The problem with definitions
When using terms such as online learning and distance education, we are trying to describe a very dynamic and fast changing phenomenon, and the terminology often struggles to keep up with the reality of what is happening.
Although from about the late 1990s until quite recently, most online learning was asynchronous, and based primarily on the use of text-based learning management systems, that context appears to be rapidly shifting, with more synchronous approaches either replacing or being combined with asynchronous learning (another definition of ‘blended’), and the increasing use of streamed audio and video.
As a result of Cocid-19 in 2020, other new terms have been added to the lexicon. As a result, the Quality Assurance Assurance Agency for Higher Education in the UK issued a very useful guide to terminology in this field where these terms are discussed in more detail:
QAA (2020) Guidance: Building a Taxonomy for Digital Learning, June 25
As the QAA report makes clear, the terms below are often used to mean the same thing, but nevertheless there are significant differences. Here, for the record, are my definitions.
A form of distance education where the primary delivery mechanism is via the internet and where a course or program is intentionally designed in advance to be delivered fully online. Faculty use pedagogical strategies for instruction, student engagement, and assessment that are specific to learning in a virtual environment. Online courses or programs could be delivered synchronously or asynchronously. All instruction is conducted at a distance, although ‘online learning’ is sometimes used for blended learning where most of the study time is spent online but not all.
These are courses where both online and face-to-face teaching are combined. This can take various forms:
- having a full classroom load combined with some work done online either inside or outside of class time
- dropping one or more classroom sessions per week, to allow more time for studying online (which I personally prefer to call ‘hybrid’ courses),
- running full class sessions for several weeks, with the rest of the semester being done fully online (or vice versa)
- face-to-face summer semesters on campus, with online teaching preceding and/or following
- lab or practical work on campus at weekends or evenings, with the rest being done online.
This is one form of blended learning where a lecture is pre-recorded, and studied online by students out of class, then the classroom time is used for discussion or activities related to the recorded lecture.
Emergency Remote Teaching
This “is a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances. It involves the use of fully remote teaching solutions for instruction or education that would otherwise be delivered face-to-face or as blended or hybrid courses and that will return to that format once the crisis or emergency has abated.” (direct quote from Erasmus paper: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning)
‘In a HyFlex course, students can choose between a variety of delivery modes, adapting their strategy to suit their needs and preferences at any time, without sacrificing the efficacy of their learning’. (Definition provided by Cambrian College).
In other words, a course or program would be designed in such a way that a student could choose whether to take it on campus, in blended mode or fully online. The intended learning outcomes and assessment of student performance would be the same.
e-Learning as a term has more or less been replaced in recent years by ‘online learning’ in North American higher education, but is still used strongly in the corporate training sector and is a useful term for embracing all forms of digital learning, including fully online, blended, hybrid and digital classroom aids.
However, some argue that ‘e-learning’ is either too general to be useful, or that all teaching now depends to some extent on the use of technology, so we should drop the ‘e-‘ and just focus on learning.
I don’t quite agree with either of those positions, but I do agree we need a clear definition. So here’s mine for e-learning:
all computer and Internet-based activities that support teaching and learning – both on-campus and at a distance
Note that this includes administrative as well as academic uses of information and communication technologies that support learning, such as software that provides links between student data bases and teaching, for example, class lists, e-mail addresses, learning analytics, etc.
A continuum of delivery
Thus e-learning or even online learning can be seen as a continuum, as described in the graphic below.
It is very important that there is clarity about what kind of e-learning is being discussed, especially when writing research papers. More importantly, every teacher now needs to decide where on the continuum their course or program should be.
How do you decide this? It will depend on three main factors:
- what kind of students are you trying to reach – e.g. full-time straight from high school, part-time campus-based, or adults in the workforce. The technology now allows us to reach all these target groups, but their needs are different, particularly in terms of how much face-to-face teaching they need. Also, how many students are you trying to reach – if you are trying to reach all the electrical apprentices in the country, you can afford to develop high-cost simulations, for instance;
- the nature of the subject matter you are teaching, and the type of learning outcomes you are trying to achieve: how much practical work, what skills or competencies are you trying to teach? We now know that most subjects can be taught fully online with enough time and money, but some things still are quicker and easier to do face-to-face;
- what technology and technological support can you use? If you are in a developing country where less than 2% have access to the Internet at home, or institutional access to the Internet costs $10,000 a month for 2 megs/sec access (as in Belize), then fully online learning is not going to work. If you are in the USA and want to develop simulations, do you have access to multimedia designers with experience in designing simulations?
