Distance learning – past and future as I see it


Yuna’s Mindmap Displaying Current Understanding of DL and Vision

Please click on the mindmap image above to zoom in

My journey through distance learning

Before starting this class, I had a rather limited view of distance learning.  I envisioned large geographical distances between the instructor and students bridged by teleconferences.  Or perhaps a chronological separation that was overcome with pre-recorded lectures on a VHS tape, or later a DVD.  In fact, the image that popped up in my mind was of Open University courses that my mother took when I was a child.  The instructor would look directly into the camera to deliver the lecture, and occasionally show a diagram or mathematical equation. I certainly did not picture a lot of student-to-student interaction, and quite limited teacher-student interaction.  I imagined assessments to consist of Internet based forms that were completed and send via mail server, much like those used on websites (of that time) to ask for more information.  Additionally, this type of learning could only be accomplished with bulky set-ups such as a television with maybe a VCR or DVD player too, or a desktop computer. 

        Within the first week of our Distance Learning course, most of my preconceived notions about distance learning were rearranged.  You will recall that my definition of distance learning hinged on the physical and chronological separation between student and teacher.  After reviewing our resources, I discovered that the separation could also be pedagogical. Separation can be determined by the student’s familiarity with the online environment and the autonomy they prefer therein (Laureate Inc., n.d.).  To explain this further, we must look at Moore’s theory of Transactional Distance which postulates that the student’s perceived distance from the instruction is indirectly proportional to their level of self-directedness, or autonomy (Moore, 2007).  Hence, the more autonomy the student strives for, the less the perceived distance.   This was quite an eye opener for me, since I had never even considered the actual perception of distance.

 Another reality check came in the variety of options for student/student and student/instructor communication.  I was aware of applications such as Skype and Webex, but had not put much thought into how these could be used as assessment tools.  For example, an instructor can watch a student demonstrate a process via a webcam and a high speed internet connection, or have a conversation with several students simultaneously in a webinar.  Finally, the TV and/or desktop components have been replaced with a broad selection of devices that can display multi-media or even connect to the internet. 

As I think about where distance learning can go from here, it is clear that the importance of collaboration and networking will be highlighted.  The advances in social media are proof that we like to know “what’s going on.”  I believe the next stage of information gathering and collaboration is enhanced data mashing, as seen on Flickr’s site where an image is almost a portal to information related to that image.  I attribute this to the “shrinking” of the world caused by the ease of access of global information via the internet.  So, as we are privy to increased amounts of information, we will seek to link that information with other data, hence the data mashing.   I also think that, as distance learning becomes more commonplace, we will develop better strategies to ensure learning.  For example, we may find that distance learners using mobile devices heavily favor podcasts over visual learning because they are on the go while ingesting the information.  One last note…I think that the phrase “distance learning” will be phased out because it will become so inherent to learn this way, we will not even consider the novelty of being in a different location from our peers and instructor.

My version of the evolution of distance learning

The landscape of instructional design during my early years in this profession was quite different to that of today’s vista.  My first experiences of instructional design included mandatory storyboarding skills and a lot of HTML code.  A small team of instructional and graphic designers was required to create a course.  Then there were only a few Learning Management Systems (LMS) to use to distribute that course.  Flip charts were still quite popular and computer training was by and large delivered via PowerPoint slides. 

Of course, things have changed a lot since then.  Now an instructional designer has the tools to author, publish, and distribute a course from their desktop computer.  Software suites such as Articulate and Rapid Intake have made animations and interactive graphics easy to create, even for the ID who is not an expert in Flash.  Additionally, an increasing number of companies are making off- the-shelf learning management systems (LMS) that facilitate creation of the online classroom. We learned this week in class, that this ability for IDs to be the sole authoring contributors of a course is known as rapid e-learning.    

Rapid elearning has replaced a workflow that used to take weeks to create a training program.  Although this shift is beneficial to companies interested in just-in-time instruction and ever changing content, it does have a negative effect on the process of instructional design itself.  This abbreviated timeline has decreased the time and resources dedicated to pre-analysis and evaluation (Moller, Foshay, & Huett, 2008).  This lack of evaluation robs the training of its strong instructional foundation.  This, in turn, may lead to the decreased effectiveness of online teaching.  Looking at it from a business standpoint, one might think that this would potentially reduce the ROI of training.  However, as we learned in class this week, many companies still measure the ROI of training in terms of the “flashiness” of the program, i.e. the look and complexity of the animations and interactive graphics (Moller et al., 2008) .  This fact has not changed since I first started in this field.  Then, and now, I am asked to create a course with ‘x’ number of interactive graphics and animations, before even analyzing the content or audience!

This was a clumsy application and not at all the elegant communication tool that discussion boards or wikis are today.  Hence, coming into this class my definition of distance was based solely on the geographical separation between the instructor and the students.  Many of the definitions were explored in our text but all of the descriptions have a unified theme: distance learning requires a student with a desire to learn separated either by time or space from a teacher willing to instruct and a method for two way communication between the two parties (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zyacek, 2009).  Today, with the advent of social media and Web 2.0, it is almost inconceivable to sit in front of a computer and not communicate with others taking the same course.  The combination of these depictions is in line with the following general guidelines from Chickering and Gamson (1987) for successful undergraduate education, and can be extended to adult learning also:

  1. encourages contact between students and faculty,
  2. develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,
  3. encourages active learning,
  4. gives prompt feedback,
  5. emphasizes time on task,
  6. communicates high expectations, and
  7. respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

DL can provide all of the conditions listed above, but I agree with Moller et al. in that there is a general lack of identifiable distance learning standards with which to evaluate such curricula (Moller et al., 2008).  However, with continued evolution of technology infrastructure and tools, I predict that distance learning curricula will thrive and in the process, benchmarks and evaluation metrics will be formed.  With the constant virtual conversation occurring today, I envisage collaborative learning taking the forefront of education methods.  Finally, as more students connect this way, the diversity and availability of knowledge will sky rocket and more than ever before the world will be flat (Friedman, 2007) because we will all belong to the same global learning community.


Chickering, A. W., and Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice
in undergraduate education. Retrieved from http://www2.honolulu.hawaii.edu/facdev/guidebk/teachtip/7princip.htm

Friedman, T.L. (2007). The world is flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Laureate Inc. (Producer). (n.d.). Theory and distance learning [Video webcast].  Retrieved from http://sylvan.live.ecollege.com.

Moller, L., Foshay, W. R., & Huett, J. (2008). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the Web. TechTrends: Linking Research and Practice to Improve Learning, 52(3), 70-75. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Moore, M. (2007). Theory of transactional distance. Retrieved from     http://www.c3l.uni oldenburg.de/cde/support/readings/moore93.pdf.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.


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