Defining Distance Education in Online Learning


Distance education as an instructional strategy is one of four fundamental components to instructional design.  It serves a purpose to the learner and facilitator with its unique position to provide effective instruction across a distance of time and/or space with flexibility and freedom of choice.  Distance education must remain interactive through two-way communication to maintain its status as an instructional strategy, using technology to provide both spontaneous and reflective transactions.  The technology of delivery evolves too fast to be considered a piece of the definition of distance education, though much of modern distance education operates off of Internet-based mediums to provide reliable, integrated learning transactions.

distance education definition

Distance Education is an Instructional Strategy

There are four fundamental components to instructional design – learners, objectives, methods, and evaluations (Morrison, Ross, Kalman, & Kemp, 2013).  Of these, distance education is a method.  Methods are also referred to as instructional strategies as they answer how the subject content or skill might best be learned (Morrison et al., 2013).  As distance education theories include many references to delivery methods, methods of communication, evaluation methods, and messaging methods, it is perhaps best that distance education be defined as an instructional strategy and not a method to prevent confusion.

Definition of Distance Education

As an instructional strategy, distance education has a unique purpose in solving problems and filling learning gaps.  It fosters collaborative, interactive student-centered learning transactions when there is a separation by “miles or minutes” (Moore, 1973, p. 665) between the learner, instructor, and/or facilitator.  The separation may be by choice for independence, better goal-orientation, efficiency, or flexibility.  Distance education leverages collaborative learning through two-way, responsive mediums designed to promote spontaneous and reflective transactions, induce learning in an iterative way, and measure outcomes.

Distance Education Has a Purpose

As an instructional strategy, distance education must be standardized to the fundamentals of effective design or else distance education loses its credibility.  Above all else, it must be purposeful.  When being selected as an instructional design strategy, the unique way it delivers the fundamental elements must be a better solution to the problem than another instructional strategy.  Using distance education for the sake of education at a distance is not enough to support effective instruction and it is perhaps strategies such as these which reflect higher cases of students’ premature departure from the program.

Serving Its Purpose to Learners

Like other instructional design strategies, distance learning starts by filling a need for instruction.  It must solve a problem with a student-centered approach, induce learning with goal-orientation, be reliable and iterative, and provide measurable outcomes (Reiser & Dempsey, 2012).  Distance education first separates itself from other instructional strategies by how it takes its student-centered approach.

Reasons to leave traditional learning.  Modern learners are breaking away from traditional learning environments by choice.  Research has shown distance learning to resonate with learners when the conditions of traditional education have had poor access and limited facilities (Köymen, 1992).  But beyond needing access from a rural location, studies are examining student preference for flexible scheduling, independence in decision making, and efficient goal-alignment – all elements of distance education which place the learner in control.  You might say, “self-directed learning is an intuitively appealing concept,” like Garrison (2003, p. 161), which is perhaps why so many learners find distance education attractive.

Serving Its Purpose to the Institution

As the population, demand for higher education, and accessibility of educational funding all simultaneously increase, institutions are looking for a flexible solution to efficiently enable increased student populations.  Although there is a concern for compromising higher-education values and the quality associated with an in-person interactive experience (Garrison, 2000), institutions have a great interest in online learning capabilities because the separation between the learner, instructor, and institution (unique to distance education) alleviates the need for a larger brick-and-mortar footprint while still accommodating more students.  So as long as the 21st-century trend of learners preferring to work in a group rather than in isolation continues (Beldarrain, 2006), distance learning will incorporate collaboration, and institutions should not fear its loss.

Its Unique Methods

Interactive Delivery

After separation, perhaps the next most defining feature of distance education is the delivery of its messaging, which must be unique from other instructional strategies due to the distance in time and/or space.  Historically, these methods have included correspondence by print media, but the evolution of technology now affords many diverse opportunities which all still offer interaction.  The delivery can be synchronous, asynchronous, or integrated, but must remain responsive to the learner to maintain that interactive quality for effective learning. Modern instructional designers primarily use Internet-driven technologies to deliver the instructional message, provide two-way communication, and measure the learning outcomes.  However, the technologies of delivery methods are evolving too rapidly to be outlined as part of a definition for distance education.

Collaborative Transactions

In order for the transaction of education to occur in a distance education strategy, the learner cannot perform solely self-directed.  Garrison (2003) notes that learners must have the “opportunity to question, challenge, diagnose misconceptions, and achieve mutual understanding” (p. 166) in order to construct personal meaning.  For collaboration, distance education requires effective and responsive two-way communication between the instructor and learner, and the learner and other learners.  The most effective strategies provide transaction opportunities that are both spontaneous and reflective to help learners process new information both cognitively and sociologically (Garrison, 2000).


The technology of modern delivery methods evolves too rapidly to be included in the definition of distance education specifically, but should be examined further.  Also, more research is needed to better understand the choice of the learner, including separation between the autonomous and dependent learner, and their role in defining distance education as it continues to expand.  But without these, distance education is still able to be defined as a unique instructional strategy centered on interactive, two-way, responsive collaboration between the learner, their peers, the instructor, and the facilitator that is purpose-driven not only by separation, but by choice.


Beldarrain Y. (2006). Distance education trends: integrating new technologies to foster student interaction and collaboration. Distance Education, 27 (2), 139-153.

Garrison, R. (2000). Theoretical challenges for distance education in the 21st century: a shift from structural to transactional issues. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 1 (1), 1-17.

Garrison, R. D. (2003). Self-directed learning and distance education. In M. G. Moore & W. G. Anderson (Eds.), Handbook of distance education (pp. 161-168).  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Köymen, U. (1992).  Comparison of learning and study strategies of traditional and open-learning-system students in Turkey.  Distance Education, 13 (1), 118-130.

Moore, M. G. (1973).  Towards a theory of independent learning and teaching.  The Journal of Higher Education, 44 (9) 661-679.

Morrison, G. R., Ross, S. M., Kalman, H. K., & Kemp J. E. (2013).  Designing effective instruction (7th ed.).  Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Reiser, R. A., & Dempsey, J. V. (2012). Trends and issues in instructional design and technology (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

0 thoughts on “Defining Distance Education in Online Learning

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