You may be able to answer these questions yourself, but in most cases, it will be enormously helpful if you have access to an instructional designer with training and experience both in educational design and the use of technology for teaching.
If you have a different definition or view on e-learning, let me know in the comments.
These are massive, open, online courses. The key features are:
- No fee (except possibly for an end of course certificate), or a low cost fee (substantially lower than a regular university tuition fee)
- The courses are open to anyone: there is no requirement for prior academic qualifications in order to take the course,
- The courses are not for credit.
For more information on MOOCs, see: Teaching in a Digital Age, Chapter 5
Open learning is primarily a goal, or an educational policy. An essential characteristic of open learning is the removal of barriers to learning. This means no prior qualifications to study, and for students with disabilities, a determined effort to provide education in a suitable form that overcomes the disability (for example, audio tapes for students who are visually impaired). Ideally, no-one should be denied access to an open learning program. Thus open learning must be scalable as well as flexible. Open-ness has particular implications for the use of technology. If no-one is to be denied access, then technologies that are available to everyone need to be used.
Open educational resources (OER)
In recent years, the move to open content has widened the meaning of open learning. The open content movement would like to see all digital learning materials available free of charge to anyone with access to the Internet (see the Capetown Open Education declaration).
Open educational resources are somewhat different from open learning, in that OER are primarily content, while open learning includes both content and educational services, such as specially designed online materials, in-built learner support and assessment, and particularly policies for inclusion, such as the removal of barriers due to cost or lack of prior qualifications.
Open educational resources cover a wide range of formats, including open textbooks, video recorded lectures, YouTube clips, web-based textual materials designed for independent study, animations and simulations, diagrams and graphics, some MOOCs, or even assessment materials such as tests with automated answers. OER can also include Powerpoint slides or lecture notes. In order to be open educational resources, though, they must be freely available for at least educational use.
Distance education on the other hand is less a philosophy and more a method of education. Students can study in their own time, at the place of their choice (home, work or learning centre), and without face-to-face contact with a teacher. Technology is a critical element of distance education.
However, distance education programs may not be open. That is certainly the case at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Students who wish to take distance courses and receive a UBC degree must meet UBC’s admission requirements (which are set very high), and take the necessary course pre-requisites.
For undergraduate education, at least half the program may need to be done ‘in residence’, that is, by taking face-to-face classes on campus. Thus in practice students who live out of province or in foreign countries cannot obtain a UBC undergraduate degree wholly at a distance. However, UBC does offer graduate programs that can be done fully online out of province or internationally, as long as students meet UBC’s graduate admission requirements.
If an institution is deliberately selective in its students, it has more flexibility with regard to choice of technology for distance education. It can for instance require all students who wish to take a distance education program to have their own computer. It cannot do that if its mandate is to be open to all students.
Distance is more likely to be psychological or social, rather than geographical, in most cases. For instance, the vast majority of UBC undergraduate distance education students are not truly distant. The majority (83 per cent) lives in the Greater Vancouver Region, and almost half within the City of Vancouver. Only six per cent of the undergraduate enrolments in 1999/2000 were from outside the province (because of the residential requirement). On the other hand, two thirds of UBC’s distance students (67 per cent) were working. The main reason for most UBC students taking distance courses is the flexibility they provide, given the work and family commitments of students and the difficulty caused by timetable conflicts for face-to-face classes. Only 17 per cent gave reasons to do with distance or travel (UBC Distance Education and Technology, 2001).
Flexible learning is the provision of learning in a flexible manner, built around the geographical, social and time constraints of individual learners, rather than those of an educational institution. Flexible learning may include distance education, but it also may include delivering face-to-face training in the workplace or opening the campus longer hours or organizing weekend or summer schools. Like distance education, it is more of a method than a philosophy, although like distance education, it is often associated with increased access and hence more open-ness.
Differences and similarities
Open, distance, flexible and online learning are rarely found in their ‘purest’ forms. No teaching system is completely open (minimum levels of literacy are required, for instance), and few students ever study in complete isolation. Even fully online courses may encourage students to meet face-to-face for short periods, with or without an instructor, and most fully online courses supplement the online study with print readings such as text books. Thus there are degrees of open-ness, ‘distance’, ‘flexibility’, and ‘virtuality.’.
Although open and flexible learning and distance education and online learning mean different things, the one thing they all have in common is an attempt to provide alternative means of high quality education or training for those who either cannot take conventional, campus-based programs, or choose not to.
The impact of technology on the organization of distance education
Distance education has gone through several stages of development.
