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Defining Distance Learning

Succinctly defining distance learning can be challenging, because there are a number of different distance learning types and models to cover. Meanwhile, certain terms, such as ‘e-learning’ and ‘online learning’ are synonymous with distance learning in some contexts, but not in others. Nevertheless, all forms of distance learning share some common traits, and the objectives are usually the same. Keep reading to learn more about distance learning and how it can be defined.

If your an educator interested in learning how you can teach at your best while from home, then be sure to read: Teach from Home: A Digital Teaching Toolkit

Defining Distance Learning

Defining distance learning, or distance education, is a useful yet challenging endeavor. While the concepts share similarities with more traditional, classroom-based learning, at least in terms of its primary aims and objectives, there are also clear differences too, which is why they needs to be treated as unique educational approaches.

Nevertheless, achieving a clear and concise definition is difficult, because distance learning is a fairly broad term, referring to a number of different types of remote education. For this reason, in addition to providing a basic definition, it can be important to increase the understanding of different concepts included within the original definition.

Defining Distance Learning

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the basic distance definition of distance learning is:

Defining Distance Learning
This definition helps establish the basic premise of distance learning, which is that the educator(s) and those who are learning are not physically present in the same location. In addition, it also sets up some of the solutions that are used to enable distance education, such as the internet, email, and traditional mail.

Today, distance learning is often considered to be synonymous with terms like “e-learning”, “online learning”, and “virtual classrooms”. However, this is not strictly true. While e-learning or online learning is a form of distance learning, the broader definition also includes old-style correspondence courses, where the material is sent through the post.

Four Characteristics of Distance Learning

When defining distance learning, it can also be useful to cover some key characteristics. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, distance learning has four key characteristics, regardless of the model being used, and these are:

  • Carried out by institutions, as opposed to non-academic self-study.
  • Characterized by the creation of a learning group, consisting of teachers, students, and resources.
  • Features an inherent geographic separation between learners and teachers.
  • Individuals within the learning group stay connected via telecommunications.

These four key characteristics help to separate formal distance learning from practices like people voluntarily learning information in their spare time, in an unstructured way. The reference to staying connected via telecommunications also helps to ensure that modern internet-based methods and more traditional mail-based methods are both included.

Defining Distance Learning

Main Types of Distance Learning

When attempting to answer the question ‘what is distance learning?’, it can also be useful to define some of the key types or models of distance education. Below, you will find a breakdown of some of the most prominent types.

Synchronous Distance Learning

Synchronous distance learning refers to a type of learning where the learning group – comprised of both the teacher and the students – interacts at the same time, albeit from different geographical locations. With this model, students are usually required to participate in learning activities at a set time, with this being facilitated by digital technology.

Another way to think of synchronous distance learning is by viewing it as a form of ‘live’ education. By having students participate at the same time, it can help to provide a clear structure and may also enhance interaction within the group. Examples of synchronous learning activities include group chats, webinars, and other forms of video conferencing.

Asynchronous Distance Learning

In contrast to the previous model, asynchronous distance learning is a type of distance education where learning takes place on a more individual basis, rather than through shared live group sessions. Generally, structure is still provided in the form of clear deadlines for completing tasks, but students complete these in a time that suits them.

Asynchronous study tends to provide a greater degree of flexibility, as learners are not required to participate at the exact same time, although this can reduce interactions within the learning group. Educational materials may take the form of written content, pre-recorded video lessons, audio recordings, and either mail or email correspondence.

Defining Distance Learning

Paced Distance Learning

With paced distance learning, the defining feature is that the lessons are completed by all students within the same basic time frame. In the majority of cases, this means that students will have the same start date, the same end date, and the same deadlines for specific tasks or pieces of work to be completed by.

Paced courses are especially prevalent with institutions that offer a combination of both distance and in-person courses. The ability to keep the learning group together in terms of how quickly they progress through a course can be classed as a potential advantage, although there is also the risk of holding certain students back.

Self-Paced Distance Learning

As you might expect, self-paced distance learning refers to distance learning models where the students are given the freedom to go at their own pace. This means that the total time taken for the course can differ significantly from one student to another, depending on factors like ability, amount of free time available, and overall engagement.

The main advantages here are freedom and flexibility, and self-paced courses also help to avoid situations where learners with a high level of interest and aptitude are held back. This model also allows for students to enroll at different times. However, the lack of structure can make interaction among students more difficult.

Defining Distance Learning

Final Thoughts

Distance learning can be briefly described as any form of learning where the teachers and students are not physically present in the same location. However, some definitions do go further, creating a distinction between unstructured self-study and more structured, organized distance education. Today, it tends to be facilitated through digital technology, although more traditional mail-based models are still technically examples of distance learning.

If your interested in learning more about Distance learning, read What Is Distance Learning? And Why Is It So Important? At the same time, if you are curious about the way virtual classrooms function learn here by reading Virtual Classroom: The Future of Distance Learning.