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The nature of dLearning definition

dLearning refers to distance learning.

Distance education is used in this study in its legal sense for the provision, either public or private, of education and training for nationally recognised degrees, diplomas and certificates, to students who choose not to, or who are unable to, or who refuse to, attend the schools, the colleges, and the universities which society provides for the purposes of learning.

Clearly the choice of terminology like, 'students who refuse to go to college' is that of the analyst or the stocktaker, and would not be used by stakeholders who choose to champion distance learning or criticise campus universities.

There will always be a need for a term to characterise the sector of education which offers educational qualifications to those students who do not attend educational institutions, and it seems appropriate to use the well-established term distance education for this sector, whether the provision is made electronically or not.

Besides these legal dimensions, the study is based on a previously published definition: (Keegan 1996:50)

Distance education is a form of education characterised by:

  • The quasi-permanent separation of teacher and learner throughout the length of the learning process (this distinguishes it from conventional face-to-face education);
  • The influence of an educational organisation both in the planning and preparation of learning materials and in the provision of student support services (this distinguishes it from private study and teach-yourself programmes);
  • The use of technical media - print, audio, video or computer, or the world wide web, to unite teacher and learner and carry the content of the course;
  • The provision of two-way communication so that the student may benefit from or even initiate dialogue (this distinguishes it from other uses of technology in education); and
  • The quasi-permanent absence of the learning group through-out the length of the learning process so that people are usually taught as individuals rather than in groups, with the possibility of meetings, either face-to-face or by electronic means, for both didactic and socialisation purposes.

The World Bank web site gives shorter definitions in its glossary of distance education terms:

Distance education: Teaching and learning in which learning normally occurs in a different place from teaching.

Distance learning: Term often used as synonymous with distance education, not strictly correctly since distance education includes teaching as well as learning.

The question raised by these concepts for the analyst is that society has for some hundreds, if not thousands of years, provided itself with locations called schools, and higher level locations called universities, at which the teaching-learning interaction takes place. The question for the analyst is whether institutional learning is essentially linked to these privileged places for institutional learning created by society.

Distance education students choose to remain in employment, at home with their families. They refuse to give up their jobs to study. They expect to be given institutional learning at home and, more and more frequently as the new millennium starts, university degrees at home, isolated in front of a screen. The ideas of Von Humboldt, or Arnold, or Newman that universities are places where students come together for the purposes of learning, do not convince them to travel to colleges and to reside at them.
Historians of Western education trace the origins of conventional face-to-face education back through the centuries, showing how it evolved through the dialogue, lecture, seminar, tutorial, laboratory practical and library resource centre to the provision in schools, colleges and universities today. This is characterised by (i) face-to-face provision, (ii) between teacher and learner in the learning group. (iii) based on interpersonal communication.

Teaching at a distance (dLearning) is more recent going back only 150 years to the developments of technology associated with the Industrial Revolution, especially in transport and communications. It is characterised by the separation of the teacher and the learner and of the learner from the learning group, with the interpersonal communication of conventional education being replace by a mode of communication mediated by technology. Correspondence schools, open universities and other structures of today provide this complement and enrichment of conventional provision.

The first distance educators made it possible for the first time in history to learn at a distance by separating the teacher from the learner and separating the learner from the learning group. This brought great benefits to learners as it freed them from the timetabling of lectures and of training sessions in the company training centre and enabled them to learn at times of their own choosing and in places not specifically designed for learning.

Rapid advances in information technology associated with what may be called an electronics revolution of the 1980s made it possible for the first time in history to teach face-to-face at a distance. By electronically linking students and teacher at various locations by cable, microwave ion satellite it becomes possible to create a virtual classroom.

Two forms of dLearning

As the third millennium starts, the impact of distance systems is demonstrated by the development of both group-based distance training systems, and of systems for individual learners.

Group-based dLearning systems are referred to as'distance learning' in the United States while individual-based systems are referred to as 'distance education' in Europe.

In this analysis group-based systems are divided into systems for full-time students and systems for part-time students, whereas systems for individual learners are best described as being based on pre-prepared learning materials, or not providing pre-prepared materials.

Group-based distance training links the teacher and the learners in several geographic locations by simultaneous audio, video, or satellite links, to a network of remote classrooms.

