Theoretical Frameworks – Distance Education Theory and Practice (2023)

By:Li Cheng,Ryan Rushing,Zhen XuandNihan A. Dogan

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Define and differentiate the four philosophical foundations discussed in this chapter: empiricism, rationalism, pragmatism, and humanism.
  • Describe the major tenets of each of the following psychological foundations discussed in this chapter: behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and connectivism.
  • Apply the psychological foundations to create effective instructional strategies in distance education.
  • Describe distance education as a system utilizing systems theory and list the factors that make up the distance education system.
  • Compare and contrast the four emphases of communication theory: transmission emphasis, behavioral emphasis, interactive emphasis, and transaction emphasis.
  • Apply the tenets of media theory to distance education.
  • Describe each of the common distance education theories described in this chapter and elaborate on how they contribute to the overall understanding of distance education.
  • Explain self-regulatory learning, situated learning, and collaborative learning and relate these theories to distance education.


Thanks in part to rapid developments in information and communication technologies (ICT), distance education is becoming a more accessible, flexible, and important approach to education. For this reason, a theoretical basis is needed. Atheorycan provide a structure for the concept and it also reinforces the effectiveness and development of it (Traver, 2015). According to Keegan (2005), a theory can be seen as very practical. Holmberg (1985) recognized the need for theoretical orientations by stating that theories “lead to insights telling us what in distance education is to be expected under what conditions and circumstances, thus paving the way for corroborated practical methodological application” (p. 3). By having a good theory, instructional designers make better choices when it comes to instructional strategies. For example, having an online course with only lecture videos does not take into consideration the theory of transactional distance, which states that perceived distance is decreased when there are more opportunities for students to interact.

This chapter will go through the philosophical foundations and psychological foundations that help to build the theoretical foundations of distance education. We will then discuss systems theory, communication theory, and media theory as our theoretical foundations. From there, we will cover the most common distance education theories as well as some related theories of teaching and learning that help to inform practice in the field of distance education.

Philosophical Foundations

Philosophyis the study of knowledge. Implicit to any theory is a number of assumptions or beliefs about the nature of knowledge. These different sets of assumptions are known as different philosophical orientations. In order to better understand the psychological foundations (discussed later in the chapter) that underlie distance education theory, it is helpful to have an understanding of the key philosophical approaches that inform the foundations. Below is a table of four philosophical approaches that help to inform distance education theory.

Table 2.1 – Philosophical Correspondence to the Psychological Foundations

Philosophical FoundationsPsychological Foundations
EmpiricismBehaviorism, Cognitivism
RationalismCognitivism, Cognitive constructivism
PragmatismBehaviorism, Cognitivism


The termempiricismhas two etymologies. One originates from the Greek word for “experience”, and another stems from a more specific classical Greek and Roman usage, which refers to a physician who got skills from practical experience rather than instruction. Empiricists think that all knowledge derives from sense experience, and it exists external to the human being. According to empiricists, experience based on the five senses and evidence based on objective observation are the only sources of knowledge. Most empiricists state that the human being’s mind is born in “tabula rasa” (or blank slate), a concept developed by the Persian philosopher Avicenna (Rizvi, 2006).

People acquire knowledge after birth from their senses and experiences. In order to build a more complex body of knowledge from direct observations, empiricists generate indirect empirical knowledge usinginductive reasoning, which makes generalizations based on individual instances. The method of observation and experiment used in the natural and social sciences is typically found under the tenets of empiricism.

Behaviorism and cognitivism (two psychological orientations that will be discussed later in this chapter) were established through empirical research. They project different explanations of the learning process, but are both rooted in the notion that truth objectively exists. For example, in distance education, empirical studies are regularly conducted to test the effectiveness of different instructional strategies in online learning environments.


The origin of rationalism traces back to the Eleatics and Pythagoreans of Ancient Greece. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the Neo-Platonists were early practitioners of rationalism (Homan, 2006). The definitive formulation of rationalism was shaped in the 17th century when philosophers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment introduced mathematical methods into philosophy.

Rationalists, like the empiricists, view knowledge as being external to the individual, and that the truth is universal and verifiable (Reigeluth, 2009). But in contrast to the empiricists, rationalism holds the idea that the mind acquires truth directly without the medium of the sensory experience. The generation of knowledge comes from intellectual anddeductive reasoning, rather than directly from scientific experiments. Rationalism went beyond empiricism by advancing the idea that not all propositions could be tested empirically.

