My Post June 3

Discussion 1

Steve McCrea

for EDD 7007  Distance Learning

1. A leading definition of distance education is that offered by Simonson/AECT (see p. 32 of the Simonson text). How does this definition  compare with your own, personal definition of the field—and the popular (layman's) definition or understanding of the field? [Something to consider: when you tell people you're studying distance education, do they ask, "What's that"? And if they do, how do you answer them?]

Expanding the Definition of Distance Education

A new paradigm for learning

What is "distance education"?  The first exposure many people of my parents' generation had to the concept of learning at distance was correspondence school.   Generally regarded as a lower form of learning, correspondence schools were a method of gaining a skill outside traditional schools.  

The tradition of distance learning by mail was developed to transfer specific training, not to deliver university education.  Distance courses were available in pre-Revolutionary New England.  For example, an advertisement in The Boston Gazette of 20 March, 1728 announced that "Caleb Phillipps, Teacher of the New Method of Short Hand" sought "Persons in the Country desirous to Learn this Art, may by having the several Lessons sent weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston" (Holmberg 1995).  Correspondence schools have helped students bridge the gap of distance for centuries.  

The definition given by Simonson (2012, p. 32-33) is an inverse of the definition that most people give for a "real" school:  The learning takes place in a school, teachers and students are in the same room, and information is shared.  Simonson points out that the learning experience is under the aegis of an institution, students and teacher are separated and there is some interaction using telecommunications.   The fourth part ("the sharing of learning experiences") deserves some additional comment.  

In the few courses that I've taken so far as part of my degree program, the focus has been on written interaction (posting and commenting on the posts) and on one-way presentations.  The element that many participants in distance education appear to overlook is the possible uses of supporting (free) technologies to add some of the aspects of the in-person classroom to the distance experience.  

Two procedures involving cameras and Youtube and mobile phones would expand the experience of online learning for many students.

a)  Use the current interactive medium for interaction.

Before there is a WIMBA or Elluminate session, professors might consider the value of having students deliver one-way presentations through  If professors could use WIMBA and Elluminate time for interaction (rather than for presentation), online courses could have a closer simulation to in-person classes.  Power points could be delivered to a camera and posted on private Youtube channel that the classmates could watch.  The WIMBA and Elluminate session could be focused on interactive question and answer sessions that would check the learning that had taken place by the audience.  

b) Encourage peripheral, tangential interaction

Some of the best parts of learning and interaction in the first course I took were using a 19th Century technology:  the telephone.   I connected with partners in Wisconsin, Puerto Rico and Fort Myers, Florida, often involving deeper discussions than I've ever had through an in-person class.  This over-the-phone interaction is often aided by the information that classmates reveal when professors ask students to post an introduction.  The follow-up conversations between classmates often touch on wider topics than with classmates in face-to-face.

There is a third procedure that online courses can use that face-to-face learners might overlook:   building deeper relationships with our online colleagues.

c)  Nurture classmates into becoming long-term contacts

After the course, I try to keep emailing my colleagues (by getting their email addresses) with updates and references to interesting documents.   The fact that we onliners had previously interacted by email makes such post-course followups more likely than when I have been in face-to-face classes.

In short, the layman's definition of distance learning (correspondence school on steroids) leaves out the key factor of student-to-student interaction which in the long run may prove to be the most important aspect of the process we are now engaged in.


Holmberg, B. (June 1995).  The evolution of the character and practice of distance education.  Open Learning, 47-53.

Simonson, M. et al (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance:  Foundations of distance education. Boston:  Pearson.