Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Distance Education

  • Olaf Zawacki-Richter
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_217



With the emergence of the Internet, we have witnessed a massive growth in (online) distance education since the 1990s. Distance education – often perceived as an isolated form of individual learning – has now clearly moved into the mainstream. Today, almost all educational institutions offer programs that integrate digital media in an online environment to provide flexible learning opportunities, independent of time and place. However, distance education is not a new phenomenon. Educational technologies have been used to bridge the distance between learners and teachers or teaching institutions for over 150 years. Hence, it is important to build upon theories, practice, and empirical research into distance education when new forms and modes of delivery are developed with new and emerging media.

Therefore, after a definition of distance education and related terms, this chapter sets out to provide an overview of the historical development of distance education and generations of technological innovations associated with it. It will then elaborate on the major theories and models in the context of distance education that were developed over time. Distance education matured as a professional field of practice and scholarship. At the end of this chapter, a framework of 15 research areas is briefly described to provide a foundation to the discipline of distance education.

Definition of Distance Education

A particular characteristic of distance education is that teachers and learners are geographically separated from each other. Teaching and learning are therefore enabled through various forms of electronic media. Brindley et al. (2004) state that “distance education” or “distance learning” is “the overarching term for media-based learning and teaching” (p. 13). The central concern of distance teaching pedagogy has always been how best to bridge this distance, since distance between students and teachers was regarded as a deficit, and proximity as desirable and necessary. Early pedagogic approaches specific to distance education aimed to find ways by means of which the spatial distance could be bridged, reduced, or even eliminated.

The origins of distance education go back to what were called “correspondence” courses (correspondence study). With the development of new media, which were also used for distance teaching (e.g., telephone, fax, radio, video, computer, etc.), the term “correspondence study” became too narrow. In North America, the terms “independent study” and “home study” were therefore used as competing designations, until the notion of “distance education” finally prevailed. This was formalized in 1982 when the international association of distance teaching institutions changed its name from the International Council for Correspondence Education (ICCE) to the International Council for Distance Education (ICDE).

In 1980 Desmond Keegan proposed a widely accepted definition in the first issue of the journal Distance Education. He refers to five characteristics of distance education, which mutually influence one another: (1) the separation of the teacher, learner, and teaching institution; (2) the role of an educational organization in the planning and development of learning materials and the provision of a student support system; (3) the use of technical media, in particular; (4) the two-way media for communication throughout the learning and teaching process; and (5) the absence of the learning group (Keegan 1980). While learning in groups was not a constituent element of distance education in the 1980s (although it has been possible to meet other students in study centers), the development of online computer conferences has assisted the breakthrough of collaborative learning with networked computers.

The central attribute of distance education is that teachers and learners are separated and technical media are used to bridge the distance between the parties involved in the learning process. The capability of media to afford two-way communication for interaction between learners and teachers and among learners is an essential part of the process. This requirement is reflected in the more recent definition by Simonson et al. (2011): “Distance Education is institution-based, formal education where the learning group is separated, and where interactive telecommunications systems are used to connect learners, resources, and instructors” (p. 126).

The various types of technologies used for teaching and learning are collectively referred to as “educational technologies,” and this term includes printed study materials as well. The term “e-learning” generally means learning with electronic media, i.e., via the Internet, but also via television and radio, audio, and video. E-learning is therefore defined more narrowly than distance learning, since the latter may also include print-based study materials and correspondence communication. E-learning can therefore be regarded as a particular form of distance learning, but not all distance learning is necessarily electronic. Online learning is learning and communication via networked computers (online distance education).

With the proliferation of digital media, the traditional boundaries between distance education and face-to-face educational practices are blurring. Hence, terms such as “blended learning,” “flexible learning,” or “distributed learning” have become prevalent. All these terms describe a continuum between traditional distance education and contact education, in which pedagogical approaches, methods, and technologies are used to enable extended and more autonomous, individualized, and self-directed learning opportunities.

Historical Development of Distance Education

The development of distance education is closely linked to the advancement of information and communication technologies. Distance teaching institutions have always been spearheading the integration of innovations in educational technology to facilitate the learning and teaching process. Garrison (1985) distinguished between three generations of technological innovations that initiated a paradigm shift in distance education practices. From a historical perspective, the three milestones of technological innovations are print media, telecommunications media/multimedia, and the personal computer. One-way media, such as radio or television, are described as ancillary media: “The main reason is the non-instructiveness of media such as radio and television broadcasts, audio and video cassettes, laser videodiscs, and audiographics. For this reason, these media are viewed as being in a separate category, since they are incapable of providing two-way communication” (Garrison 1985, p. 239). Depending on the flow and direction of information (one-way, two-way media) and the temporal dimension of the interaction (asynchronous, synchronous media), educational technologies can be described as a function of interaction and independence that they afford.

