DISTANCE EDUCATION: Ready and Willing to Serve the Underserved?

By Benson, Angela D. | Quarterly Review of Distance Education, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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DISTANCE EDUCATION: Ready and Willing to Serve the Underserved?

Benson, Angela D., Quarterly Review of Distance Education


The distance education community has not come to a general consensus on the definition of distance education. According to Shale (1990), "Distance education is beset with a remarkable paradox-it has asserted its existence, but it cannot define itself (p. 333). Moore (1993) lamented, "There is no national policy, nor anything approaching a consensus among educators of the value, the methodology, or even the concept of distance education" (p. 4). In 2003, the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), recognizing the need for a standard definition of distance education, issued a monograph that posed a definition of distance education as "institution-based, formal education where the learning group is separated and where interactive telecommunications systems are used to connect learners, resources, and instructors" (Schlosser & Simonson, 2003, p. 1). Though posing this new definition, the authors acknowledged that different perspectives of distance education result in different definitions and that their "definition is not the only one and certainly not the first offered for distance education" (p. 3). As recently as Spring 2003, members of AECT's Distance Learning Division debated the boundaries of the field. Some held the position that the distance learning term was outmoded in a society characterized primarily by "blended" scenarios in which traditional classroom instruction is supplemented with varying degrees of distance instruction. This article explores the notion that the multiple and changing definitions of distance education can drive the practice and research in the field in a direction that can either disadvantage a large segment of the population or embrace a segment that advanced technologies have traditionally disadvantaged.


Definitions of a field are important because they can reflect as well as drive practice in that field (seels & Richey, 1994). In 1995, Holmberg defined distance education as:

the learning-teaching activities in the cognitive and/or psychomotor and affective domains of an individual learner and a supporting organization. It is characterized by non-contiguous communication and can be carried out anywhere and at any time, which makes it attractive to adults with professional and social commitments, (p. 181)

In contrast, Mclsaac and Gunawardena (1996) defined distance education as "structured learning in which the student and instructor are separated by time and place. It relies heavily on technologies of delivery so much that research has reflected rather than driven practice" (p. 403). Simonson and Schlosser (1995) offered a third definition:

Distance education implies formal institutionally-based educational activities where the teacher and student are normally separated from each other in location but not normally separated in time, and where twoway interactive telecommunication systems are used for sharing video, data, and voice instruction, (p. 13)

The first two definitions are similar but have different foci. Holmberg's (1995) definition draws attention to the targeted distance learner-busy adults attracted to distance education because of its time and place independence-while Mclsaac and Gunawardena's (1996) definition emphasizes the role technology plays in the delivery of distance education. According to Hanson, et al. (1997), the Simonson and Schlosser (1995) definition represents the future of distance education when "maturing technologies" will make the concepts of distance and time relatively unimportant in distance education (p. 3). Schlosser and Simonson (2003) acknowledge that "recent definitions [of distance education], enabled by new interactive technologies, stress education that takes place at the same time but in a different place" (p. 38). These new definitions exploit the synchronous activities made possible by new interactive technologies requiring high-bandwidth Internet access (e.

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DISTANCE EDUCATION: Ready and Willing to Serve the Underserved?


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