Learning Theories and Distance Learning

A theory is a “systematically organized body of knowledge applicable in a relatively wide variety of circumstances, especially a system of assumptions, accepted principles, and rules of procedure devised to ANALYZE, PREDICT, OR OTHERWISE EXPLAIN the nature or behavior of a specified set of phenomena” (“Theory,” 2002, p. 1) (emphasis added). “Theory is a coherent and systematic ordering of ideas, concepts and models with the purpose of constructing meaning to explain, interpret and shape practice” (Garrison, 2000, p. 3). It is ironic that the discussion post for this week requires the exploration of learning theories associated with distance learning. The irony is that the theories attributed to distance education are, at best, descriptive of distance education programs, and/or learner characteristics, or organizational in nature, rather than providing any principles of explanatory power to which a hypothesis can be applied and tested. For example, Wedemeyer’s Theory of Independent Studyprovides for a system of features to be provided in distance learning related to media, accessibility, content and pace. Further he provides for six characteristics of independent study systems:

“(1) The student and teacher are separated; (2) the normal processes of teaching and learning are carried out in writing or through some other medium; (3) teaching is individualized; (4) learning takes place through student’s activity; (5) learning is made convenient for the student in his or her own environment; and, (6) the learner takes responsibility for the pace of his or her own progress, with freedom to start and stop at any time” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009, p. 42).

These are all definitive characteristics, but they do not explain how or why they make for effective learning in a distance learning context. Wedemeyer is given a great deal of credit for the concept of open education, but from the perspective of the individual. I have to wonder if he had known then what we have only recently come to discover, that personalized education… individualized for the learner, has far more success than the one size fits all model proposed by the industrialized education.

Another distressingly non-learning theory example is the “Equivalency Theory” that provides no principle to follow in developing instructional design instead offering simply that distance learning should be “equivalent” in learning experience, rather than identical to “face-to-face” learning experiences (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009). This clearly makes sense as Dr. Simonson points out the learners are from different backgrounds, located in different areas (possibly cultures) and learning at different times (Laureate Education, Inc. [Laureate], n.d.).

Yet another non-learning theory example, Otto Peters posits that his own theory of Industrialization of Teaching is actually an organizational construct of how distance education was developed, in effect offering mass production of education (prepared) to ever larger numbers of learners likening education to an assembly line in industry (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009; Garrison, 2000). Yet, in 1993 Peters calls attention to the “early signs of a ‘new era’ which might be called ‘postindustrial’ … we are entering a postindustrial era of distance education characterized by the ability to personalize and share control of the educational transaction through frequent two-way communication in the context of a community of learners… this can be accomplished in an affordable manner along with access to educational resources and information via networks that may well provide educational experiences superior to traditional face-to-face educational experiences” (Garrison, 2000, p. 11).

The most comprehensive of the theories and in fact, a synthesis of the previous theories, is established by Hilary Perraton and incorporates a series of statements:

Regarding economies of education:

  • You can use any medium to each anything.
  • Distance teaching can break the integuments of fixed staffing ratios that limited the expansion of education when teacher and student had to be in the same place at the same time.
  • There are circumstances under which distance teaching can be cheaper than orthodox education, whether measured in terms of audience reach or of learning.
  • The economies achievable by distance education are functions of the level of education, size of audience, choice of media, and sophistication of production.
  • Distance teaching can reach audiences who would not be reached by ordinary means.

Regarding Dialog:

  • It is possible to organize distance teaching in such a way that there is dialog.
  • Where a tutor meets distance students face-to-face, the tutor’s role is changed from that of a communicator of information to that of a facilitator of learning.
  • Group discussion is an effective method of learning when distance teaching is used to bring relevant information to the group.
  • In most communities, resources are available that can be used to support distance learning to its educational and economic advantage.

Regarding method:

  • A multi-media program is likely to be more effective than one that relies on a single medium.
  • A systems approach is helpful in planning distance education.
  • Feedback is a necessary part of a distance learning system.
  • To be effective, distance teaching materials should ensure that students undertake frequent and regular activities over and above reading, watching, or listening.
  • In choosing between media, the key decision on which the rest depends concerns the use of face-to-face learning” (Simonson et al., 2009, p. 50; Perraton, 1981; Simonson, Schlosser, & Hanson, 1999 😉

It would appear that Perraton included within these 14 statements a little from at least two branches of distance learning theories: economies of education statements relating to industrialized education theories and statements regarding dialog and method relating to communication and interaction theories (Simonson et al., 2009). Interestingly, independence and autonomy seems to have been excluded from his synthesis.