The distinction between empiricism and rationalism is blurred when considering the role of the mind in meaning-making (Reigeluth, 2009). Modern rationalists and empiricists share the recognition of the crucial role of the active mind in meaning-making. They are suitable to be applied to “explain the development of knowledge and justify existing knowledge” (Reigeluth, 2009, p.39).

Cognitivism and cognitive constructivism, based on the hypothesis that human brain is not a “blank slate”, reflects the principle of rationalism that knowledge comes from innate knowledge.

An example of rationalism in distance education may be an instructor selecting an instructional strategy based on knowledge of learner needs. The instructor may not have the resources to conduct an experiment to select the best strategy, but can rely on observations and deductions to select a strategy based on experience and logical reasoning.


Pragmatism is a school of thought that focuses on action, practice, and the idea of the “practical”. According to William James (1907), pragmatism is based on empiricism, but the empiricism is of a radical kind. Pragmatists consider theories as instruments rather than “answers to enigmas, in which we can rest” (James, 1907, p. 26). As James (1907) explained,

Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work. Being nothing essentially new, it harmonizes with many ancient philosophic tendencies. It agrees with nominalism for instance, in always appealing to particulars; with utilitarianism in emphasizing practical aspects; with positivism in its disdain for verbal solutions, useless questions, and metaphysical abstractions. (p. 26)

In the perspective of pragmatism, theories should be judged by the consequences instead of the origins or relations to antecedent data and theories are instruments to cope with reality and solve problems. In addition, American pragmatists disdain intellectual tendencies. Pragmatism might lead into various schools of thought and ideas because it has no dogma or doctrines. James (1907) visualized pragmatism as a hotel corridor leading into various rooms:

Innumerable chambers open out of it. In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next someone on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties. In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being shown. But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms. (p. 27)

Distance education itself can be seen as following a pragmatic paradigm because distance education environments provide learners with the ability to learn from any location without needing to visit a brick-and-mortar institution. Learners often like the convenience offered by accessing learning at any time of the day instead of at a scheduled time.


Humanismconcerns the individual human’s needs, desires, and experiences. This approach involves the welfare, happiness, emotions and feelings of individuals. The Encyclopedia of Social Sciences’ gives a definition that:

Humanism as a technical term and as an intellectual or moral conception has always leaned heavily on its etymology. That which is characteristically human, not supernatural, that which belongs to man and not to external nature, that which raises man to his greatest height or gives him, as man, his greatest satisfaction, is apt to be called humanism.” Humanists rely on “the methods of reason, science and democracy for the solution of human problems” (Lamont, 1984, p. 147).

Humanism is especially vital to constructivism, as constructivism concerns the individual’s self-efficacy. In constructivism, there is an emphasis on human motivation and feelings. For example, needs analysis and contextual analysis focus on the human dimensions that impact learning. In distance education, individualized learning environments reflect the humanistic approach to focusing on the individual learner’s needs.

Psychological Foundations

The ultimate goal of distance education is to facilitate learning and improve learner performance. To understand different approaches of how learners learn is crucial for instructional designers to select and develop appropriate instructional strategies, materials, and technological tools. There are many schools of learning theories. No single theory can explain learning comprehensively and support learning on its own. Instructional designers usually combine them to direct their design. In this section, we will discuss behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and connectivism. These orientations have been adapted in the distance education context. What we need is to integrate different theories to guide the design of distance education.

Table 2.2 – Overview of Psychological Learning Theories

What learning is:Change in behavior and absorption of predefined knowledgeStoring information in an organized, meaningful manner, retrieving it when needed and transferring it into new situationsConstructing own knowledge in a real world situation (context) and using observed behaviors and the previous experiences as a guideline for new behaviorsRecognizing and interpreting patterns and connections in networks that can be not under control of learners
Some key conceptsClassical conditioning, operant conditioning, reinforcement, punishmentMemory (sensory, woking, long-term), chunking, schemaSituated learning, cognitive constructivism, social constructivismNetwork, personal learning environments


When John Watson (1913) publishedPsychology as the behaviorist views it, Behaviorism appeared as a movement in psychology. Based on Pavlov’s (1902) observation, John Watson proposed that through the process ofclassical conditioning, the patterns of stimulus and response can explain all aspects of human psychology. Classical conditional is a process that creates an association between a naturally existing stimulus (unconditioned stimulus) and a previously neutral stimulus (neutral stimulus). When the association is established, a new relationship is built between the conditioned stimulus and the conditioned response.

