Learning at a Distance


by Mark Sivy

In beginning to understand the current status of learning-at-a-distance, I thought a good starting point would be to offer a brief personal perspective on its evolution. During my professional and academic journeys, I‘ve come across a wide range of definitions and uses for terminology associated with learning at-a-distance. At times this has led to misunderstandings, confusion, and even the use of less than optimal teaching practices that result in poor learning outcomes. So based upon my experiences, I’ll give three general stages that have occurred in the evolution of learning at-a-distance, each being described by my views on what they involve in terms of the instructor, learner, and medium. The loosely defined time periods are based upon the years when the given methods of teaching and learning were fairly well rooted.


Distance Education – Web 1.0 (before 1994)

Distance education can be traced back to colonial America in a reference made to a mail-based correspondence course found in an advertisement in the March 20, 1728 issue of the Boston Gazette. It stated that “Persons in the Country desirous to Learn this Art [shorthand], may by having the several Lessons sent weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston”. Mail correspondence continued to be the medium of choice until evidence of technology-enhanced distance education began to appear in the early 1900s when educators began using inventions such as the radio, slide projector, motion picture, and television to produce learning.

Classic distance education used a course-centered approach to teaching in which subject matter was prescribed to the student. Delivery of content was very often via audio, readings, and viewings of video-based materials and lessons. Exchanges between teachers and students are often via mail, e-mail, and phone conversations. Communication and learning are primarily unidirectional, from the instructor.


Online Education – Web 2.0 (~1994-2009)

PLATOThe application of modern digital technology to education was first noted with the use of computers to form an organized and connected system of learning known as PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) in 1960 at the University of Illinois. Then in 1991 when Tim Berners-Lee’s efforts gave us the World Wide Web, the digital facilitation of web-based education was born.

This form of online learning is produced through student-centered methods of education. Websites and course management systems along with web-meeting applications are frequently implemented. Interactions between teachers and students are most frequently via e-mail and learning management systems. Communication and learning are typically bi-directional between the teacher and student, with some interaction between students.


Virtual Learning Environments – Web 3.0 (~2009 and beyond)

Through the development of new learning theories, technologies, and instructional systems practices, online education has evolved to become a more complex integrated system consisting of multiple learning strategies. This includes combining the benefits of such items as social media, virtual learning management systems, modern instructional design, mobile learning, semantic web principles, digital design, and gamification.

Web 3.0

Virtual learning environments embrace a community and context-centered philosophy through which there is the observation, discovery and synthesis of knowledge and skills via participation and shared learning. In addition to e-mail and learning management systems, participation and learning occur online via social learning and networking tools, collaboration tools and virtual environments, thus incorporating the benefits of interactivity and virtual presence. Communication and learning are multi-directional with the majority of this occurring among students. The needs for personal flexibility and mobility are addressed.

Reflection Point – “Web 3.0 will be the ‘intelligent web’. Apps are getting smarter, because data is getting smarter.” ~Nova Spivak