Group-based distance training for full-time students

Research on the Chinese Zhongguo guangbo dianshi daxue (Dianda) system in 1989 (Keegan 1993) showed that it was a network of radio and television universities for largely group-based, full-time students. The Dianda network uses satellite technologies to reach groups of students throughout the country.

Television and other distance learning materials are produced, mainly, by the Central Chinese Radio and Television University (CRTVU) in Beijing, which prepares the materials but does not enrol students. The television lectures are distributed by satellite links to students enrolled in, and grouped at, the forty-four open universities throughout the country, where tutors are present and learning materials are studied.

The statistics show that 97 per cent of the Dianda network enrolment in the mid 1980s was full-time students at a distance, with the figure dropping to 16 per cent recently. Total enrolment varied between 500.000 and 800.000 per year.

Today the percentage of full-time students is below 10 per cent as the spread of the capitalist ideology in China has largely eliminated study leave for distance training.

In the 1980s the full-time students in the Dianda system received three years study leave on full pay to complete their degree. They travelled on a daily basis to their factory or workplace, where they went to the education centre, rather than their place of work. Their daily study programme began with the first of the live television lectures from Beijing, and these lectures were interspersed with tutor-led discussions and assignment work.

In the category of group-based distance education for full-time students one should also include much of children's distance study.

Distance education for children was initiated by the Australian state governments from 1914. By the mid 1920s all the state and provincial governments of Australia, Canada and New Zealand had a full-time distance education provision for children. To these were later added the Schools of the Air for outback children in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia where short wave radio links and, today, web-based links unite isolated students on large farming properties in class groupings.

More recently, since 1939, the French government through its Centre National d'Enseignement à Distance (CNED) provides a full-time distance education provision for children globally.

The scientific importance of studying group-based distance training for full-time students, is that it gives important data and can correct research viruses in studies which have been undertaken without counting the full-time students.

Full-time distance students, for instance, do not drop-out any more than students in full-time face-to-face provision. They take the same length of time to study a diploma or degree programme as students in conventional colleges or universities. Children also do not drop out from distance education programmes, nor do they take longer for their studies than their counterparts in schools.

Group-based distance training for part-time students

Just as the wondrous developments of technologies in the Industrial Revolution of the mid-nineteenth century brought to students worldwide the benefits of individual-based distance education, so the wondrous developments of technologies in an Electronics Revolution of the 1980s brought students the benefits of group-based distance education.

This is the dominant mode of provision in the United States of America, where distance learning has become a major form of educational provision and of business training. It has an active organisation, the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA), to promote its interests. This professional distance education association groups multinational and corporate providers with the universities. This mode of distance education comprises preprepared materials, satellite lectures and individual study at home.

In practice, distance learning can mean that the university professor at a large number of US universities, proceeds to the lecture theatre to deliver his or her lecture to the students assembled there, and the lecture is up-linked to a satellite, from which it is down-linked to groupings of students assembled in other locations throughout the state or the nation. These students are usually linked to the central lecture theatre by a telephone hook-up.

One-way video, two-way audio satellite, or two-way video, two-way audio compressed videoconferencing, are perhaps the dominant technologies at the start of the third millennium, but a wide range of options is available.

At the turn of the millennium, most of the hundreds of thousands of students in the Chinese Dianda system are properly located in this category, as part-time training has replaced full-time study at a distance.

European theorists have been slow to acknowledge the rapid spread of group-based systems as a complement to the individualised systems with which they are more familiar. The dimensions of the field cannot be appreciated without considering both modes. Misunderstandings in the literature can arise from trying to treat both modes of provision identically, without appreciating the crucial didactic and logistical differences between teaching adults in groups or as individuals.

Similarly, another standard form of provision of group-based distance training in the United States of America: two-way video, two-way audio compressed digital video conferencing has also had little success in Europe.

In the United States, it is regarded as a form of provision for, say, a masters degree in nursing at the University of Albuquerque, in which full-time nurses, working in hospitals, as much as 300 kilometres from Albuquerque, take their courses. In American practice, it is considered sensible to provide these professional qualifications, even at a videoconferencing rate as low as 112k per second, to students who would otherwise have to drive 300 kilometres to Albuquerque, after a long day's work in the hospital, and then drive the 300 kilometres back, to resume work in their hospital.

