Skip to main content

Distance Learning

Distance Learning

The terms "distance learning," "distance education," and "distributed learning" are often used interchangeably, though some authors make sharp distinctions between their meanings. Distance education typically refers to distributed learning resources in academic settings, whereas distance learning is commonly defined as the acquisition of knowledge and skills through mediated information and instruction. The focus of the former term is on the process of teaching and its supporting systems whereas the focus of the latter is on the process of learning.

Distance learning can take a wide variety of forms, but generally it means that the instructor and learners are in different places or the teaching and learning occur at different times. Interaction among participants and with the learning resources usually involves some form of electronic media or mediated communication.

Distance learning has been a feature of higher education in the United States for more than a century. Since 1890, an estimated 130 million Americans have taken distance or correspondence study courses. These courses are not offered exclusively by colleges and universities, but also by businesses, nonprofit organizations, trade associations, and the military, among others. In the mid-1990s, more than 5 percent of the 14.3 million students in American higher education were formally enrolled in distance education courses. Distance learning is also an international phenomenon. For example, the pioneering British Open University estimates it has served more than two million people in its first thirty years.

Technology has played an increasingly important role in the delivery of distance education and in the distribution of distance learning resources. In 1890, distance education equated to correspondence (home) study where students worked through specially prepared self-instructional print materials, submitted assignments, and received feedback from their instructors via mail. This model is still the prevalent form of distance education throughout the world. The advent of radio and television brought another dimension to distance learning, and for a time they were heralded as replacements for the classroom.

During the 1980s, interactive television (ITV) emerged as an effective tool for engaging students studying at a distance. ITV connects multiple classrooms by way of two-way audio and video communication. An instructor teaching a class at the home site can see and talk with students at far site classrooms, as they can with the students in the room at the home site. ITV uses hardware and software solutions to compress the video stream so more information can be sent over relatively low bandwidth communications lines. For example, three ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) lines can provide 384 Kbps (kilobits per second) of dedicated bandwidth between sites, enabling full-motion (30 fps [frames per second]) video and quality audio transmission.

More recently, the Internet has emerged as the preferred technology to support students studying at a distance. Along with this trend, a new breed of integrated web-based tools supports the creation and delivery of instructional materials and provides a variety of communication capabilities. Products like Blackboard and WebCT exemplify these course management systems.

Four Distance Learning Models

A wide variety of technologies support learning and the delivery of education. To understand them, consider two dimensions of learningtime and location. Figure 1 divides learning technologies into four quadrants, defined by whether the teacher and learner share the same location (local) or are separated (distant) and by whether the teaching and learning activities take place at the same time (synchronous) or at different times (asynchronous). The case of local/synchronous learning refers to forms of traditional face-to-face instruction and all others refer to distance learning scenarios.


The local/synchronous option is supported by the traditional classroom technologies supplemented with computers, VCRs, DVD players, and data/video projection systems that allow the entire class to view videos, presentations, and demonstrations simultaneously. Educational institutions are increasingly building "smart" classrooms with network access, touch-sensitive display screens (such as SmartBoards ), and groupware to support collaborative work in the classroom. Many instructors also prefer to teach in classrooms that are configured with networked computers at every seat or workgroup and with hardware or software technologies that provide computer input and output monitoring and control capabilities. These allow the instructor to grab any student's screen image and display it on all computers in the class or on the large screen. Many institutions are also supporting laptop use in the classroom, either by providing network ports at each seat or providing wireless network access throughout the campus.


The distant/synchronous option is supported by technologies like Interactive Television. Satellite downlinks and broadcast television provide a higher level of quality and wider reach, but entail greater costs and allow less interaction, typically providing telephone lines for questions from the recipients. As higher-bandwidth access to the Internet becomes more widely available, desktop video conferencing will become an increasingly effective solution, in either point-to-point or multi-point mode. This option, characterized by software such as NetMeeting and CUseeMe, provides a video and audio link, along with file sharing, application sharing, chat tools, and whiteboards, allowing multiple attendees to view and edit graphic material simultaneously in a shared space. Synchronous chat tools are common components of web-based course management systems.


The local/asynchronous option has learners physically present in the same place but performing different learning activities. This is characterized by computer lab and small group activities and is supported by technologies such as streaming video, ported classrooms, wireless network access, and computer-based applications.


The distant/asynchronous model is the oldest and most common form of distance learning model. It uses self-instructional learning materials in forms ranging from paper and pencil to multimedia content posted on web-based course management systems. Computers are proving to be extremely useful tools in providing active learning experiences, feedback, and communications capabilities. Multimedia enhanced computer-based training (including games and simulations), though difficult and costly to develop, can effectively utilize CD and DVD technologies to great advantage. The Internet has also enabled the effective use of e-mail, list servers, and threaded discussion groups, as well as a host of emerging groupware applications.

Job Demand

While distance learning is greatly enhanced through technology, one should not equate it with technology nor associate it exclusively with a single delivery mode (correspondence, telecourses, computer assisted instruction, ITV, or the web). The essence of distance learning is that it increases dependence on self-instructional course materials and learning activities. This fact has resulted in a dramatically increased job demand for instructional designers (professionals trained in learning and instructional theory and their application) and instructional technologists (professionals experienced in computer, graphics, and multimedia applications).

see also Computer Assisted Instruction; Educational Software; Telecommunications.

Nicholas C. Laudato


Issue Brief: Distance Education in Higher Education Institutions: Incidence, Audiences, and Plans to Expand. National Center for Education Statistics. February 1998 (NCES 98-132).

"Report on Copyright and Digital Distance Education." A Report of the Register of Copyrights. U.S. Copyright Office, Library of Congress. May 1999.

Internet Resources

"1998 Distance Education Survey." What Is the DETC? Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), Washington, DC. <>

Research Information and Statistics. The United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA). <>

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Distance Learning." Computer Sciences. . 20 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Distance Learning." Computer Sciences. . (February 20, 2019).

"Distance Learning." Computer Sciences. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.