Distance Education

Why Distance Learning?

Page last updated 11 January, 2007

Contents of this page

Distributed Learning
Student Centred Learning
History of Distance Education
Current Uses
The Issues
Design Considerations
The Role of the Distance Educator

Useful Links

International Centre for Distance Learning (ICDL)
International Council for Open & Distance Education (ICDE)
European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN)
Innovations in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education
Issues in Distance learning
Distance Ed Literature Links
Distance Learning FAQs

For a more comprehensive list of links and resources click here

Introduction to Distance Education

Distance education was defined by educational theorist Michael Moore as:

"the family of instructional methods in which the teaching behaviours are executed apart from the learning behaviours ... so that communication between the learner and the teacher must be facilitated by print, electronic, mechanical, or other devices" (Moore, 1972: 76).

Distance education is not a new idea, and can be traced as far back as the first century. The Apostle Paul wrote to the early Christian churches, instructing them from a distance (even when he was under 'house arrest' in Rome). This was probably the first type of 'correspondence course', which was the only method of learning at a distance until the advent of the telephone. Today, distance education calls upon an impressive range of technologies to enable teachers and students who are separated by distance to communicate with each other either in real time (synchronous) or delayed time (asynchronous). A new term, 'e-learning' has been coined to try to describe the many forms of technology supported learning that are currently being practiced worldwide.

On a recent comparative studies trip with some students to Cape Town, South Africa, we took a day trip across the bay to the infamous Robben Island. Robben Island was once a prison for political prisoners, and during the years of Apartheid, held a number of well known political actvitists such as Nelson Mandela . It is now a museum and educational centre, and amongst its many features, it uses a videoconference link to connect to the world.

Lionel Davis - (pictured right with Steve Wheeler) - a former political prisoner and contemporary of Mandela - took us on a tour of the island. Mr Davis, who now works as an Education Officer for the Museum, informed us that during his imprisonment, Nelson Mandela had studied by correspondence course with the University of South Africa (UNISA) - one of the first truly 'Open' universities. Mandela used distance education as a sustaining feature of his life in prison - a classic example of someone who accessed education when all the odds seemed stacked against him.

Distributed Learning

The distributed learning strategies, which include distance learning, offer a radical new direction for education. They incorporate flexible and open learning methods as well as modified and specially created learning resources. They also modify and incorporate the best practices of the traditional approaches to learning.

This model enables the delivery of courses and learning materials to students studying at locations distant to the parent institution. Thus, the term 'flexible and open distance learning' or FODL has been coined to describe the means by which learners can access education and learning opportunities at a time, place and pace to suit their individual lifestyles, learning preferences and personal development plans.

Student Centred Learning

Distance learning epitomises the move away from institute based learning to a more direct, student centred approach. As a concept, distance learning has existed for over a century, notably in the form of paper based correspondence courses. Now however, it is depending increasingly upon technology for its success and technological innovations ensure that distance learning continues to evolve and grow as a valid and potent force in education.

Student centred learning approaches are characterised by the learner becoming central to the process of learning. There have been numerous debates about exactly what student centric education entails, but essentially, the learner takes responsibiliy for his or her own learning and the teacher becomes a resource in the process. Learners should be able to learn at their own pace, and in a manner which they feel comfortable with. This may also include the place in which they study, and the style of learning they feel most comfortable with. What student centred learning is NOT is teachers lecturing and students listening.

Distance learning technologies and methods can provide many of these attributes. Students with access to the appropriate technologies can study at their own pace and in a place (perhaps at home or work) that suits their lifestyles and the demands on their time. The diversity of technologies now available to the distance educator also ensure that several different modes of learning are possible, catering for the cognitive styles and approaches to study of a diverse range of students.

A Brief History of Distance Education

Although St Paul (pictured left in a painting by Rembrandt) may have been the first to use correspondence courses to instruct his 'students' (the new Christian churches in Asia Minor and the Mediterranean), organised institutional use of distance learning methods was first introduced in the 19th century.

