Distance education

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"Tecfa, University of Geneva"


Distance education, or distance learning, is a field of education that focuses on the pedagogy/andragogy, technology, and instructional systems design that is effectively incorporated in delivering education to students who are not physically "on site" to receive their education. Instead, teachers and students may communicate asynchronously (at times of their own choosing) by exchanging printed or electronic media, or through technology that allows them to communicate in real time (synchronously). (Wikipedia:Distance education)

See also: e-learning and open and distance learning

A short history

Some key dates

  • Late 1800s' University of Chicago offers a correspondence program
  • 1840 Establishment of the first correspondence school in Europe, the Sir Isaac Pitman Correspondence Colleges (UK)
  • 1938 Foundation of the ICCE, the International Council for Correspondence Education
  • 1939 Foundation of the CNED, the Centre National d'Éducation à Distance (France)
  • 1963 Foundation of the Council for Education by Correspondence, CEC, earlier predecessor of the AECS
  • 1967 Foundation of DIFF, the Deutsches Institut für Fernstudien (Germany)
  • 1968 Foundation of the European Home Study Council, EHSC, another predecessor of AECS
  • 1969 Foundation of the Open University (UK)
  • 1974 Establishment of the FernUniversität (Hagen, Germany)
  • 1980's Commercial satellite courses in the US
  • 1982 The ICCE changes its name to become the ICDE, the International Council for Distance Education
  • 1984 Establishment of the Open Universiteit (Netherlands)
  • 1985 Foundation of the Association European Correspondence Schools, AECS, successor of the EHSC
  • 1987 Foundation of the EADTU, the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities
  • 1991 Establishment of EDEN, the European Distance Education Network.


Taylor identifies 4 generations.

  • First Generation- The Correspondence Model: Print,
  • Second Generation - The Multimedia Model: Print, Audio/Video Tapes, CBT, CBL etc., Interactive video, Interactive multimedia
  • Third Generation - The Telelearning Model: Various forms of audio and teleconferencing (videoconferencing, broadcasting.
  • Fourth Generation - The Flexible Learning Model: Interactive multimedia, CMC

Note that some technology is used across generations or just changed physical delivery methods, e.g. DSchneider believes that print will remain an important delivery method. Also, we are surprised to see broadcasting only in the third generation. However, we agree that distance education did and does substantially change over the years. E.g. Keegan (1980) quoted by Gunawardena et al. (????: 358) identified six key elements of distance education:

  • Separation of teacher and learner
  • Influence of an educational organization
  • Use of media to link teacher and learner
  • Two-way exchange of communication
  • Learners as individuals rather than grouped
  • Education as an industrialized form

This definition still holds for most courses offered by the big distance teaching universities. However, together with the Internet boom that brought us for example e-learning technology, this definition isn't accurate anymore:

  • An increasing variety of various CMC tools allows learners to learn together over a distance
  • Traditional institutions entering the market (in particular Universities for master degree levels) using flexible e-learning tools or event video-conferencing don't necessarily adopt any sort of "industrialized" design methodology.

Finally, we believe that Taylor's 4 generations should be completed by a new emerging paradigm:

Kinds of distance teaching

Trindade (1993) defined the following variables to define modus operandi of distance learning regimes:

  1. Who Learns: population potentially covered by distance education.
  2. Who Teaches: assistance and guidance of the student by the tutor/counselor of the school, training centre or any other.
  3. What To Learn: selection of courses/curricula and related contents.
  4. When To Learn: period for course attendance, study and assessment.
  5. Where To Learn: places wherein to study ( home, training centre, classroom, etc.).
  6. How To Learn: learning methods and techniques as well as the media to be used.

We'd add to this

7. Who designs and produces the course (e.g. distance teaching university piplines vs. individual teachers in traditional settings).

An other kind of categorization may be based on technology that is employed in a course. E.g. the Wikipedia:Distance education article defines:

  • Correspondence conducted through regular mail
  • Internet conducted either synchronously or asynchronously
  • Telecourse/Broadcast where content is delivered via radio or television
  • CD-ROM where the student interacts with computer content stored on a CD-ROM
  • PocketPC/Mobile Learning where the student accesses course content stored on a mobile device or through a wireless server

We'd further discriminate various kinds of "Internet-conducted", e.g. see the e-learning article or the overview of various educational technologies.


really under construction

The list of challenges in distance education includes in addition to most relevant ones for traditional education:

  • social presence, i.e. how to cope with students' isolation
  • coping with stress related to technology issues (technology not working, ergonomics issues
  • tutoring, in particular responsiveness of the teacher in learning situations where immediate help is needed
  • instructional design methods that are both cost effective and pedagogically effective




On line journals


Handbooks and Textbooks

  • Gunawardena, Charlotte Nirmalani and Marina Stock McIsaac (accessed 17:21, 11 May 2006 (MEST)). Distance education. In D. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research for educational communications and technology. On-line version at http://www.aect.org/. Maybe there is an older version in the book (Second edition. New York: NY: Macmillan, pp. 403-437.)
  • Holden, Jolly T. and Westfall, Philip, J-L., (2005), An Instructional Media Selection Guide for Distance Learning, Second Edition, United States Distance Learning Association, PDF (This is an free publication).
  • Moore, Michael G. and William G. Anderson (eds.) (2003). Handbook of Distance Education, Mahwah: Erlbaum, ISBN 0805839240

Studies and models

  • Anderson,T. (2003) /Getting the Mix Right Again: An Updated and Theoretical Rationale for Interaction/. International Review of research on Open and distance Learning 4(2). HTML
  • Anderson, T. (2003).Telelearning Research and the TeleLearning-Network of Centres of Excellence /Journal of Distance Education 17(3) /119-130.
  • Anderson, T. & Elloumni, F. (Eds.) (2004). Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca: Athabasca University Press. PDF (The whole book is free with a CC license !)
  • Harasim, L. (1989). On-line education: A new domain. In R. Mason and A. Kaye (Eds), Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education. (pp.50-62). Oxford: Pergamon Press.
  • Harasim, L. (Ed.) (1990). Online education: perspectives on a new environment. New York: Praeger Publishers.
  • Harasim, L. (1990). “Teaching by computer conferencing.” In A. Miller (Ed.), Applications of computer conferencing to teacher education and human resource development. Proceedings from an International Symposium on Computer Conferencing, Columbus, Ohio (pp. 25-33).
  • Hiltz, S.R. (1994). The virtual classroom: learning without limits via computer networks. New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corporation.
  • Lou, Yiping, Robert M. Bernard and Philip C. Abrami (2006). Media and Pedagogy in Undergrade Distance Education: A Theory-based Meta-Analysis of Empirical Literature. Educational Technology Research and Development 54 (2), 141-176 ISSN 1042-1629
  • Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., & Bakia, M. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. PDF.
    • This is a well-known meta study commissioned by the US government.
  • Hara, Noriko and Rob Kling (2000). Students' Distress with a Web-based Distance Education Course, Preprint. Published in Information, Communication & Society 3(4): 557-579.


  • Trindade, Armando Rocha (1993), Basics Of Distance Education, The Conceptual Panorama Of Distance Education And Training, European Distance Education Network (Eden). [1]. This older article contain is still a good primer for certain questions and history.
  • James C Taylor, Distance Education Technologies : The Fourth Generation, The University of Southern Queensland, [2]. This text, dated ??? also provides historical insight. It must have been written in the mid-nineties.