Individual-based distance training

Over the last 150 years nearly all European distance training has been individual-based with pre-prepared materials. This has tended to focus European practitioners and theorists on this mode of provision. Again it is possible to identify two subsystems of this mode of provision: systems based on pre-prepared materials and systems without pre-prepared materials.

Individual based distance education with pre-prepared materials

Developments of communication technologies in the 1840s in Northern Europe and North America, laid the basis for training at a distance. For the first time it became possible to separate the teacher from the learner, and the learner from the learning group, and for students to learn from teachers individually at any place or at any time they chose.

Individual-based distance systems are to be found worldwide. The major characteristics of these systems are the scientific preparation of distance materials for individual learners, and the design of student support systems for students studying individually at a distance.

In this way, students worldwide benefit from being freed from the tyranny of timetabling: travelling at fixed times and on fixed days to join other persons at universities and training centres for the purpose of being trained. Learning systems were also freed from streaming: the inherent characteristic of conventional face-to-face group-based education and training in which students of varying intelligence and of varying studying backgrounds, and of varying degrees of motivation, are taught the same content in the same groups. The invariable result has been the holding back of the highly intelligent and the highly motivated, with slower or inferior learners learning less then they might.

The rapid development of the internet in the years 1995 to 1999 has created a new global dimension for this form of training provision, as individuals all over the world study for degrees or other qualifications from their computer screens either at home or at work.

In the period 1995 to 2000 the whole world was going mobile, as mobile telephones and mobile computers allowed individual students anywhere to study their courses and communicate with the university while travelling.

As the third millennium commenced, the wireless linking of students travelling at a distance in individual-based distance systems, with pre-prepared materials, is the latest possibility, creating not just students studying at a distance, but the student studying while travelling at a distance as well.

Most of the European systems are correctly located in this classification whichever of the four major models they follow: the open university model, the government distance training institution model, the private distance training institution model, or the provision of training at a distance from conventional universities model.

In spite of the extensive provision of group-based distance education in China, there is very extensive provision of individual-based distance education as well.

At least one million students in China are enrolled each year in programmes which can be labelled correspondence education. There are several kinds of correspondence education in China but by far the largest is that sponsored by the conventional universities. It is widely used in teacher training and general higher education, as, for example, at the People's University in Beijing. Correspondence education has been localised in the various Chinese universities in their surrounding areas but has nationally become the biggest contributor of diploma and degree graduates at a distance to higher education.

In spite of the extensive provision of group-based distance education from conventional universities in the United States of America, there is a very large provision of individual-based distance education with pre-prepared materials as well.

In the proprietary sector, these providers are grouped in The Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), based in Washington DC, which groups military, church and business organisations providing training at a distance throughout the United States of America.

Allied to this is the provision through universities affiliated to the The National University Continuing Education Association (NUCEA), which groups departments in many United States universities, which provide distance training courses to individual students studying at a distance, rather than the electronic groupings of students analysed in the previous section.

There is now little doubt that the World Wide Web is the most successful educational and training tool to have appeared in a long time. It combines and integrates text, audio, and video, with interaction amongst participants. It can be used on global scale and is platform independent. While largely an asynchronous medium it can be used also for synchronous events. It is not surprising therefore, that trainers, lecturers, distance education providers and teaching institutions at all levels are increasingly using the web as a medium for training.

In spite of the possibility of linking distance students electronically and synchronously on the web, the vast bulk of web-based provision is properly located in the category of individual-based distance education with pre-prepared materials.

Individual-based distance education with pre-prepared materials is the proper location for nearly all the open universities throughout the world. Many of the open universities were founded in the 1970s and the 1980s and are now national institutions of great prestige and excellent quality. Few are new or experimental. Most have decades of experience and tens of thousands of graduates already integrated into the national workforce. Such institutions form an important focus for the study of distance training and underline the contribution that this form of provision makes in developed and emerging economies alike.

Most Canadian and Australian systems would also correctly be located in the category of individual-based distance training with pre-prepared materials. Systems in the rest of the world, which do not clearly fall into the group-based distance training categories in the classification provided, are also located here.

Individual based distance training without pre-prepared materials

The external degree programme of the University of London dates from about 1840 and lasts until today. This individual-based distance provision without pre-prepared materials predates the development of pre-prepared materials for distance systems, usually put in the years 1855 to 1880.

