history of change in distance education and the theory of transactional distance and describe developments in those areas over the past two or three years. It may seem that distance education is a relatively new concept, especially with the advent of so many online or web-based distance education courses, but in reality, distance education has been around for a very long time. This history of distance education includes changes in delivery methods, course concepts, and the number of courses available to the student, and it has changed and developed continually throughout its history. It is quite clear distance education will continue to evolve as new methods of delivery become available, and as more people actively research and study the theories and methods of distance education.

History of a theory of distance education

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Studying at home, or at a distance from the instructor, is not a new idea. In fact, it began in the 1920s in the United States (or even earlier), and became popular in other countries as well. Back then, it was usually called “correspondence study,” and lessons were delivered and returned by mail. The term distance education did not come about until much later in correspondence history, and it is just one indicator of the massive amount of change that is ongoing in this distinct form of education.

The term “distance education” comes from a German writer, Otto Peters, who defined the term in 1967, but it did not become widely used until the 1980s, when Peters’ work was translated from German. The textbook notes, “His thesis was that distance education is best understood as the application of industrial techniques in the deliver of instruction, and that unless industrial methods are used, distance education will not be successful” (Moore and Kearsley, 2005, p. 222). Eventually, Michael G. Moore used Peters’ theories and the theories of his mentor, Charles Wedemeyer, to create the theory of transactional distance that guides independent learning today.

Theory of transactional distance

This theory maintains that the distance between the learner and the teachers is more than just physical or geographic. Instead, the theory maintains that the important aspect of distance education is the effect this distance has on both teacher and learner. This distance also creates a gap that the teacher and learner must close to be effective, and instructional design and interaction can help facilitate this closure (Moore and Kearsley, 2005, p. 223). Combined within this theory are two variables, the dialogue and structure of the distance education course.

Dialogue and structure

Dialogue and structure form the backbone of every distance education course, and the backbone of the theory of transactional distance, as well. This is because every course, no matter its delivery method or intent, contains dialogue and structure. Clearly, the dialogue in a correspondence course is quite different from a tele-course or online course, but they all contain those elements. The structure will differ as well, depending on learning objectives, purpose, and instructional design of the course, but all courses contain structure, as well. Understanding these elements and their importance is key to understanding the theory of transactional distance and its importance in defining distance education.

Changes in the theory

Of course, any theory that was created in the 1980s has altered considerably since then. Several researchers have studied student experience to create models of the theory of transactional distance. They found different learner experiences when the distance between the instructor and learner lengthened, and they found differing ideas about their outcomes as distances grew. Thus, learners are aware of the distance and its effect on learning, ass well. While study has been completed on a variety of instructional models, both online, computerized, and videotape, the authors believe more study is necessary to fully understand the theory of transactional distance, and to update it as changes in technology demand new methods of delivery and communication. The theory has changed because of online courses and delivery, since those methods did not exist when the theory was first advanced. While there is ongoing research into the modern theory, there was very little research at the beginning of the distance education movement, and that means much research still needs to be done to understand the intricacies of the theory, delivery, dialogue, and structure that can all enhance distance education in the future.

Change in distance education

If distance education has morphed from its origins to the present, the past two or three years have sent tremendous growth, expansion, and evolution in the distance education model. For example, in 1973, when Michael G. Moore wrote an article on distance education for the Journal of Higher Education, he had to first define what it was. Today, the definition is all but taken for granted, and it is no longer an unusual or new concept. He writes, “Our focus is on all forms of deliberate, planned, structured learning – and teaching – that are carried on outside the school environment” (Moore, 1973, p. 662). He notes that the traditional term at the time – “Independent Study,” meant different things to different people, as so, there were no consistent definitions of distance education. At the time, he notes that most people felt a physical presence in the classroom was necessary for “proper” learning, something that seems quite outmoded and old-fashioned today. He continues, “Learning and instruction do take place in other situations. Millions of learners, particularly adults, do not learn in classrooms, never meet or speak directly to their teachers, and many learn from teachers with whom they have no personal acquaintance at all” (Moore, 1973, p. 664). Today, those concepts are taken for granted as well, but 30 years ago, the field still had to be defined and explained for most educators.

