This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).

For most of its existence as a practice and as a field of study, distance education has remained at the margins of institutions in the United States and as such has had the ability to adapt, innovate, and find new ways to meet the learning and educational needs of the adult student. Although there have been many forms of delivery that allowed students to study from a distance, including correspondence courses, educational radio, educational TV, and other forms like audio graphics, it was not until pioneers like Charles Wedemeyer, Desmond Keegan, and others set the foundation for distance education that it became a recognized field of study and an entity within institutions.

In 1971 Wedemeyer highlighted the following in his work on independent study, which outlined the foundation for distance education. Here he defined independent study as

various forms of teaching-learning arrangements in which teachers and learners carry out their essential tasks and responsibilities apart from one another, communicating in a variety of ways, for the purposes of freeing internal learners from inappropriate class pacings or patterns, or providing external learners opportunity to continue learning in their own environments, and developing in all learners the capacity to carry on self-directed learning, the ultimate maturity required of the educated person. (cited in Diehl 2013, 39)

Keegan, in the first edition of his Foundations of Distance Education (1996), set forth an operational definition of distance education where he defined the field as having five key attributes. They were:

  • quasi-permanent separation of a teacher and a learner throughout the length of the teaching process;
  • quasi-permanent separation of a learner from a learning group throughout the length of the learning process;
  • participation in a bureaucratized form of educational provision;
  • utilization of mechanical or electronic means of communication to carry the content of the course; and
  • provision of means for two-way communication so that the learner can benefit from or initiate dialogue. (1996, vol. 1, 111)

Michael Grahame Moore, in his work from 1971 to 1996, conceived of and continued to refine the theory of transactional distance, which stands today as the main underlying theory of the field of distance education (see Moore 1993; Moore and Kearsley 1996). This distance is psychological and can lead to misunderstanding. He also saw distance education as a system where transactional distance was the resultant of the interaction of three key variables: dialogue, structure, and learner autonomy.

These key figures in the field and others formed the bases of the distance education discipline and field and gave a voice to what many in continuing education units had been doing in support of the adult learner at a distance. Further, Wedemeyer, in his book Learning at the Back Door: Reflections on Non-Traditional Learning in the Lifespan, described independent study and distance education as “a single great new development in education” (1981, 60). He foreshadowed how the field would have a major impact on higher education.

However, distance education continued to be viewed as a part of continuing education or extension, and as being on the fringe of university operations until online learning through the web began in the late 1990s. So what changed? What caught the conscience of the nation and moved distance education from the margins to the mainstream? This essay will explore technological and pedagogical changes over the past thirty years to highlight key shifts that have led to this awakening. Further, the essay will look at key changes in the educational landscape that have acted as catalysts to propel online and distance education into the mainstream and to the forefront of education.



This period was one of the most exciting for distance educators and instructional designers. A host of technologies were in play, and pedagogically we saw some major changes. In the mid 1980s, we were still using several older forms of distance education delivery systems, including educational television, satellite one-way video, two-way audio systems, audio-graphics (combination of shared computer screens with an audio phone bridge), computer-based education (CBE) systems like PLATO, and, of course, print correspondence. For the most part these were either mass delivery systems, from one to many, or very individualized experiences, such as CBE. With the exception of audiographics, dialogue between the learner and the instructor was limited and interactions with other students was virtually nonexistent. During this time these delivery systems were what some may consider a resource-based model, which allowed us great economies of scale in delivery, but with large investments in the development of the courses (Inglis 2013).

Also, pedagogically we were still very solidly in the cognitive/behaviorist era (Anderson and Dron 2011). Most of our courses were in the lower divisions, we were looking at the transmission of knowledge/facts, and due to the limited dialogue our goal was not necessarily the construction of knowledge. In those cases where institutions set up learning centers for their students, similar to the Open University in the United Kingdom, then there was the possibility of a heightened amount of dialogue leading to higher levels of attainment.

As we approached 1990, we started to see some very interesting developments in technology that allowed us to improve pedagogically: the emergence of online bulletin boards, systems like FirstClass (a communications platform for group collaboration), and two-way interactive video. These systems allowed for experimentation in our designs and delivery formats and allowed us to move to a classroom-based model where we could provide more learner-instructor interaction, but also student-student interaction (Anderson and Dron 2011). Key at this time were two-way interactive video systems, and we saw widespread adoption of these systems across higher education by both continuing education and extension units, but also by the mainstream portion of the institutions. We also saw the first desktop video teleconferencing systems emerge from AT&T and others.

