Thoughts On and Experience with Distance Education


While being introduced this week to the historical origins of what we now generally refer to as distance learning, it was a bit of a surprise to learn that not only is distance education not a recent development but rather dates back to the 1800’s in the U.S. (Seibold, 2007), but also that initially it began in Europe in the form of correspondence courses (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek, 2012). This notion of learning at a distance has only grown with the advent of various telecommunications, computer, and digital technologies that beginning with the telegraph extended through radio, television, the telephone, and now the internet (Laureate Education, Inc., n.d.). Access to information, however, is not tantamount to education, and this is where the importance of the distinction of education and other learning opportunities becomes important. 

Dr. Michael Simonson (n.d.) gave a strong consideration to the definition and contrast of distance education to distance learning. While the difference in word choice may seem trivial, I feel he made a strong argument in that self study, which presents the ability to learn, does not equate to education, though their end results may be identical. Two salient features of education are the institutional association as well as the contractual responsibilities of an instructor and the student (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek, 2012). The fact that this happens at a distance and the connection of teachers, students, and resources are mediated through technology fulfills the definition that Simonson (n.d.) and Simonson et al. (2012) present of distance education. But while currently this may be a satisfactory definition, an ever changing one is not at all surprising. With a constantly evolving knowledge base as well as rapidly changing technology, there will be new ways of understanding human cognition as well as new ways to interact digitally. On an individual level, I feel that one’s personal definition of distance learning may often be characterized not by their profession or technology prowess, but by their experience with distance education or lack thereof. 

My first experience with distance education was an astronomy and U.S. government course in community college in 2003. I never gave much thought or consideration to the courses then, though in retrospect, they resemble independent study more than education. These courses were tele-courses and had no interaction with an instructor or classmates, no shared learning experiences, and lacked a true technology based medium. This would fail the conditions proposed by Simonson et al. (2012) and describe many of the problems with poor instructional design (or violation of) in distance education that Moller, Foshay, and Huett (2008) describe at length. They summarize it well as “makes little real use of the wealth of technology available. The craft approach often takes advantage of only the simplest technology with little regard to how advances in streaming video, voice, print, and data resources can be utilized to enhance instruction” (p.67). While conditions have certainly changed over the last 10 years, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done to provide sound methodology, modernized content, and adapted learning outcomes for the demographics and differences between mediums (Moller et al, 2008).

This work is definitely one of the challenges I currently see in my workplace as well as career. I work in a country with many forms of “educational” settings that range from a myriad of private institutes that span all manner of content area, most notably for English as a foreign language (also known as language mills), local K-12  schools, private international schools, and local universities.  While my school’s goal is not to add more online classes, or even promote them, we are trying to adopt many of the features of distance education- an online, technologically mediated environment through an LMS, shared resources, anytime collaboration,  and constant access to resources. This is what Dr. Simonson (n.d.) describes in his perception of the future of education and while I not only agree with this, I see this in my community now, as opposed to being off in the future. I have seen this blended environment extend more through K-12 in the US and elsewhere, but among the private international school system in Korea, this is an adoption that started more than 5 years ago full scale and has been expanding ever since.

With the introduction of 1:1 programs that are connected through services like GoogleDocs and LMS platforms, the idea of constant and instant inquiry, cloud based resources, collaboration regardless of geographic or temporal separation, are all hallmarks of Distance Education yet it is happening face-to-face. The definite positives of social learning, sharing learning experiences, and a growing, established set of heuristics of personalized learning or student autonomy, interaction, etc. (Tracey and Richey, 2005), will transform and contribute to traditional learning environments. I feel there will be less of a distinction of distance and face-to-face education and simply a larger tool set for education across the board. The variation in quality of distance education I see simply as a mirror image of the variation among institutions, individual instructors, and curriculum in traditional brick and mortar schools. Distance education is already massively expanding (Tracey and Richey, 2005), and while profit incentive may be a large factor in that expansion, it has the potential to reach a far greater audience and provide ongoing opportunities for all people to continually learn. There may be a paradigm shift where the individual does not need to accommodate the educational system, but rather one where the educational system accommodates the individual. Distance education is already a bridge where despite location, time, commitments, or responsibilities that traditionally negatively impact the ability to attend courses, the opportunity to earn an education is still available.

Below you can see a visualization of my characterization/impressions of Distance Education when I first experienced it 10 years ago, as well as the differences I now see and experience currently as a student in an online MSIDT program.




Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (n.d.). Distance Education: The Next Generation. [Video Podcast]. Retrieved from

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (n.d.). Distance Learning Timeline Continuum. [Video Podcast]. Retrieved from

Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Huett, J. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 2: Higher education).TechTrends, 52(4), 66-70.

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

Tracey, M., & Richey, R. (2005). The evolution of distance education. Distance Learning, 2(6), 17–21.