Definitions and History of Distance Education

There are many different definitions of distance education, but the one offered by Simonson et al. is one of the most comprehensive. According to Simonson et al. (2019), distance education is "formal education where the learning group is separated and interactive telecommunication systems are used to connect learners, resources, and instructors" (p. 31). This definition covers all of the main aspects of distance education, including using technology to connect students and teachers and for formal learning purposes like getting a college degree or professional development. The popular (layman's) definition or understanding of distance education is that it is a way to learn without attending traditional, face-to-face classes. I would consider my definition closer to the popular definition or understanding of the field because most people believe distance education is synonymous with online learning. While this is true, it is only part of the story. 

Additionally, someone not in the distance education field might focus more on the fact that distance education involves learning from a distance without necessarily understanding or appreciating the complexities involved in creating and delivering educational content to learners who are not physically present in a classroom (Saykili, 2018). The two items that I found interesting in the Simonson et al. (2019) text were that the traditional approach to distance education broadcast technologies is now obsolete in the United States. Distance education is no worse or better than formal education (Simonson et al., 2019). There seems to be a perception that online learning is somehow inferior to traditional, classroom-based instruction. I am not sure where this idea comes from, but it is certainly not supported by the evidence. Research has consistently shown that online learning can be as effective as face-to-face instruction (Simonson et al., 2019). 

During my master's program, I once had a professor who had us send four self-addressed envelopes so that she could send mail responses to my assignments. At the time, I thought it was outdated. However, I am pretty sure if this professor is teaching today, she no longer does that. Some of the reasons that print and broadcast are obsolete in the United States is that online affords students access to the material anytime, anywhere. It accommodates learning around a student's schedule and other commitments. Schools across the globe struggled with how to provide education in the face of COVID-19. For many, the answer has been to move to remote teaching, be it online, synchronous or asynchronous. However, as the pandemic continues to evolve, it is becoming increasingly clear that schools, especially K-12 schools, need to have emergency remote teaching (ERT) plans in place in case of further outbreaks or other emergencies like weather or war. 

Hodges et al. (2020) explain that ERT plans allow for continuity of learning if schools have to close due to an outbreak or other emergency. During prosperous times, institutions need to train teachers on using distance learning platforms and technology in case of an emergency. During COVID-19, teachers made rapid changes in the remote teaching curriculum without adequate preparation time during the pandemic (Saqlain, 2021). ERT plans are vital for ensuring that students do not fall behind in their studies and can pick up where the traditional classroom left off (Saqlain, 2021). My personal opinion is that the ERT plan should be developed in collaboration with the school, instructors, and students. It should be flexible enough to allow for changes to the curriculum as the pandemic or emergency progresses. 


Hodges, C. B., Moore, S., Lockee, B. B., Trust, T., & Bond, M. A. (2020). The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Educause Review. 

Saqlain, N. (2021). Preparation for emergency remote teaching Journal of Education and Educational Development, 8(1). 

Saykili, A. (2018). Distance education: Definitions, generations, key concepts, and future directions. International Journal of Contemporary Educational Research, 5(1), 2-17. Simonson, M., Zvacek, S. M., & 

Smaldino, S. (2019). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (7th ed.). Information Age Publishing


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