Distance education

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Distance education can be defined simply as education that takes place when the instructor and student are separated by distance or time, or both. A more technical definition has been provided by the California Distance Learning Project (2005):

“Distance Learning (DL) is an instructional delivery system which connects learners with educational resources. DL provides educational access to learners not enrolled in educational institutions and can augment the learning opportunities of current students. The implementation of DL is a process which uses available resources and will evolve to incorporate emerging technologies.”

The distance education movement provides adults with a second chance at higher education and it can make education more accessible to those who are limited by time, distance or physical disability. Students in both Secondary and Primary schools can also benefit from sharing the expertise of teachers and lecturers not available otherwise (e.g. Sociology or Design Technology in a small Rural location).

Distance education is not a new idea but it has become increasingly popular due to the rapid technological change and shifting market conditions which meant that education systems were challenged to provide increasing educational opportunities without increasing budgets (Gottschalk 2005). The history of teaching at a distance began some 150 years ago with the development of technology, especially transportation and communication, which was associated with the Industrial Revolution. The basic idea of distance education started in 1840 when Isaac Pitman began to teach shorthand by post and during the second half of the 19th Century correspondence teaching, became well-established in Europe and the USA (Rowntree 1992).

It has been suggested that this form of education does not encourage a strong teacher-learner relationship and a distance teacher had few, if any, visual clues about how the students are responding. However, Broadband combined with Video-conferencing is increasingly changing this. DL has many advantages which have made it an extremely popular choice for many students. It can:

  • Reach a wide student audience
  • Meet the needs of students who are unable to attend campus classes
  • Involve outside speakers who would otherwise be unavailable
  • Link students from different social, cultural, economic and experiential backgrounds
(Gottschalk, 2005)

Distance education also does not discriminate against ability and people of all ages can further their education. Additionally, many businesses use distance education to enhance the training of their employees who are located far from the training centres and where travel costs would otherwise prohibit the training (Porter 1997). In other cases distance education appeals to people who need to further their knowledge within a specific subject area to ensure they will advance professionally. Learners who participate in distance education can study a wide range of subjects independently, at their own pace, at a convenient location and time and from a greater variety of institutions (Porter 1997).

The success of distance education courses depends largely on the facilitators meeting the needs of both the learners and the teachers and therefore the course often use a mixture of media including data sent electronically (i.e. email and web conversations), audio-conferencing and radio, virtual classrooms with the use of satellite technology, and still images and pre-produced moving images such as videos (Gottschalk 2005). It is also critical to ensure that teachers and learners receive hands-on training with the technology of delivery otherwise the impressive technology used in distance education is wasted.


California Distance Learning Project (2005) What is distance learning?, http://www.cdlponline.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=whatis (Visited 10-July-05).

Gottschalk, T. (2005) Distance Education at a Glance, http://www.uidaho.edu/eo/dist2.html (Visited 10-July-05).

Porter, L. (1997) Creating the Virtual Classroom: Distance Learning with the Internet, John Wiley & Sons: New York.

Rowntree, D. (1992) Exploring Open and Distance Learning, Kogan Page Limited: London.

Useful links

The Distance Education Clearinghouse
This is an excellent site that not only provides definitions about distance education but also gives articles and journals which allow the reader to keep up to date with trends in the field. The information is brought together by the University of Wisconsin and includes information from Wisconsin, USA and international sources.
http://www.uwex.edu/disted/home.html (Visited 10-July-05)

The Distance Education and Training Council
The Distance Education and Training Council is a non-profit educational association in Washington DC that was founded in 1926 to promote sound educational standards for those studying at home. Today it is comprised of over 80 institutions offering distance education courses in 21 states and 7 countries.
http://www.detc.org/ (Visited 10-July-05)

International Centre for Distance Learning
This site provides information about distance learning courses that are available in the UK and abroad and also supplies the literature needed to undertake a distance learning course.

http://www-icdl.open.ac.uk (Visited 10-July-05)