July 20, 2018

What Is Distance Education?


Defining open learning, flexible learning, online/virtual learning and distance education

Although the four terms are often used to mean the same thing, there are significant differences.

Open learning
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.

More recently, 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)

Distance education
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 must 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.

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
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.

Online/virtual learning
Online learning may be fully ‘at a distance’ or ‘blended’, i.e. combined with face-to-face teaching or other technologies such as print (see What is e-learning?

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.

For another definition of distance education (especially in development) see Commonwealth of Learning

The impact of technology on the organization of distance education

Distance education has gone through several stages of development.
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 characterized 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 is still experimental, based on a heavy automation of learning, and applies mainly to his own institution (University of Southern Queensland). A more plausible fifth generation is distance education based on the use of Web 2.0 tools that allow learners to control access to learning, through social software, virtual worlds and multimedia tools such as YouTube.

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:

  • public autonomous distance education institutions
  • dual-mode institutions
  • for-profit distance education institutions
  • partnerships and consortia
  • workplace training organizations
  • virtual schools.

Distance teaching organizations 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′.


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


  1. Kuriya Kiap says:

    The world over is now going distance because it is the medium that readily available at your home, and work place. You can learn while earning at a affordable rate. Papua New Guinea University of Goroka is having its place in the world of distance by offering its first program, School Management degree, under the Institute of Distance & Flexible Learning. The major clients to this program are the senior staff of Primary and secondary schools who holds Head Teachers and Principals and Deputy Principal’s positions.

  2. I am from kottayam
    I want to study a degree course correspondent how can I do that please help me

    • Hello, Jins

      I believe you are in the state of Kerala, India. These are the following open universities there:

      Open Universities in Kottayam
      Mahatma Gandhi University
      Priyadarsini Hills.-686 560
      Phone No. 481-2731050

      Open Universities in Thiruvananthapuram
      University of Kerala
      Kariavattom-695 034
      Phone No. 2305738, 2305994

      Open Universities in Kannur
      Kannur University 670 567
      Phone No. 0497-2782351 – 2782355

      Open Universities in Malappuram
      University of Calicut
      Thenjipalam.-673 635
      Phone No. 2400252

      See more at: http://www.highereducationinindia.com/distance-learning/open-universities-in-kerala.php#sthash.b63K5Rvv.dpuf

      However, I cannot vouch for their quality as I am not personally familiar with any of these institutions.

      There is also the Indira Ghandi National Open University in India (IGNOU). This has a worldwide reputation for excellence.

      I hope this is helpful and good luck with your studies

  3. Francis Nimo says:

    The flexibility of distance education and the use of modern technology in facilitating it makes it suitable for our generation.I think single mode institutions are to be well utilised for economy balance.

  4. Ferdie salao says:

    The instructional material is very helpful. I learned the different terminologies that are usually interchanged, especially to an individual like me who is exposed to a traditional teaching-learning process. Thank you so much!

  5. Thank you to this article, Mr. Tony Bates. I have become more educated on the differences of these terminologies that are commonly mixed up. It is important to understand the concept by comparison because it makes me more specific when I talk about them. In the past I never thought that the differences matter, now I become more knowledgeable not only of their meaning but the concepts around each terms.

  6. Michael Carmen says:

    In the Distance education it has gone through several stages of development.. In the Second generation distance education is characterized by a deliberately integrated multiple-media approach. 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. Taylor’s fourth generation is flexible learning based on asynchronous communication through the Internet and the World Wide Web and fifth generation is distance education based on the use of Web 2.0 which is becoming to be more advance in terms of philosophy and method as we expect.

  7. I really like it this kind of information……….Great blog post and really helpful…… and your blog are very interesting and inspiring.
    MBA online

  8. Joyce Bodah says:

    We are now in a period where distance is no longer a barrier because of technology. Not only do products and services are sold and marketed online but also getting an education. While traditional minds believe that it is still best to learn in the classroom and have attendance checked regularly, the time insists and keeps pushing technology in the teaching-learning to address the needs of today. Hence, educational institutions need to embrace change in order to meet the demands of the time.

    This article has enlightened me on the differences and similarities of the different terminologies that are now used in the academe that sometimes we use interchangeably like they are synonymous.

    Thank you for this article.


  1. […] Bates, A.W. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: RoutledgeFalmer.Available http://www.tonybates.ca/2008/07/07/what-is-distance-education/ […]

  2. […] Tony Bates (@drtonybates) la define como un método de estudio donde el participante en el programa gestiona su propio aprendizaje, en el lugar que le plazca y sin contacto cara a cara con su profesor. La tecnología es un elemento crítico de esta modalidad formativa. […]

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  6. […] Bates, T. (2008) What is distance education, Online learning and distance education resoucres, http://www.tonybates.ca/2008/07/07/what-is-distance-education/ […]

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