In fact, although many of these distance “theories” and/or models describe distance learning programs and the characteristics of the learners typically involved in them, whether individually based or not, the theories neglect to cover the most effective method for learning by a distance or why learning at a distance is particularly effective for some learners and not others. This may be due, in part, to some of the semantic fuzziness described by Dr. Saba in the course video wherein he discussed evaluating theories and the difficulties associated with this endeavor due to the ambiguity of terms used within the distance education arena (Laureate, n.d.). This ambiguity is also remarked on by Sarah Guri-Rosenblit in her article discussing common misconceptions and challenging tasks in distance education. “…Internet mediated communication (CMC), e-learning, virtual classrooms, information and communication technologies (ICT), open and distance learning (ODL), distributed learning, etc… The many terms describing the uses of the new technologies in educational settings reflect the ambiguity as to their roles and functions” (Guri-Rosenblit, 2009, p. 106). In fact, the author posits that distance education and e-learning are in fact two distinct phenomena wherein you can learn from a distance without actually participating in e-learning, typically characterized by the utilization of digital technology and associated with the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web and can be used in throughout a continuum from supplementary usage to full replacement of traditional face-to-face instruction (Guri-Rosenblit, 2009). A second misconception highlighted by the author is that distance education has typically been formed and utilized in an industrial-like fashion, without taking into account varying needs and learning styles of students, but “rather is based on highly structured materials and a strictly directed pace of submitted assignments” (Guri-Rosenblit, 2009, p. 110). E-learning, on the other hand, provides opportunity for constructive knowledge, active participation through dialogue and discussion, well within the constructivist learning theory paradigm. This tenet focused more on the individual for customized and/or personalized learning (akin to Wedemeyer). There is a caution in that although digital technologies offer the opportunities for interaction, the interaction must be meaningful the construction of knowledge (Guri-Rosenblit, 2009).

If these issues are the case, then what learning theory applies to distance learning and how should instruction be designed to be effective for distance learners? Perhaps, Wedemeyer was correct after all when he developed is Theory of Independent Study as it would appear that in many respects this position, very similar in application if for different reasons, to constructivism, would be an important component of any effective distance learning theory. In the article, “A Conceptual Model for Effective Distance Learning in Higher Education” the authors suggest propose an effective distance learning model to incorporate “Cognitive and Social Constructivism Theory and Metacognition; Independence Theory of Moore & Wedemeyer and the Interaction and Communication Theory of Moore & Garrison; and ICT based Education Concepts” (Farajollahi, Zare, Hormozi, Sarmadi, & Zarifsanaee, 2010, p. 68), thereby incorporating elements from all major distance learning theories. The authors provide great detail on the aspects they deem to be most effective in a distance learning program; however, in the effort to save space I am simply referencing the material for the cohorts to read at the leisure.


Distance learning (and possibly e-learning) are educational arenas that have, to date, not realized a single comprehensive learning theory. At present, there are a variety of theories encompassing a variety of different elements of distance learning that are bandied about in the literature. It is clear that a comprehensive, inclusive theory needs to be developed from the exploration and study of distance learning and the best practices of learning therein.


Farajollahi, M., Zare, H., Hormozi, M., Sarmadi, M. R., & Zarifsanaee, N. (2010, July). A conceptual model for effective distance learning in higher education. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education-TOJDE, 11(3), 63-77. Retrieved from http://tojde.anadolu.edu.tr/index.htm

Garrison, R. (2000, June). Theoretical challenges for distance education in the 21st century: A shift from structural to transactional issues. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 1(1). Retrieved from http://www.icaap.org/iuicode?

Germain-Rutherford, A., & Kerr, B. (2008, April). An inclusive approach to online learning environments: Models and resources. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 9(2), 64-85. Retrieved from http://tojde.anadolu.edu.tr/index.htm

Guri-Rosenblit, S. (2009). Distance education in the digital age: Common misconceptions and challenging tasks. Journal of Distance Education, 105-122. Retrieved from EBSCOhost

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (n.d.). Theory and distance learning [Video]. Available from http://sylvan.live.ecollege.com.

McGee, P., & Green, M. (2008). Lifelong learning and systems: A post-Fordist Analysis. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 4(2). Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol1no2/mcgee0608.htm

Moore, M. (1972). Learner autonomy: The second dimension of independent learning. Convergence, 5(2), 76-88. Retrieved from http://tojde.anadolu.edu.tr/index.htm

Moore, M. G. (1997). Theory of transactional distance. In D. Keegan (Ed.), Theoretical principles of distance education (pp. 22-38). Retrieved from http://www.aged.tamu.edu/research/readings/Distance/1997MooreTransDistance.pdf

Perraton, H. (1981). A theory for distance education. Prospects – Quarterly Review of Education, 11(1). Retrieved from http://collections.infocollections.org/ukedu/ru/d/Jh1862e/2.html

Siemens, G. (2005, January). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Educational Technology & Distance Learning. Retrieved from http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm

Simonson, M., Schlosser, C., & Hanson, D. (1999). Theory and distance education: A new discussion. The American Journal of Distance Education, 13(1). Retrieved from http://www.c31.uni-oldenburg.de/cde/found/simons99.htm

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th Ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Theory. (2002). In American heritage stedman’s medical dictionary. Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/theory


One thought on “Learning Theories and Distance Learning

  1. Pingback: Distance Learning Research Theories | Rank the Business Degrees

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