Also during this period correspondence education was still very popular, and institutions like the University of Nebraska and the Pennsylvania State University had well-established distance education programs that served several thousand students nationally and special populations like those individuals who were incarcerated. While popular with adult learners who did not have many alternatives to obtaining an education, correspondence remained on the margins and was looked down upon due to low completion rates and lack of interactivity. Students in this cognitive/behaviorist mode of delivery had to be motivated and highly self-directed and autonomous learners to complete these programs. Here self-directed, as discussed by Anderson (2013), was related to self-monitoring (cognitive and metacognitive processes), motivation, and control of one’s learning, which is slightly different from how Moore (1984) looked at autonomy related to the theory of transactional distance, where it centered on the ability of an individual to be successful with limited dialogue and where the learner determined goals, evaluation, and learning procedures and resources.



Around 1995 we witnessed a major shift in technology that would forever change the landscape of distance education and education overall. About this time the first web browsers that incorporated graphics, like Mosaic’s Netscape (introduced in mid-1994), appeared and opened up a wealth of opportunities for new ways to present information and for engagement with others (Digital Research Initiative, n.d.). This also led to the first learning management systems like WebCT, which brought the familiar classroom experience online. While the early online courses were primarily text, as we were still tied to 56k modems for most of our users at a distance, we could start to integrate graphics and animated images into our course designs to help visualize the content for students. Further, this allowed us to shift from a cognitive/behaviorist approach to a social/constructivist pedagogical approach. Students could now easily participate in group work, we could look at problem-based learning approaches, and students could, we hoped, have rich dialogues with the instructor and each other.

During these early years of online instruction, the courses were a blend of correspondence, in terms of narrative written as guided didactic conversation, and the traditional classroom experience (Holmberg 1983). This was a result of two key factors: (1) as mentioned above, we were still tied to an end user who usually had a 56k modem for connection speed; and (2) institutions had to work very hard to get buy-in from faculty to experiment with this new form of educational delivery. Thus, instructional designers strove to have the courses replicate the in-class experience (i.e., typical fifteen-week course, a new topic every week, quizzes, similar assignments, etc.). This is not to say that this form of distance education course and delivery was not successful, just that it was limited in terms of how we thought about the new possibilities of the online world.

As we approached the new millennium and on toward 2005 a major shift occurred again, this time related to the functionality of the web. Web 1.0, a push type of approach to information, graduated to Web 2.0, a collaborative approach to information. Here we can think of the emergence of Facebook (introduced on February 4, 2004), YouTube (introduced on February 14, 2004), and other platforms that today seem commonplace. In the Web 2.0 world experts in the field were no longer solely responsible for producing and distributing knowledge; now anyone could contribute. While this brought up debates about authoritative voice and students being able to discern valid information from invalid, it allowed us to start thinking about how students could collaborate to create knowledge as a socially constructed event.

The Web 2.0 tools and abilities seemed to have caught the attention of faculty in a way that previous technologies had not. Web 2.0 tools were emerging everywhere by the end of this ten-year period, along with feature phones, the precursors to smartphones (the iPhone was introduced in 2007 [McCarty 2011]). Students were showing up on our campuses with these new devices and using these tools, which both excited and probably terrified faculty at the same time. While distance education and online instruction remained on the fringe, they were now on the verge of their own major shift and now in the crosshairs of the government and institutions.



While the first half of this period did not see any radically new approaches, we did witness an avalanche of Web 2.0 tools that continued to expand the ways students could interact with each other both in and outside of class. However, the second half exploded with the idea of connectivism, which was originally introduced by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in 2005 (Kop and Hill 2008). The latter half of this time is a period in which we also saw the introduction and phenomenally quick rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) through the efforts of Sebastian Thrun at Udacity and Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng at Coursera. Further, occurring at the same time was a dramatic increase in the number of students taking online courses. According to a Babson Survey Research Group study we witnessed a 93 percent increase between 2005 and 2010, with numbers growing from 3,180,050 to 6,142,280 (Allen and Seaman 2011). This increase in students taking online courses, along with the change in the number of personal devices on campuses, started to move the distance education conversation from the margins into the mainstream.

By 2010 we were also starting to see an awakening by state and federal governments and students to the exponential growth in college tuition over the past decade. Higher education was beginning to be out of reach for many, and the debt that students and families were emerging from college with was seen as crippling. In 2012, for the first time, higher education debt in the country topped $1 trillion, this at a time when the impact of the collapse of the housing bubble had states tightening their fiscal belts to balance budgets, which led to reduced funding for higher education. In addition, the federal government was focused on a new form of financial aid fraud perpetrated around online and distance education. Another factor that was not much recognized during this time period, but whose impact was being felt in many states, was the decline in the number of students graduating from high school (a reduction in students moving through the system).

These factors, combined with reductions in research funding by the federal government in many sectors, had universities starting to take a hard look at their existing structures and operations. The combination of all these factors focused a different light on distance education and online learning. It seems as if overnight online learning and distance education were catapulted onto center stage at many institutions and were now mainstream focuses. They were seen as not just new net revenue producing entities but as a way to grow and/or maintain enrollment levels.

