Distance Education: Past, Present, & Future

Distance education or distance learning is not a new concept, contrary to popular belief. In the early 1700’s Caleb Phillips advertised correspondence courses in the Boston Gazette. The University of London was the first to offer degrees worldwide beginning in the late 1850’s and many universities followed suit including the University of Chicago, the University of Queensland, the University of South Africa, and the University of Houston. It was the growth of the Internet that allowed distance education to take a different direction with platforms such as eCollege and Blackboard. Statistics from 2009 reveal that over 4 million students are participating in distance education (Lepi, 2013).


However, the key question remains, how effective is distance education? Michael Simonson (2000) explained the Equivalence Theory, which states that distance education and face to face education should have the same learning outcomes and provide equivalent learning experiences to meet those outcomes (Simonson, 2000). In order to meet these goals, I feel that there must be: (a) effective instructional designers, (b) knowledgeable instructors, and (c) motivated and engaged students. Huett, Moller, Foshay, and Coleman (2008) discussed the belief that to create interesting distance learning spaces for students, instructional designers must work with teachers in a cooperative manner (Huett, Moller, Foshay, & Coleman, 2008). Teachers must not only be knowledgeable in the content they are teaching, but they must also be familiar with the needs of their learners. Students taking part in distance education are from a variety of backgrounds and from various geographical locations. It is important that teachers be cognizant of these issues in order that all students can meet with success. Students also have a responsibility to be motivated in order to adapt to an online learning environment. Technology is advancing rapidly and it is incumbent upon distance learners to learn new technologies as they arise in order to learn independently as schools, colleges, and universities will continue to adopt new e-learning platforms and technologies.


In this regard, it is important for distance education to evolve. Simonson (2000) pointed out that distance education is at critical mass. In other words, distance education has been widely adopted around the world and has become an essential component of learning environments (Simonson, 2008). As a teacher in a K-12 setting, I believe, distance education can play a vital role. I am currently using the Desire to Learn (D2L) platform with my grade 8s and am finding considerable success with its use. I have increased access and communication with my students, especially those students who lack the confidence to participate in our face to face classroom. Furthermore, my students are learning at their own pace as they can move on to additional learning experiences without having to wait for the rest of the class. The D2L platform has a variety of tools such as the blog feature, group lockers, class notes, and videos. This evolution allows for a more learner-centered approach as opposed to the teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom. In addition, distance education platforms needs to evolve by incorporating new technology and media as they arise in order to compete with other providers. In the K-12 environment, it is essential that distance learning evolve to include more synchronous activities so students do not feel isolated. Huett et al. (2008) discussed the fact that due to development and social concerns, it is important to include increased synchronous times so students feel a sense of community in their online classroom (Huett et al., 2008). I feel that this is an important aspect that many instructional designers and teachers do not consider. Students in this stage might not have the maturity to be focused enough to be independent learners. They need to be taught skills such as organization, self-regulation, collaboration, and independence by their teachers. Young children and young adults require considerable support and supervision in order to be successful in their online classroom; therefore it is vital that distance education in the K-12 environment evolve to consider increased support, increased synchronous times, and to consider the physical and developmental stages of students. If distance education changes and evolves by considering these factors, perhaps we will see positive changes in teaching and learning in the K-12 environment.




Huett, J., Moller, L., Foshay, W. & Coleman, C., (2008, September/October). The evolution of distance education: Implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 3: K12). TechTrends, 52(5), 63-67.

Simonson, M. (2000). Making decisions: The use of electronic technology in online classes. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 84, 29-34.

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7 thoughts on “Distance Education: Past, Present, & Future

  1. Great posting – very informative! When anyone asks me about earning a degree in an online format I also tell them it is tougher than face to face. I say this because as a student there is no room to procrastinate. Deadlines come up and if you fall behind it is very hard if not impossible to catch up in time.

  2. Response from Michael Hiett

    Awesome blogpost. Great handle, too (techdiva). Maybe I should have made mine something other than sportz75. lol It sounds like I have a sports blog. You mentioned that there must be effective instructional designers, knowledgeable instructors, and engaged students. In many areas, especially in Metro Atlanta, student engagement and interest is low. We have many title-1 schools and behavioral issues help to keep a revolving door of teachers. I wonder to what extent this would prevent successful adoption of blended or online learning in our public schools. Would lackluster performance by students be blamed on poor design or lack of teacher competence? Or would the students be held responsible for lack of effort. It would be interesting to see how it panned out.

  3. I completely agree with your analysis of why distance education needs to evolve. Sometimes instructor of online classes forget to take into account that students are selecting the online route for different reasons and not everyone has the same amount of time as others, but that does not mean that they are not striving for success. When received my first online degree, there was a test for each lesson that was based on the course resources, now collaboration seems to be the primary assessment tool.

  4. Terrific blog. 🙂 Currently the public education system, at least in my area, has a motto that all children can learn. Student shortcoming is generally blamed on teachers and schools in general. If public high schools begin to utilize and require DE for some classes, how will this motto effect DE? Will it be scrutinized and strategies be blamed if all students are not successful? I think there will need to be evolution of DE to somehow support unmotivated students. Currently there is a quality control because it is a choice. What happens when it is a requirement?

  5. You wrote a very detailed and informative blog. I am interested in the Desire to Learn platform that you use in your classroom activities. Is this a free software program for teachers? Do you do mandatory assignments through this software? How do you differentiate for students who do not have home internet? Again very interesting!

  6. Shelly,

    You described D2L as an emerging approach that combines traditional face to face learning with an online format of learning. So yes, this is a blended learning mode for K12 education. Blended learning can be used as a transitional point for students and teachers to move onto fully online learning. Do you think D2L designers had such a goal in mind?

    Also, do you think that people in society with a traditional mindset might not be totally opened to this learning platform for young kids? In short, do you think certain traditional colleges might not be as accepting to students who were engaged in D2L learning?

    The first time I came across online learning for K12 for example: http://www.k12.com/
    , I was not very opened to the idea. However, after exploring the various the benefits, I am slightly more opened to this form of schooling. What are your thoughts on fully online learning for young students? What are some challenges that might exists for young online learners?

    Blog: http://ena-spoonfulofsugar.blogspot.com/

  7. I enjoyed and agreed with your post. I am a DL teacher for early entry college courses. There is an art to designing the online aspect, just as much as there is an art to face-to-face teaching. Effective teaching, I feel, is the same no matter the environment. But each environment allows for different ways to accomplish the same goal.

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