The many generations of distance education
Taylor (1999) has proposed five generations of distance education:
- correspondence education;
- integrated use of multiple, one-way media such as print, broadcasting or recorded media such as video-cassettes;
- two-way, synchronous tele-learning using audio or video-conferencing;
- flexible learning based on asynchronous online learning combined with online interactive multimedia;
- intelligent flexible learning, which adds a high degree of automation and student control to asynchronous online learning and interactive multimedia.
The progression through these stages of development has been driven mainly by changes in technology and educational theory.
The first generation is characterised by the predominant use of a single technology, and lack of direct student interaction with the teacher originating the instruction. Correspondence education is a typical form of first generation distance education, although educational broadcasting is another version. Correspondence education makes heavy use of standard text books, and the use of a contracted correspondence tutor, who is not the originator of the learning material, and often works for a commercial company. Students however take examinations from accredited institutions.
Second generation distance education is characterized by a deliberately integrated multiple-media approach, with learning materials specifically designed for study at a distance, but with two-way communication still mediated by a third person (a tutor, rather than the originator of the teaching material). Autonomous distance teaching universities, such as the British Open University, are examples of second generation distance education. Second generation distance education is based on specially designed correspondence texts, combined with standard text books and collections of readings from academic journals, and supported by television and/or radio programming. Open universities and distance education units in dual-mode institutions (institutions that are campus-based but also offer some of their programs at a distance) have been associated more with systems-based and behaviourist or cognitive-science approaches to learning. These may be considered more teacher-focused and ‘industrialized’, in that all students get the same material, resulting in considerable economies of scale.
Taylor’s third generation (two-way, synchronous tele-learning using audio or video-conferencing) is based on replicating as far as possible the classroom model through the use of synchronous interactive technologies, such as video-conferencing, and relies heavily on lecturing and questions. This model of distance education is often used by multi-campus institutions, because it saves travel time between campuses for instructors. However, it provides relatively small economies of scale, little flexibility for learners, because they still have to attend a campus at a set time, and the average cost per student tends to be high. Nevertheless synchronous teleconferencing is popular because instructors do not have to change or adapt their classroom teaching methods to any extent.
Taylor’s fourth generation is flexible learning based on asynchronous communication through the Internet and the World Wide Web (online learning). This model enables increased student-teacher and student-student interaction at a distance, collaborative group work, flexibility for learners to study anywhere at any time, and economies of scope, in that courses for relatively small numbers can be developed without high start-up costs. However, to exploit the educational advantages and to control costs, the design and delivery of asynchronous teaching must be different from both traditional approaches to classroom teaching and the large-scale design of open university programs. Kaufman (1989) characterizes this as a progressive increase in learner control, opportunities for dialogue, and emphasis on thinking skills rather than mere comprehension.
Taylor’s fifth generation was based on a heavy automation of learning, and applies mainly to his own institution (University of Southern Queensland).
We are now probably into a sixth or seventh generation of distance education, with MOOCs perhaps the sixth generation, and emergency remote learning the seventh. Will post-Covid 19 be the ninth generation – and what will that look like?
The main types of distance education organisations
Although these are useful classifications of the technological and educational development of distance education, the situation on the ground at any one time is much more complex. In an extensive analysis of the impact of technology on distance education organizations in Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education I identified six main types of distance teaching organizations in operation in 2003, although some of the examples below are more recent:
- publicly funded autonomous distance education institutions (e.g. UK Open University, Athabasca University)
- dual-mode institutions (offer both on-campus and fully online courses – e.g. University of British Columbia)
- for-profit distance education institutions (e.g. University of Phoenix)
- partnerships and consortia (e.g. OERu)
- workforce training organizations (e.g. LinkedIn Learning)
- virtual k-12 schools (e.g. Open School BC).
Distance teaching organisations were using a wide combination of technologies, and there were many different variations on the basic six models. I concluded (p. 36) that ‘the most striking result from the analysis is the diversity and volatility of distance education in 2002-2003′. I wouldn’t change that opinion even today.
Over to you!
Do you agree or disagree with any or all of my definitions?
Is this arguing about how many angels can dance upon a pin, or is it really important to have clear definitions?
Bates, A.W. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: RoutledgeFalmer
Kaufman, D. (1989) ‘Third generation course design in distance education’ in Sweet, R. (ed.) Post-Secondary Distance Education in Canada: Policies, Practices and Priorities Athabasca: Athabasca University/Canadian Society for Studies in Education
Taylor, J. C. (1999). Distance education: the fifth generation Proceedings of the 19th ICDE World Conference on Open Learning and Distance education, Vienna, Austria