Reflecting Garrison’s concept of technological innovations, the development of distance education is briefly portrayed along the following three generations:
  • Correspondence generation (since the 1850s)

  • Multimedia or Open University generation (since the 1960s)

  • Computer and online generation (since the 1990s)

The first generation was print-based distance or correspondence education, in which self-learning materials were sent via the postal system to the students, who were supported by a tutor via letters. The University of London established the “University Correspondence College” in 1858 for the people in the colonies of the British Empire. The first dedicated distance teaching university was the University of South Africa, established in 1873 in Pretoria, which is still in operation and caters to over 400,000 students. First-generation distance education was characterized by high flexibility and independence of time and space but also by very limited two-way communication.

The second generation is strongly linked to the foundation of the Open Universities to widen access to higher education. Peters (2008) emphasizes the success of the UK Open University established in 1969: “The Open University […] became famous for its open entrance policy, its focus on teaching adults, and for its extraordinary success in producing more graduates than all other universities of the country put together” (p. 227). This generation was characterized by the development of nationwide distance education system with networks of study centers and the application of a wide range of educational (multi)media, including educational TV, radio, and video conferencing.

As early as 1988, a computer-conferencing system (“CoSy”) was introduced at the UK Open University to support about 1,300 students via online tutoring. The so-called Internet-based learning management systems and virtual campus environments emerged in the middle of the 1990s. With the proliferation of personal networked computers, (online) distance education really moved into the mainstream. The computer or online generation of distance education is characterized by independence of time and space but also by a high grade of interactivity, social interaction, and collaboration via asynchronous and synchronous information and communication tools and applications.

Major Theories and Models of Distance Education

Distance education is rather young as an academic discipline. For the professionalization of the field, it is important that research activities are based on a solid base of theory as “scholarship can be defined a research grounded in theory” (Moore and Kearsley 2005, p. 220). Major theories and models in the context of distance education began to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s.

Charles Wedemeyer conceptualized distance education as “independent study” (Wedemeyer 1971), in which students are not only independent from time and space but also responsible for managing and controlling their own learning process. Distance education provides opportunities for independent and self-directed learning. However, independent learners do not exist per se. Students need support and guidance to develop into autonomous learners. Therefore, the production of high-quality study materials, the facilitation of independent learning, and the provision of a student support system along the student’s life cycle gained importance. Delling (1971) described distance education institutions as “helping organizations.”

In order to inform policy makers in Germany, Otto Peters carried out a comparative study about distance teaching institutions in more than 30 countries in the 1960s and 1970s and developed his theory of distance education as the most industrialized form of education. He observed the separation of the production of learning materials from the instruction, the division of labor, the use of standardized and rationalized procedures, and the mass production processes. Thus, he conceptualized distance education as follows: “Distance study is a rationalized method – involving the division of labour – of providing knowledge which, as a result of applying the principles of industrial organization as well as the extensive use of technology, thus facilitating the reproduction of objective teaching activity in any numbers, allows a large number of students to participate in university study simultaneously, regardless of their place of residence and occupation” (Peters 1983, p. 111). The application of industrial practices will result in higher quality at lower costs, thus providing increased access to (higher) education.

Börje Holmberg recognized communication, the learner-teacher dialogue, as a core element in distance education. He proposed a conversational theory, which he called “guided didactic conversation,” as the pedagogical model for distance education: “My theory implies that the character of good distance education resembles that of a guided conversation aiming at learning (…). There is a constant interaction (“conversation”) between the supporting organizations (authors, tutors, counselors) and the student, simulated through the student’s interaction with the pre-produced courses and real through the written and/or telephone interaction with their tutors and counselors. Communication is thus seen as the core of distance education” (Holmberg 1986, p. 54).

Also acknowledging the importance of interaction and dialogue, Michael Moore developed the theory of transactional distance (Moore 1993). He derived his definition of transactions from Dewey’s notion of “transactions” between the learners, teachers, and environment. The separation of learners and teachers in distance education leads to special patterns of learner and teacher behaviors: “With separation there is a psychological and communications space to be crossed, a space of potential misunderstanding between the inputs of instructor and those of the learner. It is this psychological and communications space that is the transactional distance” (p. 22). Thus, the term transactional distance refers not only to geographical but also psychological distance between learners and teachers, which is influenced by the extent of structure in the instructional design of a course, the extent of autonomy of the learner, and the extent of interaction (dialogue) between the learners and the teacher.

With the emergence of computer-mediated communication and online learning, Garrison et al. (2000) designed a model for distance learning, in which the educational experience occurs in a “community of inquiry” focused on critical thinking through the interaction of three core elements: (1) cognitive presence, the extent to which learners “construct meaning through sustained communication” (p. 89); (2) social presence, the ability of learners in the community of inquiry “to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as ‘real people’” (p. 89); and (3) teaching presence, which consists of two main functions – the planning and instructional design of a course and the orchestration and moderation (“facilitation,” p. 89) of the interaction between the learners, the teacher, and among the participants of the learning experience. Garrison et al. (2000) argue that the learning community is only viable in a computer conference if all three elements are present.

