What is Distance Learning?

In any field, there are certain words or descriptors that can convey the actions of the areas of that particular field. There are always those definitions that have stood the test of time and are imbedded into the grain of the field itself; and then there are those new jargon words that develop as the field develops and changes with society. Distance education is not immune to this. If anything, given the nature of the technological reliance of distance education and the fast paced world of technology, new definitions emerge quickly. Given this, what are some of the jargon we hear about in distance education?

Four main phrases that have been discussed by scholars and written about in journals are the definitions of distance education, flexible learning, e-learning and mobile learning. Although, they are used interchangeably by many, this is an injustice to the field of distance education.

Distance Education

Let’s first look at distance education. What does it mean? Many scholars have tackled many variations of the meaning. Moore & Kearsely give a well-rounded background to develop a thorough definition to work with. The most important part of the definition is that distance education is planned learning. It is planned learning that normally occurs in a different place from teaching, requiring special techniques of course design, special instructional techniques, special methods of communication by electronic and other technology, as well as organizational and administrative arrangements. This definition sets forth a clear idea to what distance education entails.

Flexible Learning

Flexible learning, on the other hand, really does not have a set definition. Flexible learning can be looked at as an approach to teaching on the University level that provides students with the opportunity to take greater responsibility in their learning and to be engaged in learning activities and opportunities that meet their own individual needs. In contrast to distance education, flexible learning’s definition seems to lead one to believe it is strictly for a University setting. This definition does not explain how the students can take greater responsibility or how these activities and opportunities present themselves or how they are developed and undertaken. Flexible learning leaves room for much interpretation.


Another term that is quite imprecise is that of e-learning. This definition covers all learning that is delivered electronically. This electronically delivered information can be both based in a classroom in a face-to-face setting or in a distance situation. To that end, e-learning can be seen as a blended form of education. In the case of e-learning, if I were sitting in my classroom on campus and the professor streamed a live lecture; I would have taken part in e-learning. My location would not have been a parameter in e-learning, as I could have easily watched this streaming lecture in the library or my dorm room.

Mobile Learning

Lastly, we look at a new term, that of mobile learning, or m-learning. Mobile learning is basically just what it says learning that takes place on a mobile device. These devices can be mobile phones, tablets, PDA’s, anything that is portable that you can take with you. Again, this is a very broad definition with no insight into what types of lessons are delivered, how interaction occurs, or how well structured these lessons are. According to m-learning, if I look up a how to complete a math equation on my mobile phone by accessing the Internet, I have then taken part in m-learning.


When looking at all four of these definitions, it is clear to me that flexible learning, e-learning and m-learning can all easily fit under the umbrella of distance education. These three types of learning can be utilized in a distance education program but do not constitute true distance education. I feel that the important word here is education. For a program to truly be called a distance education program, very specific attributes must be present: planned learning, course design, communication methods, etc. If this is the case, then the three are not true education just simply learning opportunities.

I believe that distance education is at its core primarily about quality. It is that well-rounded program that will deliver quality educational opportunities to those who might not otherwise be able to benefit from such programs. It is not the simple act of looking up an answer on one’s PDA, watching a live streaming video, or completing a survey on a laptop. For education to take place, it must be both thoughtful and pertinent, it must be planned and organized, and ultimately it must have some type of accountability built in.

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