One of the first universities to deliver distance learning in an organised manner was Pennsylvania State University, establishing its first distance learning network in 1886. Penn State used the state of the art technology of the day - U.S. Mail - to communicate with its distributed students.

In the 1960's the UK Labour Government under Harold Wilson approved the setting up of 'The University of the Air'. This was later to become the Open University, now based in Milton Keynes. The OU was originally set up to offer degree studies through terrestrial broadcasts (TV and Radio) in partnership with the British Broadcasting Corporation, but paper based materials, and later computer mediated communication, have also become vital ingredients in distance delivery of under graduate taught programmes.

The OU now boasts over 200,000 students enrolled at any particular time, and is in the largest 'top ten' universities worldwide now known as 'Mega Universities'. It awards a number of qualifications including BA and BSc degrees, MA, MBA, MPhil and PhD, and more recently, Post Graduate Certfificates in Education.

The changes in distance learning over the past 30 years can be easily charted. Correspondence courses relied on a combination of paper based and surface mail communication. Until the 1950's this was the sole method of distance learning. When television and radio were used, they were one-way media, enabling the teacher to present information, but with no interaction between the presenter and the audience. As more sophisticated technologies became available, teachers began to interact with their dispersed groups.

Current Uses

The most popular methods today are electronic mail, computer mediated communication (CMC), bulletin board systems (BBS) and of course the plain old telephone system (POTS). The Internet and World Wide Web (WWW) are increasingly being used to deliver a range of multi-media materials, and as bandwidths are broadened and technology improves in performance, more will be done. Currently, the University of Plymouth is delivering courses or parts of courses to a wide range of learners. These include nurses, midwives, doctors, surgeons, probation officers, the military and business users. Methods vary according to the subject content, level of course, dispersion of students, and technology available at the time of the course delivery. Research is currently being undertaken to examine the various modes, methods and media and how they can be made to match differing needs and course requirements.

Some of the Issues

Students who study at a distance are separated both from their tutors and their peers. For some this can be a particular problem, and for all, some of the time the separation poses potential difficulties. Social interaction - the sharing of ideas, discoveries, successes and failures and general social support, are all to a certain extent, missing from the distance learning environment. Students may therefore feel isolated, start to lose motivation, experience frustration or anger, and a host of other unwelcome emotions.

Design Considerations

When designing systems and materials for distance delivery teachers must consider not only learning outcomes, but also content requirements and technical constraints. Also to be considered are the needs, characteristics, and individual differences of both the students and the teachers. One useful area of recent research is cognitive load theory, which focuses on the amount of cognitive energy students need to invest in learning in different multi-media environment designs.

The Role of the Distance Educator

The task of the distance educator is therefore to obviate many of the problems outlined above as much as possible by mixing and matching techniques, creating and maintaining a stimulating environment, and offering opportunities for students to communicate with each other and with the teaching staff on a regular basis. e-Moderators for example, need to known when to 'stand back' and let students discuss, and when to intervene to change the direction or seed new ideas. This is where telematic technologies come into their own.

Teachers will also need to change their traditional role as well. Many remote students need a great deal of social support, and distance educators may find themselves spending more time offering one-to-one tutorials and less time lecturing. Perhaps this is a good thing...?

Some teachers may feel threatened by the introduction of new technologies and methods. This is often with good reason, because distance education is viewed by some institutions as a means to cut costs and reduce staffing. However, in many cases, costs are in fact increased, and more staff are needed to develop good quality learning materials for distance delivery. Further, teachers who practice distance education methods will discover that they need to develop a new set of skills if they are to be effective educators, which has obvious professional development implications.

Distance education then, should not be viewed as a means of reducing costs, but as an opportunity to raise standards. It is also about providing quality learning opportunities for those who, for one reason or another, have previously been excluded from this basic human right.

Steve Wheeler


Moore, M. G. (1972) Learner autonomy: the second dimension of independent learning. Convergence, 5 (2) 76-88

Page last updated 11 January, 2007

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