What is distance education?

Posted by Greten on 06 Jun 2020 under Terms

Distance education is a planned learning process in which learning and teaching happen in different locations connected by a long-distance medium of communication. The learner and the instructor may occasionally meet in person, but most of the learning occurs when separate.

Distance education was first used for communities that are too far from the school. Among the oldest form of distance education is the correspondence education, in which the teacher or the school send learning materials to students using the postal system. Today, the most common form of distance education is online learning, in which the medium of communication is the internet.

Elements of a distance education

Expanding on the definition of distance education, the following are the essential elements of distance education: plan, learning process, teaching process, and medium of communication.


A ring notebook with a pen.An outside authority, such as the teacher, instructor, school, company, or government agency, develops a plan of what the learner is going to learn and how they will learn it.

If you learned about evaporation because one day, you boiled water and didn't hear the kettle whistle, that is learning but not education or online education. If you learned it because the Department of Education included it in the second quarter of your current grade level, and your teacher demonstrated it in the science laboratory, that education. If your teacher made a video demonstrating evaporation and you watched it through a learning management system (LMS) while at home, that's distance education.

Moreover, distance education requires lesson planning and the use of materials that differ from the traditional classroom due to the learners and the instructor rarely meeting each other if none at all.

Learning process

A brain-shaped cluster of interconnected nodes. Each node is a blue circle and most of the nodes are connected to others that are adjacent to it.Learning is often confused with the word education. However, learning is only one side of the coin that is education; the other side is teaching. Learning is what's taking place when a learner, student, or trainee absorbs a knowledge or moves towards mastery of a skill. Learning may or may not involve teaching, but as exemplified in the evaporation story above, it's not education without either learning or teaching.

Hence, the terms elearning, online learning, distance learning, microlearning, among others, can be misnomers. These processes typically involve careful planning and learning design. The teacher may or may not communicate directly with the learner, but they are still teaching. For that reason, the title of this entry is distance education instead of distance learning. Online learning should be called online education unless you are referring exclusively to the processes that are happening on the learner's side. The proper term for elearning is educational technology. Not sure about microlearning, though; it's too widely used to be bogged down on technicalities.

When the learner watched the video, read the printed learning module, or worked on exercises and experiments relayed by a facilitator who is not within the same room or the same building as the learner, then that is distance learning.

Teaching process

Metaphor of distance education: teacher and three students standing on different planets.The other side of online education is the teaching process. In another location, a teacher or a trainer develops the learning modules for the learner.

The process can feel different from how people commonly understand teaching because the teacher cannot exercise classroom management, and they cannot see the learners' facial expressions or body language to gauge if they are listening intently, find the lesson interesting, or learning anything at all.

However, distance teaching also involve lesson planning, relaying instructions to learners, and carefully selecting words to ensure that the learners understand what you are trying to convey. Hence, although it feels different, it's still teaching.

The teacher also needs to let go of certain teaching techniques and work around the available technology to optimize learning. For example, do not use animations or gradual reveal techniques if your learners have no access to the internet or television, and thus can learn only using printed materials.

Medium of communication

A flatscreen computer monitor with a mobile phone standing in front, and a wifi signal graphic on the upper right corner.Various media of communication can be used to facilitate distance education. Today, the internet is the most widely used since it is the fastest and can transmit a wide variety of modules: images, animations, sounds, videos, interactive HTML5 modules, and several others. Before, television and radios are used to relay lectures and educational materials over a large distance.

The postal system, now commonly called snail mail, is also a common way of sending written or printed learning modules. In some parts of the world where technology is yet to catch up, correspondence education is still the most common form of distance education [1].

The medium of communication can greatly affect how the teacher, facilitator, or instructional designer will develop the modules based on the available media of communication. If the learner has access to high-speed internet, then videos and HTML5 animations can be useful. For learners in areas with slower internet access, online modules with text and static images only are the way to go. As of 2017, there are still rural areas that use dial-up internet connection.