Skinner is regarded as the father of operant conditioning.Operant conditioningutilizesreinforcementandpunishment to establish the associations between behaviors and the consequences for these behaviors. For example, when the learner’s behavior meets the instructor’s expectation, the instructor offers positive feedback to reinforce the behavior. Otherwise, the instructor gives negative reinforcement to decrease the chance of the behavior to happen to the learner.

Behaviorism views learning as the change of observable behavior caused by external stimuli from the environment (Skinner, 1974). The key elements are the stimulus, the response, and the association between the stimulus and the response (Ertmer & Newby, 2013). Behaviorists focus on how to elicit, strengthen, and maintain the behavior. They mainly consider the environment conditions. They explore “learning and the learners to determine when the best time to begin the instruction is as well as determine which reinforcers are the most effective for a particular learner” (Ertmer & Newby, 2013, p.48). Therefore, the use of periodic practice or review serves to maintain a learner’s readiness to respond (Schunk, 1991).

Methods of instruction begin with stating learning objectives accompanied by the inclusion of rewards and negative reinforcement toward and away from the stated behavioral objectives (Anderson, 2008, p. 105). The instructors design an environment that can incite expected behaviors and extinguish undesired behaviors.

Implications of Behaviorism on Distance Education Practice

There has been much criticism about using behaviorism to explain learning. Some kinds of learning like incidental learning and exploratory learning are not explained well by behavioral theory. However, behavioral theory does provide implications for distance education:

  • Instructors should explicitly explain the expected learning outcomes to learners, so the learners can focus on the expectations of the instructor, and judge their learning progress.
  • Distance education should include observable assessments to evaluate the learning outcomes of the learners. Feedback from the assessments can direct instructors and learners towards further interventions.
  • Sequence learning materials can affect learning positively. Instructors can sequence the learning materials from easy to hard, familiar to strange, and knowledge to application (Anderson, 2008, p.21).
  • Needs assessments is designed to analyze the gap between actual learning performance and expected learning performance. In addition, needs assessment usually include observable behaviors in the instruction.
  • Practice is important when designing courses in distance education.


In the late 1950s, psychologists started to switch their exploration of learning from observable behavior to how people process information. Cognitivists explore complex cognitive processes like thinking, language, information processing, memory, motivation, metacognition, and so on. This shift also affected how instruction should be composed to promote learning. Instead of manipulating the stimulus materials and environment, the cognitive orientation emphasizes the promotion of mental processing. Learning is a change of the state of knowledge rather than a change of behavior.


Memoryacts as the major role in the learning process. Memory is “the ability of the mind to store and recall past sensations, thoughts, knowledge, etc” (Collins, 2010). “Learning results when information is stored in memory in an organized, meaningful manner” (Ertmer & Newby, 2013, p.47).Sensory memorystores information received from people’s five senses. When the learner pays attention to the information from the material, this process brings the material into the learner’sworking memory. In the working memory, the selected materials are organized, integrated with existing stored knowledge activated inlong-term memory. After integration, the learner understands the information, and stores it in long-term memory. Learning is accomplished in this way. Limited capacity is an important characteristic of working memory, so instructors should design information intochunksof appropriate size for learners to process. For example, when the learner watches an educational video in a distance education course, he/she receives visual and auditory information, and stores them in sensory memory. Then the learner stores the information in their working memory, and integrate it with prior information retrieved from long-term memory. The learner thus remembers the key parts of the video.


Because of the limited capacity of working memory, it is tough for learners to remember more than seven things at once (Miller, 1956). “When we have to remember information more than this limitation, we tend to learn them in groups that are manageable in short-term memory, and then to store each group as a single unit” (Winn, 1996, p.85). We can “unpack” (Anderson, 1983) each chunk to retrieve information from each chunk. For example, when people remember a series of numbers like 584930203, the strategy he/she would use is to chunk them into 584-930-203, as three groups of numbers. This mental process is chunking. As a distance education design example, the designer can organize the materials into meaningful units.


