Distance Learning: An Evolution Through Time

To my surprise, and that of many other people, distance learning has been around for a very long time, and although there is some discordance about the precise time it started, some sources date it back to the 1700’s. However, most agree that it can be dated at least to 1840 when ir Isaac Pitman, an Educator from England, started a shorthand course through the mail (FNU, 2014). Since it’s early beginnings as correspondence courses, distance education has evolved hand in hand with technology methods of delivery. Lessons have been taught via radio, television, telephone, and now, the internet and it’s many distribution vehicles like computers, tablets and smartphones (Tracey & Richey, 2005).

Distance learning is traditionally defined as formal education provided by an institution where students and educators are in different geographic locations, diverse time zones, and use some method of telecommunication to interrelate (Simonson, Smaldino, & Zvacek, 2015). It can be synchronous – where all learners and instructor are present at the same time, but at different locations (i.e., a webinar) or it can be asynchronous – where lessons and assignments can be done in a student’s own schedule, but within a specific time frame.

The advent of the internet paired with advanced and accessible technology has created a sort of revolution in the way teaching is disseminated. For example, 77% of colleges in the United States report that they offer some sort of online classes (Parker, Lenhart & Moore, 2011). Likewise, in the corporate world, more and more organizations are moving away from traditional classroom learning and applying some sort of distance learning, such as virtual training, blended learning (where there is a mix of face-to-face and online learning), and self-paced web-based training (Bonk & Kim, 2004).

In my opinion, distance learning is any educational system that connects the learner with instructional resources. The evolution of online education has been tremendous since 2011 with the introduction of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) platforms. Since that date, many universities have launched similar platforms and a sort of race to see who is the biggest and best has been on. This has added a very large amount of educational resources to choose from and it is quickly changing the face of education as we know it.

I believe the future of Instructional Design for distance learning is directly related to the use of technologies and delivery methods like MOOCs. Students are becoming more self-directed and selective when it comes to their education as more information and resources become available online. Learners are also having higher expectations from these resources, and Instructional Designers are tasked with producing training and education that not only meet educational goals of knowledge transfer but also meet students’ high expectations.


Bonk, C. J. & Kim, K. J. (2004). Future Directions of Blended Learning in Higher Education and Workplace Learning Settings. Chapter in: Handbook of blended learning: Global Perspectives, local designs. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer Publishing. Retrieved from: http://publicationshare.worldisopen.com/bonk_future.pdf

FNU. (2014). The evolution of distance learning. Retrieved from: http://www.fnu.edu/evolution-distance-learning/

Parker, K., Lenhart, A., and Moore, K. (2011). The digital revolution and higher education. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: http://www.pewinternet.org/2011/08/28/the-digital-revolution-and-higher-education/

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., & Zvacek, S. (2015). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education. Chapter 2, “Definitions, History, and Theories of Distance Education” (p. 33). Digital edition.

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

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