In some areas in developing countries, there are no internet connections at all, or the families are too poor to afford an internet connection. The schools can print leaning modules and send them to learners using the postal system or a messenger employee depending on how far the learner is from the school.

Terms that are often confused with distance education

The field of education technology or elearning is a minefield of terms with no established definitions and frequently interchanged with one another. However, words and definitions become more established over time.

Distance education is not online education

Online education is a form of distance education, but not the only form. Online education is distance education with the internet as the medium of communication. Correspondence education is also distance education but not online education.

Distance education and online education are frequently treated as synonyms because online education is the most widely used form of distance education. Faster broadband internet connections are now available. The internet can facilitate live discussion and can transmit more variety of learning module format.

Distance education is not elearning

As mentioned earlier, elearning is already a misnomer; the proper term is educational technology.

Education technology is the use of modern technology to facilitate education. The "e" in elearning means "electronic", the same as in "email". While education technology can be used to facilitate distance education, not all use of educational technology requires distance between the learner and the teacher.

In an earlier discussion on blended learning, one form of blended learning is the rotation model where a group of students listens to face-to-face lectures, while another group access the online instruction in a separate computer room or another part of the same classroom.

In retrospect, "blended learning" is also a misnomer since the process involves both learning and teaching. I searched Google for "blended education" but all articles that appeared used "blended learning". I suppose it's one of those terms that already solidified in usage.

Although the online instructions can be in a remote server elsewhere, since the teacher is within the same school or the same classroom as the learner, and the online education is not the majority of the learning activity, then not all use of educational technology count as distance education.

Case study: education in the Philippines

Like several other countries, the Philippines was hit by the Wuhan virus (officially called COVID-19 World Health Organization). It spread around when the school year is about to end, and positive cases continue to grow as the next school year is about to start.

There are several recommendations on how the schools are going to handle this crisis. Reopen the school but maintain distance among the students? Countries that implemented such measures like China and South Korea experienced a resurgence of cases when they reopened the schools. On Facebook, there is a petition circulating that there should be no reopening of classes until a vaccine for the Wuhan virus becomes available. The problem here is we cannot tell when the vaccine will become available. For comparison, there are diseases that do not have vaccines yet several decades after they were discovered, such as AIDS.

The solution that the Department of Education (DepEd) in the Philippines would like to implement is distance education.

First, DepEd launched the DepEd Commons, an online platform for public school teachers to support distance learning [2]. DepEd commons can be accessed through the internet using computers, tablets, or mobile phones [3].

Now, here comes another issue: how about those without internet access? The plan of DepEd is to print the modules and distribute them to students. The modules can be sent to the students' homes or can be picked up at designated areas [4].

Many private schools are also setting up their distance or online education facilities.

As of the writing of this entry, the school year is not yet starting. Let us watch and observe how the implementation of distance education across the Philippines will work and whether it will be as effective as traditional classroom education.


  1. Burns M. (2011) "Print-based Distance Education", Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, Models, and Methods (Education Development Center, Washington DC), pp. 12–17, retrieved 5 June 2020
  2. Department of Education (2020) "Learning while staying at home: Teachers, parents support DepEd distance learning platform", Department of Education, Philippines, retrieved 5 June 2020
  3. Magsambol B. (2020) "FAST FACTS: DepEd’s distance learning", Rappler, retrieved 5 June 2020
  4. Magsambol B. (2020) "No need to buy gadgets, printed materials will be given – DepEd", Rappler, retrieved 5 June 2020


  • Moore M. and Kearly G. (2005) "Basic Concepts", Distance Education: A Systems View, II (Thomson Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, 2005), pp. 1–23
  • Burns M. (2011) "Distance Education: Modes and Models", Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, Models, and Methods (Education Development Center, Washington DC), pp. 9–11, retrieved 25 May 2020

Last updated on 04 Oct 2020.

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Instructional design and educational technology for effective learning