The two major aspects of cognitive theory are mental processes and mental representations. Mental process describes the processing of information.Schemasare an important concept of mental representation. A schema is an organized memory structure which is an abstract representation of direct perceptual experience. It constantly changes to adapt old features and includes new features of the concept when we learn new information. Schema also provides a context that would affect the interpretation of new experience and information. Winn (1996) generalized the main characteristics of schema as follows:

(1) It is an organized structure that exists in memory, and in aggregate with all other schemata, contains the sum of knowledge of the world (Paivio, 1974). (2) It exists at a higher level of generality, or abstraction, than our immediate experience with the world. (3) It is dynamic, amenable to change by general experience or through instruction. (4) It provides a context for interpreting new knowledge as well as a structure to hold it. (p.86)

Implications of Cognitivism on Distance Education Practice

The cognitive school of learning implies that:

  • Strategies like highlighting, offering rationales, choosing materials suitable for the learner’s cognitive level, and providing comments will allow the learner to attend to information and transfer it to working memory.
  • Strategies like relating to the learner’s prior knowledge and experience allow the learner to retrieve information from long-term memory and make sense of new information.
  • Packing information into chunks could prevent overloading working memory.
  • Different learning strategies should be included to accommodate the instruction to various learners.
  • Instructors can design different representations of materials for the processing channels (audio and visual) to facilitate the processing of information in working memory.
  • Instructors should attract the learner’s attention, develop their confidence and promote learning motivation.
  • The materials should relate the knowledge to real-life application, and encourage application of the knowledge.


Different from the behaviorist and cognitivist perception about learning, constructivists see learners as knowledge creators, rather than knowledge receivers. Instruction serves as support of learning, rather than conveying knowledge or authority of knowledge. Learners receive information from the environment, and interpret the information. Learners’ former experience and knowledge related to the information determines the interpretation. Therefore, even though instructors offer learners the same information, learners will interpret it differently because their prior knowledge and experience vary. In designing distance education, individual differences also include learners’ background culture, their former learning experience, their familiarity towards the materials, and so on.

The learning activity happens in a certain kind of context. Constructivists see learning as contextual. “Learning activities that allow learners to contextualize the information should be used” (Anderson, 2008, p.30) in distance education. Instructors can design the instructional materials for multi-contextual use if the knowledge is applied in different contexts.Situated learning is an approach that sees learning as contextual (Hung, Looi, & Koh, 2004).

Cognitive constructivism

Cognitive constructivismderives from Piaget’s theory that individuals make sense of the world in constructive learning activities. Learning occurs when learners tries to fulfill the gap between what learners could do and is expected to do. Thus, “the learning is in the individual’s constructions as he or she attempts to resolve the conflict, or, alternatively put, individuals literally construct themselves and their world by accommodating to experiences” (Cunningham, & Duffy , 1996. p. 6).

Social constructivism

In contrast to focusing on individual construction, socio-cultural constructivism emphasizes the social and cultural context of learning. “Learning occurs as people participate in shared endeavors with others, with all playing active but often asymmetrical roles in sociocultural activity” (Rogoff, 1994, p. 209).

We discussed a general view of constructivism; however, the term “constructivism” has been serving as an umbrella term for different views. Cobb (1994a, 1994b) categorized the diverse theories into two major trends as individual cognitive and sociocultural. Cunningham and Duffy (1996) adapted Cobb’s (1993) grouping as the chart below (p.6):

Table 2.3 – Contrasts Between the Individual Cognitive and the Sociocultural Constructivist Views

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Cognitive ConstructivistSociocultural Constructivist
The mind is located:in the headin the individual-in-social interaction
Learning is a process of:active cognitive reorganizationacculturation into an established community of practice
Goal is to account for:the social and cultural basis of personal experienceconstitution of social and cultural processes by actively interpreting individuals
Theoretical attention is on:individual psychological processsocial and cultural processes
Analysis of learning sees learning as:cognitive self-organization, implicitly assuming that the child is participating in cultural practicesacculturation, implicitly assuming an actively constructing child
Focus of analyses:building models of individual students’ conceptual reorganization and by analyses of their joint constitution of the local social situation of developmentindividual’s participation in culturally organized practices and face-to-face interactions
In looking at a classroom, we see:an evolving microculture that is jointly constituted by the teacher and studentsinstantiation of the culturally organized practices of schooling
In looking at a group, we stress:the heterogeneity and eschew analyses that single out pre-given social and cultural practicesthe homogeneity of members of established communities and to eschew analyses of qualitative differences

Implications of Constructivism on Distance Education Practice

Constructivism implies that:

  • Learning is an active process, so the instruction should put learners as the center of distance education, and instructors should facilitate learning rather than acting as the authority of knowledge.
  • Learners construct their own knowledge based on prior knowledge, experience and interaction with peers and instructors, rather than accepting information from instructors.
  • Distance education should offer chances for learners to individualize, personalize and contextualize the knowledge to adapt to different learners’ needs.
  • In distance education, instructors can take advantage of collaborative activities to facilitate learning. “Working with other learners gives the learners real-life experience of working in a group and allows them to use their metacognitive skills” (Anderson, 2008, p.31).
  • Knowledge should derive from related real-life problems and phenomena, so learning is meaningful to the learners.
  • “Learning should be interactive to promote higher-level learning and social presence, and to help develop personal meaning” (Anderson, 2008, p.31).


Behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism are the theories that are evolved when our lives and so the learning is not influenced by technology. However, technology has impacted our lives and ways of communication. It has also big impacts on how we learn (Siemens, 2005). In the digital age, do existing learning theories meet today’s learners’ needs? Are they sufficient to predict the needs of future learners? (Kop & Hill, 2008). With these questions, development of a new theory that comprises current developments is needed. According to Kerr (2007d), development a new theory is used to explain new developments which older theories are not able to clarify. Second, older theories which are not satisfactory for making explanations can be replaced by a new theory.

Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories (Siemens, 2005, p.5). Behaviorists, cognitivists and constructivists that think learning occurs inside the learner. However, connectivists believe that learning does not occur under the individual’s control. Rather, it is an outcome of “nebulous environment of shifting core elements” (Siemens, 2005, p. 5), a diversity of options, connecting with information sources, and the ability to decide the meaning and resources of the information.

Implications of Connectivism on Distance Education Practice

Anderson (2008) elaborated the guidelines from Siemens (2005), which also provide implications for distance education:

  • The instructor should encourage learners to explore and research current information from various resources.
  • The instructor should give instruction about how to recognize the reliability and importance of information from various resources.
  • Learners should be able to share knowledge with peers and instructors using different kinds of communication technology.
  • Learners should be able to choose reasonable technology for learning different learning purposes.
  • Learners should be able to adapt to the constant change of technology that is used in distance education.

Theoretical Foundations

The theories described in this section help to provide a foundational support for the theories and models that make up distance education.Systems theorydescribes how distance education functions as a system made up of interdependent parts.Communication theoryhelps to describe how communication works and can thus be applied in theories that explain communication in distance education.Media theoryhelps to explain the effective use of media via different modes of communication.

Systems theory

Systems theory and thinking has been serving as the underlying theoretical foundation for distance education and many other fields. The systems approach contributes to conceptualizing and proceduralizing distance education. Ryan (1975) defined that:

“A systems approach is an operational concept, referring to a scientific, systematic, and rational procedure for optimizing outcomes of an organization or structure, by implementing a set of related operations to study an existing system, solve problems, and develop new or modify existing systems.” (p. 121)

Components of a general system

As systems vary from each other, it is important to consider and be aware of the components of a system. Hall and Fagen (1975) proposed that “A system is a set of objects together with relationships between the objects and between their attributes” (p. 52). A system consists of a series of related subsystems. The function of a system is determined by the components and the relationships among the components, which can exist within a subsystem, between subsystems, or between the system and its environment. We must identify all the components correctly and also the relationships among the components, including how the components function together in the system as a whole. Components of a system encompass: persons, objects, processes, external constraints, and resources available (Richey et al., 2011). The relationships among these parts can also take several forms, including: a chronological sequence among processes, a flow of data or information between parts, or the raw materials (persons or objects) which enter or exit from a system (Richey et al., 2011).

Factors in a distance education system

Distance education systems vary in organizational structures from large global enterprises to local self-organized study groups and learning communities. As Briggs and Peat (1989) stated, “Every complex system is a changing part of a greater whole, a nesting of larger and larger wholes leading eventually to the most complex dynamical system of them of all, the system that ultimately encompasses whatever we mean by order and chaos—the universe itself ” (p. 148). For example, distance education involves a higher degree of technological implementation, different instructional strategies (as opposed to face-to-face education), a need for instructors to interact with learners outside of a classroom environment, and a need for learners to be able to interact with each other.

