A Theory of Distance Education
Based on Empathy
It is work aiming at a theory of distance education carried out during the last four decades that constitutes the background of this chapter. Before the term distance education became established (when the terms used for this concept were correspondence education, home study, and independent learning), I argued in favor of a conversational approach to course development (Holmberg, 1960, pp. 15–16) and later attempted to formulate a theory of distance education in which empathy between the learner and the teaching organization was assumed to favor learning and to be a decisive desideratum in teaching (Holmberg 1983; 1985; 1991; 1995b; 1997; 2001; Holmberg, Schuemer, & Obermeier 1982; and elsewhere). My attempts paid scant attention to the technological developments that occurred the last few decades of the 20th century. Further, I used a somewhat unfortunate terminology. I referred to the conversational character of distance education as “didactic, ” an adjective in many cases taken to indicate an authoritarian approach (the opposite of what was meant). Instead of guided didactic conversation, I now prefer the term teaching-learning conversation (Holmberg, 1999; Lentell, 1997). In spite of the deficiencies indicated, the gist of the theory remains valid.
If by theory we mean a systematic ordering of ideas about the phenomena of a field of inquiry, as Gage (1963 p. 102) defines it, a theory of distance education is obviously possible. If, on the other hand, the intent is to explain all social, educational, and organizational conditions of distance education, the possibility of identifying and wording such a theory appears remote. It is not much easier to develop a theory that meets Keegan's (1983) criterion—that it should be able to “provide the touchstone against which decisions—political, financial, educational, social— … can be taken with confidence” (p. 3).