There are obviously pros and cons to moving into a mainstream focus. Some could argue that doing so limits innovation, a hallmark of continuing education and distance education units on the margins. However, a dramatic move like this also stimulates discussion around strategic plans for how online and distance education truly fit within the overall landscape of a higher education institution. Thus, through the recent mainstream focus we have witnessed many more institutions adopting a form of online learning or distance education for their students and the populations of their states. This has led to vastly increased competition for students and a further focus by the Department of Education on online learning (state authorization policies, financial aid disbursement practices, more attention by accreditors, etc.). This regulatory attention, competition, focus on tuition, and dramatic shift from traditional to nontraditional students has also changed the tenor of conversations at universities regarding completion rates and the idea of success within a shorter period of time.


2015 Onward

So what will our world look like in the next ten years? Will distance education exist, will it just be part of the fabric of mainstream higher education, and what impact will this have on adult learners, innovation, and higher education brick-and-mortar infrastructure?

Distance education and specifically online learning have now fundamentally changed the landscape of higher education as Wedemeyer (1981) had predicted. They have opened the door to new possible realities in our near future, which higher education institutions will need to deal with strategically. Already we are hearing stories from some institutions of more than 50 percent of traditional resident instruction students attending remotely during the summer. We are witnessing a resurgence of interest around master-based and competency-based approaches to learning, along with an increased interest in prior learning assessment (PLA) as means to address the cost of higher education. We also have a critical conversation emerging around credentials, and what our world might look like if we move to microcredentials (badges). Fundamentally we are at a point where we, as academics, administrators, government, and industry, must answer the question, What do we want a higher education credential to represent? One would like to think that an education is more than just a collection of credits around discrete topics. Further, it should be more than just preparing someone for a particular job.

If we move aggressively into online formats for our traditional resident instruction students and work to do more with PLA, transfer articulation agreements, and competency approaches, what is the balance we must maintain between lower division and upper division courses to maintain institutions financially as we think of them today? Or are we moving past some point of no return? Pedagogically we will also be challenged to integrate the ideas of connectivism into our social/constructivist models and determine authoritative voice and how to capture and promote the construction of knowledge. New course models will need to appear that take us beyond the replication of the traditional classroom experience and truly take advantage of the technology at our fingertips.

Distance education, online learning, and the new Internet of Things have opened the door to a new world. It is up to us, the continuing education, distance education, and extension professionals who have worked in these areas for years at the fringe, to help our institutions think about the new world and how best to adapt as the fringe is now mainstream. Then it will be up to us to once again imagine what lies ahead as we once more innovate on the fringe of new possibilities.



Allen, E., and J. Seaman. 2011. Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011. Babson Survey Research Group, Babson College.

Anderson, T., and J. Dron. 2011. “Three Generations of Distance Education Pedagogy.” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12, no. 3.

Anderson, W. 2013. “Independent Learning: Autonomy, Control, and Meta-Cognition.” In M. G. Moore, ed., Handbook of Distance Education, 3rd ed. (pp. 86–103). New York: Routledge.

Diehl, W. C. 2013. “Charles A. Wedemeyer: Visionary Pioneer of Distance Education.” In M. G. Moore, ed., Handbook of Distance Education, 3rd ed. (pp. 38–48). New York: Routledge.

Digital Research Initiative. n.d. “The Story of the Netscape Browser.” Accessed at

Holmberg, B. 1983. “Guided Didactic Conversation in Distance Education.” In D. Stewart, D. Keegan, and B. Holmberg, eds., Distance Education: International Perspectives (pp. 115–122). New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Inglis, A. 2013. “The Changing Costs of Delivery of Distance Education.” In M. G. Moore, ed., Handbook of Distance Education, 3rd ed. (pp. 507–520). New York: Routledge.

Keegan, D. 1996. Foundations of Distance Education, 3rd ed. London: Routledge.

Kop, R., and A. Hill. 2008. “Connectivism: Learning Theory of the Future or Vestige of the Past?” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Education 9. Accessed at /view/523/1103.

McCarty, B. 2011. “The History of the Smartphone.” The Next Web blog. Accessed at -the-smartphone/.

Moore, M. G. 1984. “On a Theory of Independent Study.” In D. Stewart, D. Keegan, and B. Holmberg, eds., Distance Education: International Perspectives (pp. 68–94). London: Routledge.

Moore, M. G. 1993. “Theory of transactional distance.” In D. Keegan, ed., Theoretical Principles of Distance Education (vol. 1, pp. 22–38). New York: Routledge.

Moore, M. G., and G. Kearsley. 1996. Distance Education: A Systems View. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Wedemeyer, C. A. 1981. Learning at the Back Door: Reflections on Non-Traditional Learning in the Lifespan. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.


This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).