Many factors contribute to the distance education system in terms of the formation, adoption, and application, of distance education including:

  • The sophistication of technological infrastructure in a region impacts the availability and function of distance education.
  • The organizational structure of the institutions involved in delivering distance education impact how supportive the institutions are in providing distance education.
  • Media attributes are important for the production and presentation of instructional materials.
  • Learner traits and their interaction with media attributes contribute to the individual success of the learner.
  • The formation of distance education learning communities requires multiple modes of teaching and tutoring.
  • Individual differences in prior knowledge, information processing abilities, cognition, motor behavior, and affective states affect the performance of distance education learners.
  • Increasing variety of attributes in emerging digital media helps to make distance education more engaging.

These factors exist in a set of nested and hierarchical subsystems. Each subsystem also affects and is affected by all of the others no matter at what level (Moore & Anderson, 2003, p.8).

Communication theory

Communication is a complex process and its definition and theory have changed over the years. There are four perspectives on communication: the transmissional perspective, the behavioral perspective, the interactional perspective, and the transactional perspective (Littlejohn, 1989).

Table 2.4 – Overview of the Four Emphases of Communication Theory

Essential Idea
Transmission EmphasisInformation is passed from one place to another
Behavioral EmphasisLearners clarify how the message is conceived by giving feedback
Interactive EmphasisCommunication as a social process
Transaction EmphasisSharing and co-creating meaning among participants rather than an interpretation process

Transmission Emphasis

Transmission is the process of information being passed from one place to another (Richey et al., 2011). This orientation was based on the mathematical theory of communication model that was devised by Shannon and Weaver (1949), which the authors viewed as a digital process that could apply to human communication. In this model, learners will select a message, change the message into a signal, and then send the signals through a communication channel (Richey et al., 2011). The channel is the medium of the message transmission and the channel could be audio or visual. The transmission process is a linear process in which the interaction is that message senders and receivers change roles; when the message is received and understood by the receiver, the receiver can become a sender and transmit messages back to the original message source (Richey et al., 2011).

In distance education, for example, information in learning materials is passed from instructors to learners through different communication channels such as a learning management system, an online storage cloud, or simply through email. When learners finish the assignments after learning with the materials, they submit the assignments, sending back information about their learning to instructors. From a message receiver, learners become a message sender, in which the information is transmitted through the communication channel.

Behavioral Emphasis

The behavioral perspective is very close to the transmissional perspective in many respects. Behavioral orientation sees communication as a stimulus-response (S-R) situation, with the sender stimulating a response in the receiver (Heath & Bryant, 2000). Berlo (1960) devised the Sender-Message-Channel-Receiver Model (S-M-C-R), which is a reminiscent of the transmission model by Shannon and Weaver (1949). Differing from the transmission orientation, feedback is an essential part of the behavioral orientation. In the S-M-C-R model, the receiver clarifies how the message was conceived by giving feedback.

In distance education, instructors cannot observe students directly as in a face-to-face learning situation, which poses a challenge for instructors to know immediately how effective the instruction is. It is important for instructors to solicit feedback from learners to know whether the instruction is clear and effective. By giving feedback, learners enable instructors to understand how the instruction is conceived and what should be done to improve the instruction.

Interactive Emphasis

The interactive perspective sees communication as a social process and it is not simply the pass of information from one place to another. In this perspective, communication is neither linear nor does it have an S-R orientation. The model by Schramm (1954) is one of the first interactive models of communication. In Schramm’s model, it is implied that messages are interpreted by individuals based on their backgrounds and understandings of the situation (Richey et al., 2011). Communication involves multiple channels of communication rather than just a single channel. Messages are interpreted instead of being simply decoded.

In distance education, a variety of interaction modes are essential for effective learning and communication. In a face-to-face learning environment, instructors and learners can interact directly in the classroom, but in distance education, multiple channels of communication are necessary.

Transaction Emphasis

Differing from the social emphases of the interactional perspective, the transaction perspective emphasizes the sharing and co-creating meaning among participants rather than an interpretation process during the communication (Richey et al., 2011). Campos (2007) defined communication as “a biological mechanism that enables the subject to make sense of himself or herself and of the outside world” (p. 396). It suggests that communication is a creating process instead of delivering meaning.

In distance education, it is common that learners share information and interact with each other through discussion forums. Instead of simply interpreting what they have learned, they share ideas and exchange what they perceive.

Media theory

Reiser (2007) defined media as “the physical means via which instruction is presented to learners” (p. 18). Media implies devices which provide learning experiences which typically involve sound, static or moving visuals, concrete objects, or actual physical movement (Richey et al., 2011). However, the media per se is not the emphasis. It is the learning through interacting with media that we should focus on. Media theory addresses how media can facilitate learning.