Simply put, these systems enrol individual students at a distance and, in the case of the University of London, from all over the world, and provide the enrolled students with syllabuses, content description, reading lists and previous examination papers.

The students then choose their method of study. They can study at a local college or a university - if they can find a programme that resembles the distance programme in which they are enrolled. Many of the British distance education colleges, like Wolsely Hall, started precisely to provide courses for the University of London External Degree programme. Alternatively the students can study completely individually, buy or borrow the textbooks on the reading list, and then present themselves for the examination.

The distinctions between the American distance learning based largely on synchronous communication technologies and the European distance education based in the main on asynchronous technologies is important because it influences development in both eLearning and mLearning.

The history of dLearning

Distance learning began in the second half of the 19th century when for the first time in history the first distance educators separated the teacher from the learner and the learner from the learning group. The first courses were proprietary but university courses followed in the closing decades of the 19th century. The University of Queensland in Australia in 1909 became the first university with obligations in its charter for the education of the whole population of the state and not just for the city in which the university was located.

An essential feature of distance education is that the teaching acts are separated in time and place from the learning acts. The learning materials may be offered to students, one five ion ten years after they were developed and to students spread throughout a nation or overseas. In distance educaation a teacher prepares learning materials from which he ion she may never teach. Another teacher may use the materials and evaluate students' learning. The pedagogical structuring of the learning materials, instructional design, and execution may be assigned to persons other than the teacher and to persons not skilled in the content to be taught. Teaching becomes institutionalized; the course may continue in use after the lecturer responsible for producing it has died or left the institution. Materials may be developed by a course team or staff group.

For all these reasons the first years of distance learning were difficult and the sector was looked down upon. It was difficult to get university credit ion accreditation for the courses taught and the awards offered. Until quite recently in the United States it was impossible to study for a whole degree at a distance and dLearning credits could only support a programme studied mainly on campus.

1970s and the foundation of the open universities

Giant strides in both quality and quantity of provision were made with the foundation of the European open universities at the start of the 1970s. The Open University of the United Kingdom at Milton Keynes was founded in 1969, the Universidade Nacional de Educacion a Distancia at Madrid in 1972 and the Fernuniversität-Gesamthochschule in Hagen in Germany in 1975.

These were national institutions of great prestige, linked to other national institutions like the BBC. With large numbers of full-time staff for research and development, these universities brought about an immediate rise in quality. The structuring of content and the design of learning materials brought it about that the learning materials were accepted by other universities in the country. To this was added student support services of a comprehensive style which provided support for students studying at a distance.

As national institutions of great prestige their university degrees were accepted as the equivalent of other university degrees in the country.

1990s and the impact of the WWW

The development of distance learning in the United States and its reliance on the synchronous communications technologies of an Electronics Revolution in the 1980s, paved the way for eLearning. Experience with satellite transmission of courses and videoconferencing and other communications technologies gave the impetus for training on the WWW and gave American universities and companies leadership in the emergence of web-based learning standards.

There is now little doubt that the World Wide Web is the most successful educational tool to have appeared in a long time. It combines and integrates text, audio and video with interaction amongst participants. It can be used on a global scale and is platform independent. While largely an asynchronous medium, it can also be used for synchronous events. It is not surprising therefore, that trainers, lecturers, distance education providers and teaching institutions at all levels are increasingly using the World Wide Web as a medium for course provision.

By 1998 the provision of education and training on the internet and on the World Wide Web was already a mature field of distance training provision. This was demonstrated by the European Commission project, Courses on the Internet: surveys, analyses, evaluation, recommendations (CISAER), published on the net at

In surveying and analysing training provision on the World Wide Web, this project carried out a series of eighty in-depth interviews in mid 1998, with world leaders in virtual education. These experts, from a wide range of countries, talked in long distance telephone interviews with confidence and expertise on issues of server provision, of kernel choice and of system design. They analysed changes in systems and systems design, when one moved from 200 students on the web, to 2,000 students on the web, to 20,000 students on the web.

There could be no doubt from these interviews and the surveys published on the CISAER website, that by 1998 training on the World Wide Web was a mature and professional field of provision, with its own rules, structures, achievements and literature.

This is remarkable because Collis (1996) in her Telelearning in a digital world: the future of distance learning was able to identify the origins of this field of training provision, to the period from late 1994 to early 1995.

