Feb 24 2014

Why Defining Distance Education Is an Important Task

A precise definition of distance education would benefit educators and students but is technology moving too fast?

Distance education needs to be clearly defined and understood for a variety of reasons. Without a clear definition, meaningful conversation and research on pedagogy cannot occur. Additionally, a precise definition is important for both teachers and students when contemplating distance education. Defining distance education is made more difficult because the development of distance education has changed quickly from first-generation correspondence education to fifth-generation intelligent flexible learning. Additionally, there are multiple published definitions. Before developing a workable definition, it is helpful to see how distance education’s definition has been both created and challenged up to now.

Valentine discusses distance-learning definitions by exploring colleagues’ differing opinions. He states, “Greenberg (1998) defines contemporary distance learning as planned teaching/learning experiences that used a wide spectrum of technologies to reach the learner at a distance and is designed to encourage learner interaction and certification of learning.” However, Valentine notes that Greenberg’s definition doesn’t address whether the student is learning asynchronously or synchronously.

Valentine writes that Teaster and Bliezner’s (1999) definition clarifies that distance education occurs when the learner is separate in space and possibilities. But the author highlights that technology isn’t mentioned at all in Teaster and Bliezner’s definition.

Middle States Commission on Higher Education (2009) defines distance learning as “an educational process in which all or the majority of the instruction occurs with the instructor and student in different locations.” In this definition, Middle States makes no mention of technology or whether learning is taking place asynchronously or synchronously.

In assessing Keegan’s definition, Valentine says, “Keegan (1995) gives the most thorough definition. He says that distance education and training result from the technological separation of teacher and learner, which frees the student from the necessity of traveling to ‘a fixed place, at a fixed time, to meet a fixed person, in order to be trained’.” While Keegan’s definition of distance learning is indeed thorough, it fails to define education. Learning and education do differ. Furthermore, for successful research to begin, defining online education is imperative.

What form of learning is actually going on in distance education? King et al. (2013) conclude, “Learning is improved capabilities in knowledge and/or behavior as a result of mediated experiences that are constrained by interaction with the situation.” Further classification of learning involves objectives-driven instruction. The authors come to the conclusion that distance learning results in “improved capabilities in knowledge and/or behaviors as a result of mediated experiences that are constrained by time and/or distance such that learner does not share the same situation with what is being learned.”

While it is academically interesting to delve into education’s precise definition for research purposes, it is also important to specifically define education when distance and traditional teachers gather together for faculty development. Differences in time and space for distance education place situational constraints that are not seen in brick-and-mortar classrooms and must be addressed. In fact, faculty development may need to be created specifically for distance educators.

An accurate definition is also needed so that students can make an informed decision on whether distance education is the best fit. A better word to define the education going on today in distance education is “online.” Technology has so advanced that distance learning and online learning have, for all practical purposes, become synonymous. Defining the education as online alerts all parties that technology is being used to carry out distance education.

Further clarification distinguishes whether a class is totally online or is a hybrid. A hybrid is a combination of both brick-and-mortar classes and online classes; the term “blended” is also used. It is important to make this distinction so that students are aware there is required brick-and-mortar class attendance.

While not part of the strict definition of distance education, it is also important to clarify the timing of distance education as asynchronous, synchronous or a combination of the two. These clarifications help inform students of the class expectations — expectations not fully understood by just defining a class as being at a distance. In some instances, students have registered for online classes, only to be told after the class starts that they are required to attend synchronous classes. This is unfair to students who hadn’t realized they would have to virtually attend a scheduled class.

In conclusion, it is of utmost importance to define exactly what distance means in today’s technological landscape, for both research and practical purposes. Without a precise definition, quality distance research cannot take place. Additionally, both students and teachers should have a clear understanding and clarification of what distance education entails before taking on a distance class. With quickly changing technological tools, it is important to regularly refine distance education’s definition.


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