Friday, May 4, 2012

Defining Distance Learning

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I completed my bachelor’s degree without computer technology, so my exposure to distance learning through online resources has been mainly within the last few years. Going as far back as I can remember, my mother took shorthand classes through a correspondence by mail at a local business school. They would send her cassette tapes of dictation, and she would transcribe those words into short hand, and mail her work back to school. Then I worked at a hospital through the internet boom and watched our facility go through the growing pains of converting manual processes to electronic. They converted our normal means of communication, through a pneumatic tube system and telephone, to computer based. This lead way to my transition from healthcare to information technology and I began a new career as a training consultant that taught hospital employees about their new computer systems. These moments signified a technology turning point for me. To further propel my information technology transition, I took self study Microsoft classes and certification exams. I would correspond with the instructors via email, and then take the exam at a designated computer lab for official scoring.  Continuing in the information technology field, I began working for a software company who had a training facility at our headquarters, and our customers would travel to us to attend our training classes. This eventually changed, and we began sending our trainers to our customer’s to conduct training. Not until the last five years, have we been dedicated to converting all of our training to online self study, with the option of “on-live” or live online training.

My initial definition of distance learning, e-learning or online learning only considered the experiences of the learner. I thought that any class taken electronically, regardless of whether the instructor was readily available or not, was considered distance learning. I work for a software company, and we offer e-learning modules that are recorded modules which can be accessed at any time. I thought that this mode of learning could be classified as distance learning until listening to Dr. Simonson (n.d.). He helped me realize that this is not distance learning, but rather online self-study at a distance (Simonson, n.d.).   I understand that the current definition of distance learning includes emphasis on both teaching and learning. Dr. Simonson (n.d.) defines distance learning formal education in which the learning group (teacher, students and resources) are available but separated by geography and sometimes time. Instructional media or communication technology is what links the group members together. Dr. Simonson’s definition allows for the separation of distance learning from self-study at a distance, thus helping me to distinguish between the two modes of learning (Simonson, n.d.).   
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Three factors, in my opinion, drive the changing definition of distance learning: technology, need, and professional industry. It is obvious that the evolution of technology has caused a significant increase in distance learning and online learning in general. Also, as technology continues to evolve, so will the capabilities of learning in this capacity. As distance learning becomes more and more mainstream, different needs will emerge.  These needs will continue to drive changes in distance learning. Lastly, distance learning is a broad term that can be applied to learning in many different industries, such as military\government, education, and corporate\industry. I think that a person’s profession creates a perception of distance learning which can model their own interpretation of the term distance learning. As standards are developed, we will see that these broad standards will not apply to every industry; thus definition differentiations will begin to emerge based on individual industry standards. I do not think that distance learning will be the sole process of learning in the future, nor replace our brick and mortar education establishments.  I think that distance learning will continue to be integrated and hybridized in all areas of learning.  Learning styles will change as we begin integrating newer technologies such as multiuser virtual reality environments, augmented reality and mobile and wireless technology (Dede, 2005).  Learners will be more in control of structuring their own educational needs through these technology integrations. 

Mind Map of Distance Learning Definition

This is a visual representation of my original definition (blue) and my new definition (blue + yellow) of Distance Learning.  The additional node (purple) includes some of my ideas on the future of distance education.

A small interactive preview is below.  Click the nodes to expand the map.  To see the entire map in a full screen view,  please click here -Distance Learning Mind Map


Simonson, M. (Performer) (n.d.). Distance education: The next generation [Web]. Retrieved from

Dede, C. (2005). Planning for neomillennial learning styles. Educause Quarterly, 28(1), 7–12.

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