In distance education, visuals have been used for instruction extensively in the forms of PowerPoint slides, videos, animations, etc. However, not all the visuals are effective for learning. It is necessary for instructors to understand the role of visuals and visuals’ influence on learning. Another important aspect is the selection of appropriate media for distance education. In the following section, we will discuss the role of visuals, visuals’ influence on learning, and media selection.

Role of visuals

Visuals as a great focus for media have gaineded much attention. Due to the technological development, the forms of visuals have evolved from drawings, diagrams, maps, photographs to film, video, icons, and computer-generated animations. Visuals can be described by what they look like and what their functions are. When considering the functions, we emphasize the role visuals play in learning.

Pictures remain a typical form of visuals since when static pictures had to be made by hand. Today, pictures can be created with various modern technologies. Knowlton (1966) suggested there are three types of pictures: realistic, analogical, and logical pictures. Realistic pictures refer to the real world; analogical pictures visually portray comparisons; logical pictures include maps and circuit schematics (Knowlton, 1966). Duchastel (1980) provided another scheme for instructional visuals in which he saw visuals “as having attentional, explicative, and/or retentional roles” (p. 286). These two interpretations on visuals imply that visuals facilitate the learning process by “motivating (i.e., gaining attention, being realistic), facilitating understanding of the content (i.e., analogical, logical, explicative), or aiding in recall of the content” (Richey et al., 2011, p. 136). Even though visuals have great potentials to positively influence on learning, Baker and Dwyer’s (2000) found that not all visuals are equally important in terms of instructional function. Visuals may arouse interest and increase motivation, but may also distract students from the primary task. As indicated by Clark and Mayer (2008), adding interesting graphics can be distracting and can hurt learning if the graphics are extraneous to learning.

Visuals’ influence on learning

Researchers have also studied the significance of integrating visuals and verbal presentations. Visual instructional presentations are superior than solely verbal presentations as explained by the dual coding theory developed by Paivio (1991, 2007). Dual coding theory suggests that there are two separate but interconnected channels: the verbal channel and the visual channel. A person learns better when both channels are used. Paivio’s theory has shed light on teaching practice in terms of not only using visuals or verbal information but integrating more complex multimedia presentations. Richard Mayer subsequently built on Paivio’s theory and provided empirical support. Mayer and Anderson (1992) found that instruction with animation and narration had positive impact on problem solving. However, there are some inconsistent research results in this regard. Some researchers have not found the superiority of animated instruction over instruction with only static visuals (Lin & Chen, 2007). This divergence may be due to how essential the visuals are demanded by the content and how much prior knowledge learners have. It is critical to integrate the goal, content, and technique for instruction.

Media Selection

Media selection is the process of matching media affordances to teaching and learning need. Media selection is especially important for distance education due to the dependence on media. It is critical to select the appropriate media for effective instruction and communication in distance education. A broad range of factors should be considered for optimal media selection. The factors include but are not limited to instructional content, learner characteristics, instructional strategies, teaching and learning environment, and management issues.

Instructional content is critical for media selection in terms of what content will be taught and what media has capability to meet with the need for delivering specific instructional content. Instructional content is typically specified in behavioral objective format and the objectives are also classified as to the type of learning task they represent (Richey et al., 2011). Gagné’s (1985) conception of the types of human capabilities is usually used to classify the learning tasks and these learning outcomes then serve as the basis for identifying the required instructional conditions (Richey et al., 2011).

To select appropriate media, we have to consider the nature of the learners, including who the learners are, learner age, attention span, motivation, and confidence to use technologies. Reiser and Gagné (1983) identified media that are suitable for both readers and nonreaders; Gagné (1985) stressed the importance of learner age in the media selection decision; Romiszowski (1981) considered the impact of learning styles, attention span, and motivation; Huddlestone and Pike (2008) indicated the importance of considering student confidence to use technologies (as cited by Richey et al., 2011).

Instructional strategy is another important factor to be considered for media selection. Reiser and Gagné (1983) developed a model with two media decision paths: one for individualized instruction and the other for grouped instruction. Strategy decision is also related to the function of the learning task. Instructional strategies are viewed in terms of their function: presentation, practice, or feedback (Richey et al., 2011). Function has been interpreted in terms of the medium’s capability (e.g., to show motion or provide sound) (Kemp, 1985). Another standard way of interpreting instructional strategy in the media selection process is by viewing the strategy as one of Gagné’s Events of Instruction. Nowadays, instructional designers also consider the interaction required when making strategy-related media decision.

