Education Distance Learning
Patrick Lowenthal, Kerry Rice, Sarah Rich, Shelly Walters
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0186


Distance learning, also referred to as “distance education” and sometimes simply as “online learning” or “distributed learning,” is a term used to describe the practice of learning at a distance. Historically, distance learning dates back to the 1880s and was defined by a teacher and a student being separated by space and time. This early form of distance learning is often described as correspondence education, where a student might complete lessons from a workbook and then mail them to a teacher. Over the years, however, distance learning changed along with technology. For instance, with advances in technology, teachers and students were able to interact in more sophisticated ways while still being separated by space and time. Although this separation of student and teacher by space and time is still a hallmark of distance learning, there are now many variations of distance learning—ranging from self-paced “correspondence”-like courses, asynchronous group-paced online courses, and informal synchronous (e.g., webinars) and asynchronous videos (e.g., Kahn Academy), to name a few. From its inception, distance learning has attracted critics who are skeptical of whether one can learn effectively at a distance. However, distance learning continues to grow. In the 21st century, asynchronous group-paced online learning is the most popular form of distance learning and many estimate that one in five college students take at least one online course each year; however, there are also growing numbers of students completing some form of blended learning that leverages some aspect of distance learning in face-to-face courses and in turn continues to blur the lines between “distance learning” and “face-to-face” learning. The following sections will focus on distance learning in general but also specifically on how online learning (the most popular form of distance learning) is changing when and how people learn.

Defining Distance Learning

As distance learning grows in popularity, practitioners and researchers alike struggle to define distance learning. They also struggle to agree on what the most important defining features of distance are. For instance, is the most defining feature the “distance” between teacher and student, the separation in time, or the technology used (Graham 2006)? The rise of the Internet and specifically online learning has only complicated this by introducing countless variations and hybrid or blended forms of distance learning. In the following articles, chapters, and books, the authors specifically address this issue of defining distance learning. For instance, Keegan 1980 analyzes four early definitions of distance education, which Garrison and Shale 1987 later respond to by offering what they see as a less restrictive definition; Barker, et al. 1989 in turn critiques Garrison and Shale’s definition as not differentiating between correspondence- and telecommunications-based distance education. Schlosser and Simonson 2009 tries to build upon this earlier research by offering an updated definition of distance learning. Graham 2006 describes trends of blending distance learning into traditional face-to-face courses in the form of blended learning. But as the complexity of the distance learning landscape continues to grow and change, Harasim 2006; Lowenthal, et al. 2009; and Moore, et al. 2011 all try to describe the different ways that distance learning is understood and practiced. Finally, Cavanaugh, et al. 2009 provides a K–12 perspective of how distance learning is defined and ultimately practiced.

  • Barker, B. O., A. G. Frisbie, and K. R. Patrick. 1989. Concepts: Broadening the definition of distance education in light of the new telecommunications technologies. American Journal of Distance Education 3.1: 20–29.

    DOI: 10.1080/08923648909526647

    Building on the previous work of Keegan and Garrison and Shale, this article critiques previous definitions as not being broad enough and the conception of distance education as too narrow within correspondence studies. They argue that a definition of distance education must differentiate between correspondence-based distance education and what they call “telecommunications-based” distance education.

  • Cavanaugh, C., M. Barbour, and R. Brown, et al. 2009. Research committee issues brief: Examining communication and interaction in online teaching. Vienna: International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

    Written by a number of leaders in K–12 online learning, this brief focuses on identifying key aspects of online teaching. Provides a nice overview of different elements of online teaching, which is important to consider when defining distance learning.

  • Garrison, D. R., and D. Shale. 1987. Mapping the boundaries of distance education: Problems in defining the field. American Journal of Distance Education 1.1: 7–13.

    DOI: 10.1080/08923648709526567

    Garrison and Shale analyze Keegan’s previous attempts at defining distance education and argue for a less restrictive definition that takes into account advances in communications technology.

  • Graham, C. R. 2006. Blended learning systems: Definition, current trends, and future directions. In Handbook of blended learning: Global perspectives, local designs. Edited by C. J. Bonk and C. R. Graham, 3–21. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

    Graham defines blended learning and describes current trends and future directions in this foundational chapter on blended learning.

  • Harasim, L. 2006. A history of e-learning: Shift happened. In The international handbook of virtual learning environments. Edited by J. Weiss, J. Nolan, J. Hunsinger, and P. Trifonas, 59–94. Netherlands: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4020-3803-7_2

    In this chapter, Harasim (a pioneer of online learning) presents a brief history of online learning. She highlights a paradigm shift that has taken place that focuses more on networked learning than independent learning.

  • Keegan, D. J. 1980. On defining distance education. Distance Education 1.1: 13–36.

    DOI: 10.1080/0158791800010102

    In this foundational and often-cited article, Keegan analyzes four popular early definitions of distance learning to create a “comprehensive definition.” These definitions and the themes Keegan identifies still have relevance in the 21st century.

  • Lowenthal, P. R., B. Wilson, and P. Parrish. 2009. Context matters: A description and typology of the online learning landscape. In 32nd Annual proceedings: Selected research and development papers presented at the annual convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. Washington, DC: AECT.

    This paper argues that online learning is diverse and manifests in different ways across different contexts. For instance, online learning often looks different in K–12, higher education, and corporate/industry. They develop a typology that can be used for instructional designers as well as researchers to better describe the type of online learning they are interested in studying or developing.

  • Moore, J. L., C. Dickson-Deane, and K. Galyen. 2011. E-learning, online learning, and distance learning environments: Are they the same? Internet and Higher Education 14.2: 129–135.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.iheduc.2010.10.001

    Investigates the way people use terms such as e-learning, online learning, and distance learning. They found that while people often like to think of these terms as being synonymous, people in fact think differently about each of them.

  • Schlosser, L., and M. Simonson. 2009. Distance education: Definition and glossary of terms. 3d ed. Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

    Offers a recent and commonly accepted definition that also addresses previous research and theories of distance education. The book also includes a glossary of common terms related to distance education.

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