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The Student Experience of Distance Education over Time – A Research Challenge

About “Isolation and connection: The experience of distance education”
Irwin DeVries

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1This brief essay provides a context for Penelope Rush’s research article titled “Isolation and connection: The experience of distance education” (2015). My aim is to highlight what to me are the two main highlights of this article and their importance to the field of distance education research: a refreshing focus on the sadly neglected field of early distance education research, and welcome attention to the student experience in distance education as a valid area to theorize in its own right. It is my belief that both of these areas have the potential to enrich research at many levels in the field of distance education. I begin by setting the more general field of distance education research within the context of three main categories of distance education research as defined by Zawacki-Richter and Anderson (2014), and three pedagogical theories in the research and design of distance education (Anderson and Dron, 2011) that influence and underlie much research in the field. I then outline the two main areas of interest noted above and their potential impact in both contexts.


2During the 1970s and 1980s, distance education was in its early stages of development, in a period of rapid growth of open universities around the world. While much research at this time was focused on comparative studies between traditional classroom teaching and distance education, with the aim of proving the advantages or disadvantages of either (Peters, 2014) scholars were also pursuing questions of the elements that constitute distance education and how they differ from those of traditional education, as well as how to improve success among distance education learners. Distance education was typically defined at this time as teaching and learning that take place non-contiguously, and therefore mediated through print and other media (Moore, 1973).

3More recently, after completion of a large research project including a Delphi study involving an international team of distance education experts and multiple large-scale literature reviews, Zawacki-Richter and Anderson (2014) reviewed research on distance education topics from six major distance education journals over multiple years to categorize the field. The categories created are macro-level, involving distance education systems and theories; meso-level, involving management, organization and technology; and micro-level, involving teaching and learning in distance education (p. 4).

4The micro-level of research incorporates topics summarized as related to learning design, i.e. teaching and learning design; interaction and communication in learning communities; and learner characteristics. The third sub-category of the micro-level, learner characteristics, homes in on such areas as goals of distance learners, socio-economic aspects, how students learn online including their learning strategies and approaches, and skills and disposition such as critical thinking and digital/media literacies (p. 4). Among the papers analyzed for this study, a strong emphasis was found toward three areas of focus, all within the micro-level perspective. These areas are “interaction and communication in learning communities (17.6%), instructional design (17.4%), and learner characteristics (16.3%)” (p. 5),” constituting in aggregate over 50% of research in distance education over this period. In the learner characteristics area in particular, research has explored “individual characteristics such as gender, age, previous experiences and more distinct psychological variables… Typically, studies sought to determine relationships between these independent variables and critical distance education output or dependent variables such as learning outcomes, persistence and satisfaction, or intent to enrol in continuing studies” (pp. 29-30). In other words, a vast amount of research is focused on locating the right combination of variables that will, if adjusted correctly improve the success of the distance education learner and, by extension, the larger goals of the supporting institutions, agencies and governments. Rush (2015) may be situated in the “learner characteristics” category in micro-level research by virtue of the focus on variables influencing the learner experience of distance education, but also may have application to the other levels, as will be seen.

5Along with learning design at the micro-level exist pedagogical theories. There is undoubtedly a strong link between the two, by the nature of learning design and its basis in learning theories. Much distance education research today remains focused on three or four – depending on how they’re formulated – theories of learning or pedagogies. For example, as described by Anderson and Dron (2011), initial patterns of novel technical-social developments such as distance education both derive from and grow into evolving worldviews that “define its epistemological roots, development models, and technologies utilized” (Anderson and Dron, 2011, p. 80). In their categorization and analysis of three generations of distance education pedagogies, Anderson and Dron delineate relationships among distance education pedagogies and mediating technologies that form a fundamental part of the requirement to bridge the spacio-temporal separation of learner and teacher in distance education settings. While they developed sequentially over time, these pedagogies continue to co-exist today and form part of a complex mix that “can and should be effectively used to address the full spectrum of learning needs and aspirations of 21st century learners” (p. 81). The three pedagogies are explained by Anderson and Dron as cognitivist-behaviourist, where the locus of control is with the teacher or instructional designer; social-constructivist, where the locus of control shifts “somewhat away from the teacher, who becomes more of a guide than an instructor, but who assumes the critical role of shaping the learning activities and designing the structure in which those activities occur” (p. 85); and connectivist, where locus of control is less stable, with the teacher role generally minimized other than as a “role model and fellow node” (p. 90) and the learner wayfinding through and creating networks of individuals and artifacts.

6It is probably safe to say that the comparative efficacy of these different pedagogies may be difficult if not impossible to fully establish due to the fact that they are invoked to achieve fundamentally different aims for learners (i.e. exhibiting required behaviours versus developing meaning and context versus navigating networks). At their roots they represent fundamentally different epistemological positions. Distance education research continues to probe the meaning of these theories, explore different formulations and products associated with them, and determine the extent to which they inform teaching and instructional design. Social-constructivist theories in particular continue to explore both philosophical roots and epistemologies as well as promote critical approaches and open pedagogies.

7This takes us back to Rush (2015) and the question that emerges from these and other pedagogical theories: Beyond roles and efficacy, what is the student experience of their application in learning design and program delivery? For example, Anderson and Dron’s (2014) clear description of the challenging student experience in early-form MOOCs helps to inform the many challenges of that particular form of distance education and by implication its underlying connectivist pedagogy, having potential impacts at macro- and meso-levels (Zawacki-Richter and Anderson, 2014) of education today.

