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Defining Distance Education

The Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century was followed by developments in various fields of technology, which provided educators with various means for a new stage of education. Distance education was one of the main results of this revolution. Broadcasting and communications technology offered educators new and different solutions for adapting and delivering instruction to learners outside the traditional campus. Learners’ and parents’ interests were enhanced dramatically as a result of the great advances in audio-visual media and telecommunication technology, which resulted in an increase in the subject areas offered by distance education institutions.

In response to this interest, distance education became one of the formal means of education for those who could not attend schools or universities for cultural, economic, social or geographical reasons. Since designing instruction for distance education requires understanding the meaning of distance education and its objectives, the stages that distance education passed through, the media and their characteristics, and the main issues in distance education, as reviewed in the distance education literature, are reviewed in this chapter.
The importance of defining the meaning of distance education is that it may provide a good starting point to recognise its elements. First, there is some confusion among distance educators as to the correct definition of this term. A review of the term ‘distance education’ in the literature showed that the two terms ‘distance education’ and ‘distance learning’ have been used almost interchangeably and there is an overlap between them. This reflects the continuing debate among distance educators as to which term should be used. Many distance educators (Moore, 1973; Holmberg, 1977; Rumble, 1989; Moore and Kearsley, 1996) used the term ‘distance education’ to mean a systematic approach involving the learning environment, educators and separated learners. Three important definitions of distance education are offered by Holmberg (1977), Rumble (1989) and Moore and Kearsley (1996). These definitions are supported by many distance educators.
Holmberg (1977) offered one of the common definitions of distance education that is both simple and comprehensive. He defined distance education as follows:
‘a term that covers the various forms of study at all levels which are not under the continuous immediate supervision of tutors present with their students in lecture rooms or the same premises, but which, nevertheless, benefit from the planning, guidance and tuition of a tutorial organisation’ (p. 9).
In a concluding discussion on distance-education-related issues, Rumble (1989) proposed a similar definition of distance education, which can be summarised in two main points:
1.      Distance education is a method of education in which the learner is physically separated from the teacher by space and time.
2.      Distance education materials are often structured in ways that facilitate learning at a distance.
Recently, Moore and Kearsley (1996) stated a definition that reflects the recent developments in distance education technology. They defined distance education as:
‘the family of instructional methods in which the teaching behaviours are executed apart from the learning behaviours, including those that in a contiguous situation would be performed in the learner’s presence, so that communication between the teacher and the learner must be facilitated by print, electronic or other devices’ (p. 197).
According to Rumble’s definition, the learning materials are important elements and should be designed to promote effective learning for the learner at a distance. However, Moore’s definition highlights, for the first time, the need to establish direct  interaction between the learner and the teacher. More specifically, Garrison and Shale (1987) believe that mediated communication between the teacher and students ‘is a necessity’. Therefore, they proposed what they called ‘the essential criteria’ for characterising the distance education process. ‘An assumption underlying these criteria is that an educational experience requires two-way communication between teacher and student’ (Garrison and Shale, 1990, p. 26).
These criteria are:
1.      Distance education implies that the majority of educational communication between (among) teachers and student(s) occurs non-contiguously.
2.      Distance education must involve two-way communication between (among) teacher and student(s) for the purpose of facilitating and supporting the educational process.
3.      Distance education uses technology to mediate the necessary two-way communication (Garrison and Shale 1987, p. 11, in Garrison and Shale 1990, p. 25).
In conclusion, it is noted that many key features characterise distance education as understood from the definitions above:
1.      The separation of teacher and learner;
2.      The separation among learners;
3.      The use of one medium (or more) to deliver the subject matter (e.g., print and post, broadcasting and tapes, etc.); and
4.      The use of a communication channel to facilitate interaction and support learners (e.g., post, telephone, teleconferencing, etc).