Reflections on the Future of Distance Education

            Like all changes in the world and paradigm shifts, it comes as no surprise that currently there is skepticism surrounding online education. The earth was once flat, yet is now round. The earth was once the center of the universe, yet now only a pale blue dot in the void. Distance education for degree programs is often viewed cynically (Seibold, 2007), yet 200 years of practice and 70 years of research has proven that even in nascent form, is as equally effective as any traditional means when done right (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek, 2012).


(Image Credit: DeviontArt)

            The current penetration of rates of distance learning for continuing education is astronomical (Allen, Seaman, and Garret, 2007). MOOC enrollment is on the rise with an average enrollment of 50,000 students per course (Jordan, 2013; Simonite, 2013). Like the change in the earth’s position in the human world view, distance education is clearly changing positions as to where it fits in with society and education at large.


(Image Credit: SMU Distance Education Blog)

George Siemens gave a simple historical lesson of how video conferencing and chatting simultaneously across the world was once almost a dream, yet today is so pervasive and woven into the fabric of society (Laureate Education Inc., 2010). Distance Education is not quite that nascent, but it still has a ways to go before things like academic rigor, quality, or fidelity are the well known forefront of perception of distance education rather than convenience and flexibility of it (Gambescia and Paolucci, 2009). More pressing is society’s view of the validity of an online degree through either an online university or a brick and mortar institution’s online degree program, or traditional face-to-face degree. Not all employers view it equally (Seibold, 2007). However, I believe this discrepancy is the age old maxim of simply fearing or misunderstanding the unknown, as well as discomfort with change.


(Image Credit: Lisbon Evolution Day)

Distance education while pervasive in certain contexts (Simonson et al., 2012), is still not a universally common experience. As the modern instructional designer’s responsibilities now often include distance education, I think there is a certain onus of responsibility, rightly or wrongly, to educate others, whether clients, students, employers, or educators, on how it can be  not only equally effective but appropriate in many situations that otherwise might prohibit access to education or knowledge. Access of course is one of the tenants of many distance learning theories and like Holmberg assumed, would benefit society (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 49).


(image Credit: SFGate Chronicle)

When I conducted interviews this past week on the perceptions of distance education, I asked “if you were an employer, would you consider an online degree negatively or neutrally”. The strongest response was from a friend, also taking a course of study online, was that he would consider it second class and treat it differently. This ironic opinion is largely due to his experience in both a brick and mortar institution and the program online for his second bachelor’s degree. However, he did stipulate that if he could be convinced of the quality of the degree by the holder, he would change his view on a case by case basis. On one hand this may be unfair, however the criticism and treatment is not without precedent (Seibold, 2007). It also really highlights the fact that distance education, in general, is not quite mainstream enough to be unquestionably uniform in quality and rigor (Seibold, 2007; Gabescia and Paolucci, 2009; Schmidt and Gallegos, 2001), and as students of distance education, and practitioners as instructional designers, this is part of the responsibility of improving the field and educating others to have informed decisions rather than decisions formed in the absence of knowledge of the field and practice.

While this may be the current state of affairs of distance education in the beginning of the 21st century, I imagine that at the dawn of the 22nd, 100 more years of research, and exponential increase in blended learning environments, that constant and large use generation after generation will propel distance education into being a social norm, or simply just an educational norm. People may simply look back and wonder how they once were educated without it in much the same way we wonder why our ancestors viewed the earth as flat and that it was the center of the universe, despite the emerging evidence to the contrary.


Allen, I., Seaman, J., & Garret, R. (2007). Blending in: The extent and promise of blended education in the united states. ()Retrieved from

Gambescia, S., & Paolucci, R. (2009). Academic fidelity and integrity as attributes of university online degree program offerings. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 12(1). Retrieved from

Jordan, K. (2013, February). Mooc completion rates: The data. Retrieved from

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2010). The future of distance education. [Video Podcast].     Retrieved from       tab_tab_group_id=_2_1&url=%2Fwebapps%2Fblackboard%2Fexecute     %2Flauncher   %3Ftype%3DCourse%26id%3D_3396926_1%26url%3D

Schmidt, E., & Gallegos, A. (2001). Distance learning: Issues and concerns of distance learners. Journal of Industrial Technology, 17(3). Retrieved from

Seibold, Kathy Norene. 2007. “Employers’ Perception of Online Education.” Dissertation, Oklahoma City: Oklahoma State University. Retrieved from

Simonite, T. (2013, June 5). As data floods in, massive open online courses evolve. MIT Technology Review. 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.