: Routledge.
Moller, L., Foshay, W. R., & Huett, J. (2008). Implications for Instructional Design on the Potential of the Web. TechTrends, 52(3), 70-75.
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., & Zvacek, S. (2015). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (6th ed.). Information Age Publishing, Inc.
Tracey, M. W., & Richey, R. C. (2005). The evolution of distance education. Distance Learning, 2(6), 17-21.