Distance learning occurs when instructors and learners are separated by space and possibly time. Distance learning is part of a system of learning, teaching, communication, design, and management. The learning is interactive and may happen synchronously with instruction or asynchronously. The interaction among instructors, learners, and information is mediated by one or more technologies.
Synonyms and similar terms for distance learning include cyberschooling, distance education, distributed learning, e-learning, m-learning, online learning, open schooling, remote education, telelearning, and virtual schooling. The growth in interest in distance learning stems from the benefits it affords, such as convenience in location of learning, flexibility in scheduling learning, effectiveness for learning given the proper conditions, a multisensory interactive approach, and efficiency in use of time and resources. Distance learning applications for adult learners include professional development, continuing formal education, needs-based instruction, mentoring, and personal enrichment.
Most distance learning students learn effectively, and online courses and programs can be just as effective as face-to-face experiences. Successful distance learning requires that both students and instructors use different skills than they would use in a traditional teaching and learning environment because of the unique characteristics of the distance learning situation.
Table 1 Types of Interactive Distance Learning
The distance between learner and teacher as stated by Michael Moore “is not merely geographic, but educational and psychological as well. It is a distance in the relationship of the two partners in the educational enterprise.” In general, novice students need more structure, and as they acquire skill, knowledge, and expertise, their need for dialogue increases and the distance between educators and students decreases no matter their physical distance.
The communication transaction between educators and students varies depending on the background of students, their prior knowledge of a subject, and their motivation and readiness to engage in learning, as well as the nature of the subject matter, the complexity of the discipline, and the breadth and depth of the curriculum. Transactional distance changes not only during the course of a term, but in each session.
Effective Distance Education
Distance education and its technologies require extensive planning and preparation. Teachers must be proficient in the use of communication technology and in the techniques proven effective in the distance education environment. Media must be appropriate to the technology and to the needs and abilities of the students. The distance educator has the role of a guide or moderator more than that of a presenter or performer. Skills in communication are considered to be more important than content knowledge, because interaction of students is the factor that contributes most to learner success in distance education.
Distant students bring basic characteristics to their learning experiences, which influence their success in learning. Success as a distance learner depends on factors such as having the necessary skills for learning and communication, adapting to the technology-mediated social setting, engaging the learner in relevant activities, and having the appropriate technical skills and resources, according to Greg Kearsley.
The quality of distance learning courses or modules depends on content, pedagogy, motivation, feedback, organization, usability, assistance, assessment, and flexibility. The process of developing and implementing effective distance education happens in an iterative cycle proposed by Cathy Cavanaugh involving resources–practices–results. Broadly considered, the three stages in the cycle are:
- Procurement and preparation of the resources necessary to meet the distance education goals
- Delivery of instruction using the best practices from education, business, and research
- Analysis of the results of distance education to gauge achievement of the goals
- American Journal of Distance Education, http://www.ajde.com/
- Cavanaugh, (2002). Distance education quality: Success factors for resources, practices and results. In R. Discenza, Howard, & K. Schenk (Eds.), The design and management of effective distance learning programs. Hershey, PA: Idea Group Press.
- Distance-Educator.com, http://www.distance-educator.com/ Holmberg, (1989). Theory and practice of distance education. London: Routledge.
- International Journal on E-Learning, http://www.aace.org/pubs/ijel/defhtm
- Kearsley, G. (2000). Online education. Belmont, CA: Wadsw
- Keegan, (1986). The foundations of distance education.London: Croom Helm.
- Moore, & Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance education: Asystems view. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Saba, F. (2003). Distance education: Foundations and fundamental concepts [Editorial]. Available from http://www.distance-educator.com