Defining Distance Learning

I currently work for an organization that parents a number of universities that provide degrees through both traditional classroom settings as well as completely online courses. Before attending courses here at Walden I had only ever taken one course online myself and that course as well as my knowledge about this type of course was from my exposure through my current employer. That being said, when I heard the term “distance education” as presented as the title of this course, my mind went directly to online learning. If you had asked me what my definition was I would have said something like, “Distance learning is a student taking courses online instead of in a classroom. They complete their work in their own space and in their own time as long as they meet the requirements of the institution. They communicate with their professors and the other students in their courses through the computer or by telephone.”

However, after only one week of reading and material in this course on distance learning, my understanding and my definition of distance learning has changed. Not only do I see that distance learning can involve other avenues of communication outside of a computer and online, but I also believe the work I do as an instructional designer within a corporate setting can be included in this broad methodology of learning.

Reading about the history of distance education this week was very eye opening. I hadn’t considered that distance learning could have begun at least 160 years ago. Of course, it looked a lot different then. “An advertisement in a Swedish newspaper in 1833 touted the opportunity to study ‘composition through the medium of the post.’” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2008) This mode of distance education is also one I had not thought about. My mind automatically goes to how I see distance learning today. A world where we have high speed internet and cell phones on which we can access virtually any information we may be looking to find; this is the world where my definition of distance learning has been shaped. Still today, distance learning can include methods such as the mail, videos, and the telephone, not only the computer and the internet.

The method for distance learning was not the only change that my definition had to undergo this week. When I considered distance learning before it was almost exclusively used for education in the higher education arena. However, we read three different articles this week that defined how distance education is also being used effectively in the K-12 and training and development areas. This should not have been a new part of my definition. In fact, in training and development, it should have been a major part of my definition as this is what I do in my work on a day to day basis, but it is not something I would have defined as distance learning before this week. I now see this differently. I now define distance education differently.

Based on my experience and my knowledge, including what I have learned in the past week, if you asked me today what my definition of distance education is I would say something like, “Distance education is a person gaining knowledge through a method of learning outside of a classroom using resources provided from an instructor who communicates through a variety of different means.” It is much broader. It is much more encompassing of not only my own experience but the experience of a much larger audience.

As my definition has changed based on what I now know about the history of distance learning, the future of distance learning must also be considered. Where is distance learning going? What does the future of distance learning look like? I am no expert in this field, and I do not own a crystal ball. However, having seen computers go from a flashing green cursor on a black screen only 20 years ago to a tablet that can now access the world wide web by just touching the screen, I would say that the future of distance learning has no limit. We are already able to take our courses from a cell phone, from anywhere at any time. As technology continues to advance so will the possibilities for distance education. The challenge will be in designing the instruction for the learning to meet the needs of all learners in these new formats. This is why being in the field of instructional design in the present is so exciting, because the future looks so bright!

Distance Learning Mind Map