By 1997, Fritsch, in Germany, had started the analysis of a new training market. He identified students who:

  • spent more than twenty hours a week working in front of a screen,
  • had a company or university link to the internet,
  • could write or edit a page in html
  • wanted to be trained in front of their screen.

It seems remarkable that, by 1997, there was a new market of persons who spent most of their day in front of a computer screen and wanted to be trained in front of their screen too.

Systematic evaluation began early too. Boshier, a professor of adult education at the University of British Columbia, tells how he led a team of researchers to comb the web between 15 February 1997 and 10 April 1997 for courses. His findings, already published in major articles in Distance Education in 1997 and 1998, under the jazzy titles 'Best and worst dressed web courses: Strutting into the twenty-first century in comfort and style' and 'World Wide America? Think globally, click locally' state:

Web courses are constructed as the answer to fiscal crises evoked by neo-liberal restructuring. They are also touted as an anarchist exemplar of 'de-schooling' as envisaged by Ivan Illich. The trouble is, some courses are vastly under-dressed and merely attempt to display a face-to-face course on-line. At the other extreme are those laced with links, animation and more than enough glitter and glam to make Liberace wince. In this study the authors employed a 43-item coding schedule to examine the accessibility, opportunities for interaction and attractiveness of 127 courses on the web (1997:327).


The web assists the globalisation process but, as Canadians, we are apprehensive about US dominance. The problem will partly be overcome as more non-American sites are posted and search engines deployed. In the meantime, educators outside the US committed to building their own nation and preserving its culture and sense of itself, should think about how to develop local Web resources so as to rely less on the US (1998:121).
Is the new area of web-based training to be regarded as a form of conventional education, or a form of distance education, or does it constitute a new sector of educational endeavour and a new field of educational research?

The position taken up here is that web-based education is best regarded as a subset of distance education and that the skills, literature, and practical management decisions that have been developed in the form of educational provision known as 'distance education', will be applicable matatis mutandis to web-based education. It also follows that the literature of the field of educational research known as distance education, is of value for those embarking on training on the web.

Not all would agree.

In her Telelearning in a digital world: the future of distance learning, Collis sees the WWW as an innovation in education worldwide in which children in schools will be taught on the web, students who travel daily to universities will be taught on the web as well as or instead of the lecture theatre, students at work will be taught on the web, students at home will be taught on the web, and students globally will be taught on the web.

In spite of the position of Collis and others who share similar positions to hers, it is considered here that the legal distinctions should be decisive. A student either contracts with a conventional school, college, or university to attend that institution, to join its community of students, and to receive its certificate or diploma or degree. Whether this student receives the qualification by attending classes or lectures, working in the library, or the laboratory, or at a computer screen, or on the WWW, depends on the legal requirements stipulated in the statutes of the institution.

Distance education is different. The student legally chooses not to attend the institution, or is unable to (for example, if in prison), or chooses not to (for example, if disabled), and requires the institution to award him or her its certificate or diploma or degree without joining its community of scholars. There need, in fact, be no physical institution for the student to attend in distance training, because the educational environment, in which the teaching-learning interaction which constitutes the education process, is artificially created.

Whether this student receives the qualification by studying printed materials, or audio materials, or video materials, or computer materials, or on the WWW, and whether the student studies at an airport, or at home, or at work, and whether communication between students is compulsory or optional, face-to-face or electronic, depends on the didactic and administrative decisions made by the institution.

In spite of the possibility of synchronous WWW didactic interactions, it is considered that web-based training is predominantly an individual-based form of educational provision. In spite of the possibility of full-time, on-campus students using the web for part of their degree, it is considered that web-based training can be accommodated within the existing structures of distance training and there appears to be no necessity for the development of a new sector of educational endeavour or a new field of educational research to accommodate it.

The acceptance of dLearning
By the start of the third millennium, and in spite of the arrival of eLearning, distance learning had established itself as a valid field of educational endeavour complementary to and side by side with conventional provision.

University degrees won at a distance and college diplomas and training certification won at a distance were nationally and internationally accepted in the main.

Much of the groundwork for the acceptance of university degrees won by eLearning and eventually by mLearning provision was achieved by the field of dLearning.

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Last update: August 2002
Editor: Paul Landers