My Distance Learning Definition – EDUC 6135

Posted: November 4, 2013 in EDUC6135
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We are tasked this week with discussing the evolution of our personal definition of distance learning.  While correspondence courses began as early as 1833 (Laureate Education, Inc., n. d.), in my lifetime one of the earliest distance learning programs that I recall as a child of the 1960s is the drawing program offered through the Art Instruction Schools. Originally called Federal Schools, the school was established in 1914 and by 1931 the name was changed to the more familiar, Art Instruction Schools (“Timeline,” 2013).  During the 1950s, they began their famous “Draw Me” advertising campaign.  I remember several of the cartoon-style characters, including Spunky, Tippy-the-Turtle and the pirate (pictured below), that were placed on matchbooks, in magazine and comic book advertisements, and on television commercials inviting the prospective artist to submit their own drawing of the character to the school for consideration of a scholarship award for the correspondence art program.  I was also exposed to the concept of correspondence courses and possibly audio courses through references made to them in television programs and movies.  For these reasons, my earliest definition of distance learning was simply, taking a course by mail which means that the student is separated from the classroom and instructor.

draw me turtle and pirate

Image credit: Spunky

Images credit:

For the sake of clarity surrounding the evolving definition of distance learning, I would suggest that it is necessary to specify that we are talking about formal education rather than informal.  The term distance learning is a general term which could encompass learning of any kind that occurs when there is distance between the instructor, the student, and the classroom.  Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek discuss at length components of distance education including “…the concept that distance education is institutionally based (2012),” which separates formal distance education from self-study.  Without this distinction, even how-to programs such as televised cooking or do-it-yourself shows could fit the definition of distance learning.  My personal definition of distance learning now includes the separation of the students from the classroom and instructor which can be completed via correspondence and televised lectures, and that there must be a connection to a formal institution of learning.          

The point at which my definition of distance learning began to evolve and expand beyond the concept of learning through correspondence was in the early 1980s, when I attempted a televised course offered through my community college.  I remember this being the new wave of education and I was excited to take a class where I watched a recorded program at home.  I was not successful however, as the ability to be in front of the television at the right moment and on the right channel eluded me.  Without an instructor and classmates, I found the overall experience to be confusing, boring, and isolating so I it was not long before I dropped the course.  My definition of distance learning now included tele-courses, but I was not impressed.  Fortunately, personal computers such as Tandy machines, Commodore, and Macintosh were beginning to make their appearance in my life so I had high hopes for the education opportunities of the future.

As the personal computing industry began to blossom in the 1980s, the ability to communicate on bulletin board systems (BBS) and then the introduction of interactive sites like Compuserve and of the internet presented the most exciting time period of technological advancements I had ever experienced in my life.  These and other advancements in electronic media technology would eventually allow for what Simonson et al. referred to as “interactive telecommunications,” allowing for synchronous communication between teachers and students (2012).  However, Simonson et al. referred to the argument by Garrison and Shale during the time period of the late 1980s that most of the communication that was taking place was “non-contiguous” and that distance education “must involve two-way communication.”  My own definition must also now be adjusted to include a reference to interactivity through technology.

It is with my experience at Walden University over the last year that my understanding of distance learning expands dramatically and my definition nears its completion, at least for the time being.  Through my classes I have been exposed to a learning management system which incorporates a variety of electronic media options for synchronous and asynchronous communication including multimedia presentations, discussion boards, email, announcements, and chat rooms.  In addition, I have been exposed to other tools of distance learning including blogs, vlogs, voicethreads, and MOOCs, and I will soon begin to explore how to develop and place a training design onto a learning management system.  I feel that my distance learning experiences are now juxtaposed with my unfortunate tele-course experience of the early 1980s.  Distance learning has come a very long way in the last 30 years!  And so has my definition of distance learning.  At my current experience level, I would define distance learning as the acquisition of knowledge and skills through a formal, institutionally-based program in an environment where the teacher and students are separated by space and sometimes time, and where the separation is bridged through interactive technology which allows for rich synchronous and asynchronous communication.

As part of this assignment we have been asked to consider the factors that impact the always-changing definition of distance learning as well as the influence of a person’s profession or degree of technical knowledge.  In my mind, it is obvious that an individual’s exposure to technology either personally or professionally, and their knowledge of technology will influence their own definition of distance learning.  Therefore, I can only speak to this topic as it pertains to my own experience and suggest that technology has been the most impactful factor in the evolution of my own definition.  As the technology advances, more possibilities and more opportunities arise.  In the article title, The Evolution of Distance Education (2005), Tracey and Richey stated that “To a great extent, the evolution of distance education has paralleled advancements in technology, but its development is also a reflection of changing educational values and philosophies.”  Since humans and human learning theories do not change or evolve as rapidly as the technology, I suppose a case could be made for the need to study learning theory as it relates to each new technological advance and the use of that technology in distance learning.  This idea is supported and expounded upon by the following passage on distance learning by Tracey and Richey (2005):

“The evolution of this phenomenon, as well as its future growth will undoubtedly be shaped to a great extent by technological    advancements and refinements.  These innovations, however, must be matched by research and theoretical explorations of those distance education methods that promote not only student engagement in the learning process, but an inquisitive, skilled and intellectually-able population.”

With respect to the future of distance learning I suspect that the possibilities are only limited by technology, innovation, and imagination.  Being in the public health dietetics profession and with only limited experience with current technologies, my limited Walden education experiences are the most relevant to me in considering the future of distance learning.  As such, it is difficult for me to imagine the path that the evolution of distance learning will travel.   I can only hope that the skills that I am learning in the field of instructional design will afford me the ability and opportunity to participate in the process as the field of distance learning continues to unfold.

~Lorena, the aspiring technophile

Lorena’s Distance Learning Definition Mindmap

Distance Learning


Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (n. d.). Distance learning timeline continuum. [Multimedia presentation]. Retrieved from

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundation of distance education (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Timeline. (2013). Retrieved from

Tracey, M., & Richey, R. C. (2005). The evolution of distance education. Distance Learning, 2(6), 17-21. Retrieved from

  1. Marnie D says:


    I chuckled when I saw the two charactors as they reminded me of the course I did enroll in, but did not finish… I guess a distance learning I forgot about because it didnot work for me.

    I agree with your assessment comment concerning the experience people have with technology, I also believe those comfortable with technology can adapt to an e-learning environment far better than those with limited expereince. Students coming up in the elementary and middle schools should be better suited for the e-Learning environment that say folks my age.


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