Theories of Distance Education

“The term instructional design refers to the systematic and reflective process of translating principles of learning and instruction into plans for instructional materials, activities, information resources, and evaluation” (Smith & Ragan, 2005, p. 4). Merrill (2007) used the term designer-by-assignment for individuals with content expertise and no instructional design training. Designers-by-assignment must rely entirely on pre-established instructional design competencies and standards to guide them when designing, developing, and revising courses, but consensus on these standards is currently lacking.

Distance education is practiced around the world (Holmberg, 1995). Theories in distance education originated from established European or American models (Simonson, Schlosser & Hanson, 1999). Theories can aid educators and instructional designers by enabling them to critically reflect on their practice of teaching online. This article will focus on the following theories: theory of independent study, self-directed learning, theory of industrialization of teaching and theory of online learning.

Theory of independent study. As early as 1971, Wedemeyer found that independent study was found at all levels of education from K-12 through post-graduate levels. The first formal independent study method that can be documented was created by two language teachers in 1856 – French teacher Charles Toussaint and German teacher Gustav Langenscheidt – who created a school for teaching distance students by correspondence. This method spread throughout the world and “is known by a variety of names: correspondence study, home study, correspondence courses, correspondence instruction, teletuition, postal tuition, correspondence education and (more recently) independent study” (Wedemeyer, 1971, p. 549). A more recent term to describe this form of education is web-based instruction.

In the 1970s, both Wedemeyer and Moore indicated that the core of distance education is the independence of the learner (Schlosser & Simonson, 2002). To have learner independence, Wedemeyer emphasized a system should have the following characteristics:

  • Be capable of operation any place where there are students—or even only one student—whether or not there are teachers at the same place at the same time.
  • Place greater responsibility for learning on the student.
  • Free faculty members from custodial-type duties so that more time can be given to truly educational tasks.
  • Offer students and adults wider choices (more opportunities) in courses, formats, and methodologies.
  • Use, as appropriate, all the teaching media and methods that have been proved effective.
  • Mix media and methods so that each subject or unit within a subject is taught in the best way known.
  • Cause the redesign and development of courses to fit into an “articulated media program”.
  • Preserve and enhance opportunities for adaptation to individual differences.
  • Evaluate student achievement simply, not by raising barriers concerned with the place, rate, method, or sequence of student study.
  • Permit students to start, stop, and learn at their own pace. (Schlosser& Simonson, 2002, p. 11)

Moore (1994) addressed the issue of student autonomy. In a face-to-face classroom, the student is dependent on the teacher for guidance (non-autonomy). In this case the student is passive and the teacher is active. Within distance education, the roles are reversed, where the student must take on more responsibility for learning (Schlosser & Simonson, 2002). To determine the amount or degree of autonomy the student has, the following questions deserve further exploration:

  • Who has the responsibility in determining the learning objectives of the course? Is it the student or the instructor? How much participation does the student have in defining the learning objectives?
  • Who is responsible for finding the student’s resources? Can the student use resources from their own environment, work place or community?
  • Who decides the evaluation method? How does the student know when their progress is satisfactory? (Moore, 1994)

Responses to the previous questions can help determine types of distance education programs and levels of student autonomy. When thinking about the independent study theory in terms of how online high school designers-by-assignment create learning for students, having the proper instructional designer competencies would enable the instructor / designer-by-assignment to consult with the student and edit courses with respect to determining learning objectives, resources and evaluation methods that would be best suited to that particular student. The skills and competencies strengthen the teacher’s ability to meet the needs of independent students. The next section examines the theory of self-directed learning.

Self-directed learning. Self-directed learning uses the student’s own efforts, methods, circumstances and time to build their own knowledge or personal development (Gibbons, 2002). To have self-directed learning the student must take over the traditional teaching role and implement their own learning activities. The role of the teacher must also change to facilitator of learning (Knowles, 1975). Training, coaching guiding, as well as counseling skills, are now included in the teacher role (Gibbons, 2002). Gibbons indicates that a self-directed program has five principles:

  • Programs should be congruent with a life of learning, the natural ways we learn, and the unique methods by which each of us learns best.
  • Programs should be adapted to the maturation, transformations, and transitions that adolescent students experience.
  • Programs should be concerned with all aspects of a full life.
  • Learning is self-directed learning programs should employ a full range of human capacities, including our senses, emotions, and actions as well as our intellects.
  • Self-directed learning should be conducted in settings suited to their development (Gibbons, 2002, p. 8-9).