The student experience

8To gain a better understanding of the distance education picture, Rush (2015) explicitly adds the student experience dimension to inform existing theories as well as to suggest the need for new theory, relating to the student experience of distance education and, importantly, how that experience may change over time due to varying life conditions. Rush turns to scholarship produced mainly during the 1970s and 1980s in the form of three prominent theories and the manner in which they characterize such aspects as the fundamental elements of distance education configurations, processes involved in supporting learners to promote persistence and avoid dropout in higher education, and the nature of the teaching role and student-teacher conversation in distance education.

9These aspects are represented respectively by Michael Moore’s theory of transactional distance (Moore, 1973), Tinto’s formulations addressing the phenomenon of dropout in higher education (Tinto, 1975), and the theory of guided didactic conversation developed by Borje Holmberg (1989). As described by Rush, “The first of these characterises distance education and different learning-teaching scenarios, according to the interaction of three primary elements: Dialogue, structure, and autonomy (Moore, 2013, p. 68), Tinto’s conceptual schema for dropout from college (Tinto, 1975), and Holmberg’ theory of guided didactic conversation as a pervasive characteristic of successful distance education (Holmberg, 1989, p. 43),” p. 2

10Each of these theories is to some extent put to the test against results from a large survey of distance education students from a variety of programs, and both undergraduate and graduate levels, at one university. The study homes in on three questions from a larger survey, centered on the best aspects and the worst aspects of being a distance education student, and on what would make it better for the respondent. While the study helps further inform, bolster and at some time question aspects of the early theories of distance education and learner success, it also calls for more nuanced and complex views of the variables offered in the earlier research. Rush indicates the possibility that some of this earlier research was predicated on a different context than can be found more recently (Wallace, 2007), with possible effects on learner autonomy and by extension its interactions with the earlier research variables. Rush notes,

…students ‘choosing’ distance education today are less likely to be doing so as autonomous learners seeing to expand their knowledge, than they were in the ‘70s. indeed, for many students today, the decision to undertake distance education may best be characterized as a necessity, rather than as a choice at all, given the lifestyle and economic constraints apparently compelling that ‘choice’ (p. 3).

11After delineating indications from the survey as to the extent of the growing contingent necessity of participating in distance education, Rush cautions that “we cannot assume that students who are compelled by circumstance or who choose distance education for practical or economic reasons will be, or even likely be, the ‘autonomous learners’ characterized by Moore and Holmberg in the 1970s and 80s. The indications point to the importance of life commitments that lead students to distance education” (p. 10). Rush further notes that “the focus on student experience from the student perspective both updates and adds another dimension to such theories by noting shifts in the relevance of ‘autonomy’ over time and bringing the student voice to bear on key hypotheses” (p. 22).


12Rush’s study stands out in two particular aspects. The first is the fairly rare, evident interest in early distance education scholarship, with a focus particularly on work that took place in the 1970s and 80s during the rapid growth of distance education, and the increasing use of a widening array of mediating technologies to support non-contiguous teaching and learning. Weller et al. (2018) note the paucity of references to earlier research in current distance education and related fields and the importance of recovering this body of knowledge, especially by early-career researchers.

13The second aspect that stands out is the sharp focus on student experience of distance education. In addition to the analysis conducted by Rush and the insights it has added to the three early theories of distance education, both affirmative and questioning in places, the study highlights the potential for the increased addition of the student perspective as potentially both enhancing existing theories, and leading toward new theory or theories. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, the micro-levels (Anderson and Dron, 2014) student experience of specific pedagogies expressed in learning environments could also be applied not only within the micro-levels of educational research, but also extended to meso-and macro-levels (Zawicki-Richter and Anderson) as a new component to enrich the studies. Further, the field of instructional design, given a significant pedagogical role in early distance education research, may benefit from a better understanding of the student experience applied to the main pedagogical theories underlying their practice.

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Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2011). Three generations of distance education pedagogy. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 12(3), 80-97. doi :

Holmberg, B. (1989). Theory and practice of distance education. Routledge, UK.

Moore, M. (1973). Towards a theory of independent learning and teaching. The Journal of

Higher Education, 44(9), 661-679.

Moore, M. (2013). The theory of transactional distance. In Handbook of distance education. Taylor and Francis, Hoboken, 66-85.

Peters (2014). Foreword. In Zawacki-Richter, O., & Anderson, T. (Eds.), Online distance education : Towards a research agenda. Athabasca University Press.

Rush, P. (2015). Isolation and connection : The experience of distance education. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education, 30(2).

Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education : A theoretical synthesis of recent research.

Review of Educational Research, 45(1), 89-125.

Wallace, L. (2007). Changes in the demographics and motivations of distance education students. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education/Revue internationale du e-learning et la formation à distance, 11(1), 1-31.

Zawacki-Richter, O., & Anderson, T. (2014). Introduction : Research areas in online distance education. Online distance education : Towards a research agenda, 1-35.

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Irwin DeVries, « The Student Experience of Distance Education over Time – A Research Challenge »Distances et médiations des savoirs [En ligne], 23 | octobre 2018, mis en ligne le 05 septembre 2018, consulté le 20 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Irwin DeVries

Adjunct Faculty, School of Education
Thompson Rivers University
Co-Editor, International Journal of E-learning and Distance Education

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