Research Areas in Distance Education

As noted above, research questions should be posed within a theoretical framework and quality research should be embedded within a holistic structure of research areas within a discipline. Furthermore, the structure, culture, history, and past accomplishments of a research discipline form the foundation for identifying gaps and priority areas for researchers. As distance education theory and practice matured, various authors carried out reviews of the research literature and discussed potential categorizations of research areas in the field. Zawacki-Richter and Anderson (2014) suggested a framework of 15 research areas based on a Delphi study along three major lines of research (p. 2):
  • Macro level: Distance education systems and theories
    1. 1.

      Access, equity, and ethics: The democratization of access to distance education afforded by new media and finding ways to deliver high-quality education to those who have limited resources and poor infrastructure. Issues that refer to the (sustainable) provision of distance education in developing areas. For example, what is the impact of distance education (e.g., via mobile learning) on narrowing (or broadening) the digital divide and what is the role of ICT (information and communication technologies) and/or OER (open educational resources) in terms of access to education? Should distance education have an inherent and explicit goal to reduce inequality and promote both high-quality and affordable educational opportunity?

    2. 2.

      Globalization of education and cross-cultural aspects: Aspects that refer to the global external environment and drivers; the development of the global distance education market, teaching, and learning in mediated and multicultural environments; and the implications for professional development and curriculum development.

    3. 3.

      Distance teaching systems and institutions: Distance education delivery systems, the role of institutional partnerships in developing transnational programs, and the impact of ICT on the convergence of conventional education and distance education institutions (hybrid or mixed mode).

    4. 4.

      Theories and models: Theoretical frameworks for and foundations of distance education, e.g., the theoretical basis of instructional models, knowledge construction, interaction between learners, and the impact of social constructivism, connectivism, and new learning theories on distance education practice.

    5. 5.

      Research methods in distance education and knowledge transfer: Methodological considerations, the impact of distance education research and writing on practice, and the role of professional associations and higher education institutions in improving practice. Literature reviews and works on the history of distance education are also subsumed within this area.

  • Meso level: Management, organization, and technology
    1. 6.

      Management and organization: Strategies, administration and organizational infrastructures, and frameworks for the development, implementation, and sustainable delivery of distance education programs. What is required for successful leadership in distance education? Distance education and policies relating to continuing education, lifelong learning, and the impact of online learning on institutional policies, as well as legal issues (copyright and intellectual property).

    2. 7.

      Costs and benefits: Aspects that refer to financial management, costing, pricing, and business models in distance education. Efficiency: What is the return on investment or impact of distance education programs? What is the impact of ICT on the costing models and the scalability of distance education delivery? How can cost-effective but meaningful learner support be provided?

    3. 8.

      Educational technology: New trends in educational technology for distance education (e.g., Web 2.0 applications or mobile learning) and the benefits and challenges of using OERs, media selection (e.g., synchronous vs. asynchronous media), technical infrastructure and equipment for online learning environments, and their affordances for teaching and learning.

    4. 9.

      Innovation and change: Issues that refer to educational innovation with new media and measures to support and facilitate change in institutions (e.g., incentive systems for faculty, aspects referring to staff workloads, promotion, and tenure).

    5. 10.

      Professional development and faculty support: Professional development and faculty support services as a prerequisite for innovation and change. What are the competencies of online teachers, counselors, and support service staff and how can they be developed?

    6. 11.

      Learner support services: The infrastructure for and organization of learner support systems (from information and counseling for prospective students to library services and technical support to career services and alumni networks).

    7. 12.

      Quality assurance: Issues that refer to accreditation and quality standards in distance education. The impact of quality assurance requirements and regulation and the impact of quality learner support on enrolments and dropout/retention, as well as reputation and acceptance of distance education as a valid form of educational provision.

  • Micro level: Teaching and learning in distance education
    1. 13.

      Instructional or learning design: Issues that refer to the stages of the instructional design process for curriculum and course development. Special emphasis is placed on pedagogical approaches for tutoring online (scaffolding), the design of (culturally appropriate) study material, opportunities provided by new developments in educational technology for teaching and learning (e.g., Web 2.0 applications and mobile devices), as well as assessment practices in distance education.

    2. 14.

      Interaction and communication in learning communities: Closely related to instructional design considerations is course design that fosters (online) articulation, interaction, reflection, and collaboration throughout the learning and teaching process. Special areas include the development of online communities, gender differences, and cross-cultural aspects in online communication.

    3. 15.

      Learner characteristics: The aims and goals of adult and younger students studying at a distance, the socioeconomic background of distance education students, and their different approaches to learning, critical thinking dispositions, media literacies, and special needs. How do students learn online (learner behavior patterns, learning styles) and what competencies are needed for distance learning (e.g., “digital literacy”)?


According to a large-scale literature review (Zawacki-Richter and Anderson 2014), over 50% of research papers published in major journals of the field deal with topics and issues on the micro level of teaching and learning in distance education, while the most neglected research areas are on the meso and macro level, particularly costs and economics of distance education, innovation and change management, and globalization of education and cross-cultural aspects of distance education. As distance education theory and practice develops further, it will continue to address new themes by enlarging its scope of research areas.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Education and Social SciencesCarl von Ossietzky University of OldenburgOldenburgGermany