The issues of control and responsibility for the learners and teachers are an important concept in self-directed learning (Garrison, 2003). Distance educators have structural constraints and wish for independence for their learners. Both autonomy and control are very relevant to the theory of self-directed learning (Garrison, 2003).

Responses to the previous five principles can help determine the level of self-directed learning. When thinking about the self-directed learning in terms of how online high school designers-by-assignment create learning for students, having the proper instructional designer competencies would enable the instructor / designer-by-assignment to create programs that are congruent with the life of learning, students familiarity, all facets of life, and engage full arrays of human capacities. The skills and competencies strengthen the teacher’s ability to meet the needs of self-directed learning. The next section examines the theory of industrialization of teaching.

Theory of industrialization of teaching. After reviewing European distance education in the late 1960s, Peters (1994) generated an industrial opinion of distance education. Peters proposed that industrial production of goods could be compared to distance education. Peters implies that distance education could not have occurred prior to the industrial era because conventional education was pre-industrial. One requirement of early distance education was the railway and reliable and fast postal service. In the early 1800s, the first correspondence schools occurred about the same time as the first rail lines. Later in 2010, Peters further compared the process of distance education and production of goods. The following presents industrial production categories that are specific to online high school designers-by-assignment.

Relationships Between Industrial Production Process and Online High School Designer-by-Assignment

Division of labor. Work or production is divided among a number of people. In distance education there is the teaching portion and the developer of the course. Facilitator, designer, key contact, administrator, mentor, technology coordinator and guidance counselor (see Table 1 for descriptions) are also involved in the labor (Ferdig et al., (2009). The online high school designer-by-assignment is also involved in development of the online course.

Assembly line. Assembly line workers remains in one place while the work pieces go by them. This is very prevalent in distance education, for example the instructor passes the content information to the developer to create the content. Also, the distance learner reads and completes the assignments and the instructor grades. Finally, the instructor passes the final grade to the office for processing. If the online content is not developed properly, then the learners will not be able to understand the objectives of the lesson. The online high school designers-by-assignment will be able to resolve the content problem and the assembly line will be able to continue.

Preparatory work. The right type of preparatory work is needed when there is a division of labor, especially when quality and speed of work is required. Distance education also depends on the preparatory work. Each unit of the course needs to be vigilantly developed so that quality is conserved. The online high school designers-by-assignment will have to determine if the quality of the online course is conserved.

Planning. Planning determines the most strategic route and anticipating the development of a manufacturing process. Planning in distance education plays a crucial role because all of the units must be predetermined. When combining different types of materials, then the online high school designer-by-assignment must determine the best media that would be best suited to the situation. To have effective teaching process then proper planning is needed.

Formalization. Formality with rules is needed to make the production process achievable. Formality is also important in distance education. This is shown by the way of standard communication between online high school designer-by-assignment and students as well as the way the online course is set up.

Change of function. With industrialization, the process of acquiring materials, production and selling of the product was separated by division of labor. With formal face-to-face education, the instructor acquired, produced the materials and then delivered it to the learners. With the introduction of distance education, the original role of the instructor changed. Tutors and consultants had more time to motivate and provide individual support. Instructional designer teams were brought in to create the online content. Once the course has been developed the online high school designer-by-assignment must find ways to motivate and provide individual support.

As Peters (1994) suggested, the principle of labor division is an important consideration in developing successful distance education. K-12 online schools have an array of responsibilities for teachers (Davis et al., 2007). With greater industrialization of education, there is an increase in mechanization, automation, and thus a move away from conventional practice. With respect to distance education Peters suggested the following:

  • The development of distance study courses is just as important as the preparatory work that takes place prior to the production process.
  • The effectiveness of the teaching process is particularly dependent on planning and organization.
  • Courses must be formalized and expectations from students standardized.
  • The teaching process is largely objectified.
  • The function of academics teaching at a distance has changed considerably vis-à-vis university teachers in conventional teaching.
  • Distance study can only be economical with a concentration of the available resources and a centralized administration. (Peters, 1994, p. 124)

When making decisions about the process of teaching and learning in distance education, one should take into account the industrial structures characteristics (Peters, 1994). Responses to the previous points can help determine types of mechanization and automation within the industrialization of education. When thinking about the industrialization of education in terms of how online high school designers-by-assignment prioritize production process they must consider planning and formalization to build economic courses. The skills and competencies strengthen the teacher’s ability to meet online industrialization of education. The next section examines the theory of online learning.