In 1991, Moore wrote another article, and it was quite different from the early 70s article. Here, he discusses the theory of transactional distance (a theory he was just thinking about in 1973), and he notes, “We must not hide the fact that there is a great deal of confusion about terminology in the distance education field” (Moore, 1991, p. 1). Thus, while distance learning was evolving, there was still no congruent definition or terminology in the field, leading one to wonder what took so long. His explanation is actually quite similar to that of the textbook, written 13 years later, indicating the theory has finally caught on and more people are aware of it and its implications than ever before.

In 1997, pioneer researcher Otto Peters wrote an article summarizing the origins of distance education. He also sums up what needs to happen for distance education to thrive in the future. He notes, “The new problems facing distance education cannot be solved with the obsolete methods of rationalization through mass-production, and new concepts must therefore be developed for its future developments” (Peters, 1997, p. 4). As early as 10 years ago, distance education leaders were foreseeing massive changes in the way distance education is delivered and modeled, and it is clear those changes are continuing today. One of these changes, rapidly updated a large number of courses (Peters, 1997, p. 4), is much more common than it was even a few years ago, and his other suggestion, about more autonomous production and development of courses is also occurring now. He also advocates some amount of in-person learning (something that does not seem to be occurring as much), and modifying learning behaviors in students. This seems to be occurring in many cases, as well, in that today’s students are much more open to distance education, and even elementary and high school students can study at a distance today.

By 2001, Jung’s article on Web based instruction (WBI) is far removed from the discussion of 1973. She notes that more study into the phenomenon and delivery of WBI is necessary, but that it has already changed the transactional distance theory in many ways. She notes, “Most of the studies confirmed Moore’s original proposal that transactional distance decreases with dialogue increases an structure decreases, and when structure increases transactional distance also increases, but dialogue decreases” (Jung, 2001, p. 527). Thus, she indicates a primary understanding of the theory, something that is necessary for the theory to develop along with new instances of distance education.

In the last few years, Internet and phone cameras have jumped in popularity. In the future, (or even now, in far reaching programs), it is entirely possible to conduct a distance education class with a live instructor and camera, who could interact with a variety of students using their own home computers. This could provide hands-on learning in a number of areas, and it could help decrease the distance between instructor and student by making them “real,” something that does not exist in most distance learning models.

In the past few years, many more WBI learning has come online, and many technical schools are using this model of delivery to reach students who are unable or unwilling to physically attend school. For example, the Art Institutes offer online course in culinary arts and other areas that traditionally have been on site programs.

Another recent change is that more studies are being completed about learning and how students learn in distance education, in an attempt to mold courses and course development into something that is even more appropriate for distance learners. These studies are giving a greater understanding of how distance learners actually learn, and how they perceive their learning experience, all of which can lead to more relevant classes.

Distance learning has become more acceptable, more institutions offer it, and more students are taking advantage of it than ever before. More schools are partnering together into consortiums to offer blocks of distance learning courses, and there are other developments, including online counseling and other guidance that can allow students to complete their entire degree programs without setting foot on campus. These and many other elements of distance education have changed in the past few years, and it is clear that trend will continue.

These changes will certainly affect distance education in the future, as there is nothing as constant as change in distance education. First, even though the idea of distance education has grown tremendously in the past decade, and even in the past few years, it will certainly continue to grow in the future. During this growth spurt, there has been relatively little study completed into the theories and practices of distance education, and that will surely change in the future. Graduate students and experts in the field will conduct more research so that better models and instructional theories can be molded, and as more studies are completed, more understanding of the entire field will result.

Another certainty is that delivery models will continue to evolve. In the future, it seems certain that distance education will delve into delivery by cell phone, and perhaps even a reading device such as Amazon’s Kindle, and certainly new, innovative devices will continue to come on the market, leading to other delivery options we cannot even foresee today. As delivery models evolve, more people than ever before will be able to enjoy the benefits of distance learning, and it will become even more accepted than it is today.


Jung. I. (2001). Building a theoretical framework of web-based instruction in the context of distance education. British Journal of Educational Technology. Vol. 32, No. 5. 525-534.

Moore, M. (1973) Toward a theory of independent learning and teaching. Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 44, No. 9. 661-680.

Moore, M. (1991). Distance education theory. American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 5, No. 3. 1-6.

Moore, M. And Kearsley, G. (2005). The theory and scholarship of distance education. Distance education: A system view. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Peters, O. (1997) Industralised Teaching and learning. 1-10.

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