So What is Distance Learning - Really?

Where did distance learning come from, and where is it going?
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Distance Learning has existed in the U.S. for more than 130 years.

Not surprisingly, though, many in the profession considered it a new phenomenon due largely to the emergence of the Internet. The recent explosion in online learning was quickly embraced throughout the education and training communities encompassing K-12, higher education, and the corporate and government sectors.

Just as new technologies gave rise to new distance learning applications and new distance learning environments, so have they generated new terms that basically refer to the same thing. Some of the more popular terms are e-learning, online learning and Web-based training.

The mid-1990s saw the coining of the term distributed learning, which was quickly adopted by many organizations. The higher education community also used the term distance teaching, and called the resultant product distance learning.

As defined by American Journal of Distance Education, distance education is “institutionally based formal education where the learning group is separated and where interactive communications systems are used to connect instructors, learners and resources.” Alternatively, the United States Distance Learning Association has adopted the term distance learning, defining it as “the acquisition of knowledge and skills through mediated information and instruction.”

After the establishment of the USDLA in 1989, the Los Alamos National Laboratory organized and sponsored the First Annual Conference on Distance Learning. One of the major objectives of the conference was to agree on a universally accepted definition of distance learning.

The definition that emerged was elegant in its simplicity: Distance learning was defined as “structured learning that takes place without the physical presence of the instructor.” This definition has been adopted by Department of Defense and the Federal Government Distance Learning Association.

In the years that followed the Los Alamos conference, the distance learning landscape changed dramatically with the development of the Web browser and subsequent application of the Internet to online learning. Emerging from this was a new set of terms born out of the Internet: Web-based instruction, Web-based learning, Web-based training, online learning, distributed learning, and the most prominent new term, e-learning. Unlike distance learning or distance education, however, the term e-learning includes the use of instructional media technologies in its definition, hence the “e-” for electronic. Not surprisingly, the term e-learning evolved not from an application, but from the emergence of the business terms e-commerce and email.

The Beginning of Distance Learning

“I do not know any innovation upon existing methods more radical and revolutionary than this.”

Although this quote sounds as if it were referring to a new technological breakthrough, in reality, this statement was uttered by the Reverend Joseph H. Odell in November 1910 at the dedication of the instruction building of the International Correspondence Schools in Scranton, Pa.

One can follow the evolution of distance learning in the U.S. from the late 19th century, when it was rooted in correspondence, to the adaptation of communication media (radio and TV) in the mid-20th century, to the application of computer-mediated instruction and the emergence of the Internet in the latter part of the century.

With the emergence of radio and TV, the education community quickly realized the potential of these new media and adopted them to distribute educational programs to a geographically dispersed workforce.

With the introduction of the computer, learning communities quickly realized the potential of this powerful new technology and adopted it as another delivery tool. As the computer continued to evolve, a new generation of computer-mediated instruction arrived, and with the emergence of the Internet, new collaborative tools and delivery media also appeared.

It should be noted that in the early 1990s, a migration began from mainframe-centric computer environments to a more standalone/distributed computer environment that allowed for local hosting of computer-based training.

Federal Government Distance Learning Association

The Federal Government Distance Learning Association ( is a nonprofit, professional association formed to promote the development and application of distance learning in the federal government. Focused on supporting federal government agencies involved in distance learning, the FGDLA encourages the application of all forms of distance learning media, as well as embracing innovative methods in integrating instructional technologies to meet the training and education needs of the federal government. The FGDLA was chartered in 1995 as a chapter of the United States Distance Learning Association (


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