Theory of Online Learning. Anderson (2008) viewed online learning as being centered on the following: learners, knowledge, assessments and learning community. Anderson suggested that a learner-centered approach is not just focused on individual learners, but teachers, schools, community and groups of students. Anderson also suggested that instructors are challenged because of the learner comfort level, cultural perspectives, and tools being used in the online environment. Acquiring knowledge does not occur in a vacuum: “Effective learning is both defined and bounded by the epistemology, language, and context of disciplinary thought” (Anderson, 2008, p. 49). Students need to discuss, reflect and be able to transfer their knowledge to unaccustomed settings. Learning online can be overwhelming and the instructor must scaffold information and thereby the student’s knowledge can be developed. If proper scaffolding is not available for students, online high school designers-by-assignment will need to create the proper progression for students. Having instructional designer competencies would benefit online high school designer-by-assignment to be able to facilitate proper scaffolding for students.

Students should be able to have many opportunities for assessment in an online class. Formative assessment is important for the online learner and should come from the learner and teacher, as well as the technological tools available within the learning management system. The student’s interest and commitment should not be hampered by assessment. Anderson (2008) suggested that the learning community could aid with learner interest and commitment. Students take online classes because of the freedom to partake in course activities at their own time and pace. The virtual community allows for a more general participation however, it may not suit all students.

Anderson (2008) recommended that there is no one medium or formula that is best suited for online learning. The instructor, course developers and online high school designers-by-assignment, need to be concerned with courses that are learner-centered, content-centered, community-centered and assessment-centered. Learning interaction is the main focus of Anderson’s theory of online learning. A number of elements can affect student interactions in an online environment. These elements include cost, content, objectives, technology, time and convenience (Anderson, 2008). Figure 5 shows the Anderson’s online learning model. The online high school designer-by-assignment should understand learning interactions that occur in online classes and make certain that communication is present to support learning. At the center of Anderson’s online learning model is the knowledge/content interface. If online high school designers-by-assignment have appropriate instructional design competencies then they will be able to add learning interactions to their own online courses. Within an online class there are many different types of interactions: student-student, student-teacher, student-content and teacher-content (Moore, 1989). Figure 1 illustrates an online learning model showing the educational interactions.

Designer-by-assignment incorporated into the online learning model showing the educational interactions.

Figure 1. Designer-by-assignment incorporated into the online learning model showing the educational interactions. Adapted from Theory and practice of online learning, (p. 61), by T. Anderson, 2008, Edmonton, AB: AU Press. Copyright 2008 by AU Press. Adapted with permission.

The above semantic web (Figure 1) shows that there is an abundant interaction between student-student, student-teacher, student-content and teacher-content. The teacher within the interactions can be easily substituted with designer-by-assignment. This is shown in red in Figure 1. Having appropriate instructional design competencies, online high school designers-by-assignment could facilitate abundant interactions between participants and course content. The next section examines the hierarchy of nested systems levels.

Hierarchy of Nested Systems Levels. A hierarchy system has systems within a system. Ahl and Allen (1996) use the example from an introductory biology course to help explain the hierarchy system. The following example that is found in nature, illustrates how a cell is part an organism and each level continues to grow until the biosphere: Cell à Organism à Population à Community à Ecosystem à Landscape à Biome à Biosphere. Continuing with the analogy of expanding levels, Figure 6 presents how the hierarchy of nested systems can be adopted in distance education with respect to online learning and specifically designers-by-assignment. Instructional design competencies for online high school designers-by-assignment would exist in the Instructional Systems of the hierarchical model (Figure 2). Educational Systems would support professional development for instructional design competencies for online high school designers-by-assignment and the Social System would help financially to help facilitate instruction designer competencies. The Global Systems would assist in development of instructional design competencies for online high school designers-by-assignment.

Figure 2. Designer-by-assignment incorporated into the hierarchical model of nested systems in distance education. Adapted from Building the future - A theoretical perspective, (p. 60), by F. Saba, 2013, in M. G. Moore (Ed.), Handbook of distance education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Figure 2. Designer-by-assignment incorporated into the hierarchical model of nested systems in distance education. Adapted from Building the future – A theoretical perspective, (p. 60), by F. Saba, 2013, in M. G. Moore (Ed.), Handbook of distance education. New York, NY: Routledge.

When thinking about the education system within the hierarchy system in terms of how online high school designers-by-assignment create learning for students, having the proper instructional designer competencies would enable the designer-by-assignment to teach as well as create or edit course content. The skills and competencies strengthen the teacher’s ability to meet student learning.


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