Defining Distance Learning

earth and mouse

I first understood the value of distance learning when I was offered access to hundreds of online training modules through my employer, the US Department of State, between the years 1994 and 2003. The training included modules on learning advanced software programs and customer service support. The modules were self paced without any interactions with an instructor or other learners; in addition, it was content based. I appreciated that I can learn on my own, using my computer, without having to go to a class or spend hours commuting to a training centre. From this, I shaped my first definition of distance learning which is learning happens in different geographical location, through the Internet, and is designed to reach out to professionals who want to advance their education and knowledge.

Years later I took my first online course in project management through a distance education institution. Through the course, I used a learning management system, interacted with my instructor and collaborated with students throughout the course. I realized the differences between distance education and distance learning. Distance education is provided through traditional educational schools and colleges (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012); while distance learning is based on self study and could be done through nonacademic organizations (Laureate Education Inc., n.d.; Simonson et al., 2012). Through exploring Web 2.0 tools, I also realized the differences between synchronous and asynchronous learning, and that learning could be separated by time in addition to geography (Laureate Education Inc., n.d.). While searching institutions to pursue my graduate studies, I realized the importance of credibility and quality of study which is granted through accreditation (Simonson et al., 2012).

It was interesting to explore the many dimensions and definitions of distance education this week and how it developed from being correspondence study, then through open universities in Europe and then virtually through the Internet in the last decade (Laureate Education Inc., n.d.). Distance education can be defined when learning happens through educational institutions, when the teacher and students are geographically separated, through interactive telecommunication and in a learning community (Simonson et al., 2012). Another emerging definition by Edwards (1995) is that distance learning happens with a focus on individual needs and local requirements (as cited in Simonson et al., 2012). Distance learning could also happen virtually by using technology in the education process (Simonson et al., 2012).

Distance Learning

My definition now about distance learning is that it is not about transferring knowledge and presenting content, but it provides resources like public funds to homeschooled students and students in rural areas (Huett, Moller, Foshay & Coleman, 2008). Distance learning is a two-way communication between the student (s) and instructor using technology. I believe that the evolution of technology (Simonson et al., 2012), financial consideration and competition among institutions (Moller, Foshay, & Huett, 2008b) in organizations are fundamental factors, which will affect the evolution of distance education and distance learning. Boling, Hough, Krinsky, Saleem, and Stevens (2012) explained that successful and award winning online courses are the ones that provide students with real-life experience through collaboration and social interactions. Technology could increase the interaction and collaborative work among learners (Simonson et al., 2012) which enhances the distance learning experience. For example, now as I am pursuing my graduate studies I experienced being in a community of learners, learning by solving problems and applying the new knowledge to real-life application that I could use in work. Furthermore, I learn by exploring tools and resources that could help me in my learning experience and my personal and professional life.

Moreover, I believe distance learning could be designed to be accessible as many of the technology tools used in blended courses and online courses could be accessible, like using closed captions and designing accessible HTML web pages. In my institution, as I set on committees related to accessibility and the universal design for learning; I see that there is growing demand to create policies and procedures to support distance learning. Equally important, is to provide proper training and support for instructors and training providers (Moller et al., 2008b). Moreover, there should be a need to focus on quality, better evaluation systems and complete analysis of the learners’ needs (Moller, Foshay, & Huett, 2008a). Additionally, as technology is expanding and there are many web-based communication and social tools, learning solutions should be based on extensive research (Huett et al., 2008). I now believe that distance learning will expand to include not just older adults in remote areas but to everyone, everywhere and all ages (USDLA, 2009).

Image of distance learners with an image of the world's map in the background

As there is a growing demand for distance learning in the corporate world, higher education institutions and K-12 schools, I believe that distance learning will continue to grow (Laureate Education Inc., n.d.). Therefore, distance education will be incorporated in various learning environments; it will be expected and respected (Laureate Education Inc., n.d.).




Huett, J., Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Coleman, C. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 3: K12). TechTrends, 52(5), 63–6 7.
Laureate Education Inc., (Producer). (n.d.). Distance education: The next generation [Video]. Baltimore, MD : Simonson, M.
Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008a). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 1: Training and development). TechTrends, 52(3), 70–75.
Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008b). 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, MA: Pearson.
USDLA (2009). Distance learning: Enabling the race to the top. Retrieved from
[Untitled image of distance learners with a background of a map]. Retrieved September 9, 2012 from
[Untitled image of tablet, book and pen]. Retrieved September 9, 2012 from
[Untitled image of earth and mouse]. Retrieved September 9, 2012 from


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