The nature of the instructional environment is also an important factor to decide what media is preferred. We need to consider the learning context such as the number of learners, availability of resources, and types of interaction needed. Leshin, Pollack, and Reigeluth (1992), emphasized the learning context in terms of factors such as group size. The availability of resources should be considered, including whether the environment is well adapted to the use of a given medium, and whether the acceptable operation of the medium is possible (Romiszowski, 1981). With regards to online learning, the type of connectivity available in the learning environments should be considered (Huddleston & Pike, 2008).

Finally, media selection involves considering management issues of media use. Medium’s cost effectiveness is the most notable issue, as recognized Reiser and Gagné (1983), Dick, Carey, and Carey (2009). Gagné, Briggs, and Wager (1992) identified factors such as storage facilities, technical support, teacher training requirements, and general disruption that may be caused by use of the medium. Huddlestone and Pike (2008) addressed factors such as the effects of limited bandwidth and pressures to use existing classroom facilities.

Common Distance Education Theories

A theory has three purposes: to describe a phenomenon, to conceptually organize information, and/or to make predictions. The theories described in this section are specifically related to distance education. They seek to explain why and how distance education works and what contributes to success in a distance education learning environment. Some theories, like Peters’industrialized learning, are primarily descriptive in nature while others, such as Holmsberg’steaching-learning conversationstheory, are also prescriptive (i.e., they attempt to make predictions about what is effective in distance education).

Independence and autonomy theory (Moore & Wedemeyer)

Charles Wedemeyer, who is considered the father of American distance education, moved away from the concept of correspondence study and emphasized independent learning. Garrison (2000) observed that Wedemeyer’s focus on the pedagogical assumptions of independent study was a shift from the correspondence study dominated by organizational and administrative concerns to an emphasis on educational issues concerning learning at a distance. Wedemeyer recognized the independence of the learner and posited that such independence would be afforded by a variety of means and strategies, including anytime and anywhere learning, and learner control over the pacing of the learning process (Moore & Anderson, 2003, p.4). The essential elements of independent learning include greater student responsibility, widely available instruction, effective mix of media and methods, adaptation to individual differences, and a wide variety of start, stop and learn times (Wedemeyer, 1977, 1981).

The concept of learner autonomy is that “learners have different capacities for making decisions regarding their own learning” (Moore & Kearsley, 2012, p.213). Wedemeyer acknowledged the necessity for the learner to take more responsibility for learning, freeing the instructor of the “custodial” duties of teaching. Wedemeyer’s vision of independent study was consistent with learner autonomy, self-directed learning and self-regulation. Holmberg (1995) also emphasized the learner’s responsibility for learning, as he stated that “a basic general assumption is that real learning is primarily an individual activity and is attained only through an internalizing process” (p. 47).

Interaction and communication theory (Moore & Garrison)

John Dewey (1938) viewed educational experience as a “transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment” (p. 43). Dewey emphasized the importance of interaction with people and the environment. Interaction occurs when learners transform inert information and construct it into knowledge with personal application and value (Dewey, 1916).

Moore (1989) described three forms of interaction in distance education: interaction between students and teachers, interaction between students, and the interaction between students and content. Building on Moore’s (1989) three types of interaction, Garrison’s (1989) model proposes six types of interaction. In addition to learner-content, learner-instructor, and learner-learner interactions, Garrison added teacher-content, teacher-teacher, and content-content interactions. With the development of technology, Hillman, Willis, and Gunawardena (1994) added a fourth type of interaction, which they called learner-interface interaction, meaning the “process of manipulating tools to accomplish a task” (p. 34). Sutton (2000) postulated another form of interaction: “vicarious interaction.” Sutton (2000) defined vicarious interaction as what “takes place when a student actively processes both sides of a direct interaction between two other students or between another student and the instructor” (p. 4).

Table 2.5 – Major Forms of Interaction

Learner-Instructor InteractionLearners interact with the instructor.
Learner-Learner InteractionLearners interact with other learners.
Learner-Content InteractionLearners use content for learning.
Learner-Interface InteractionLearners manipulate tools to accomplish a task.
Vicarious InteractionA learner actively process both sides of direct interaction while others are interacting with each other.

Equivalency theory

Simonson, Schlosser and Hanson (1999) proposed theequivalency theory of distance education. In equivalency theory, Simonson (2000) proposes that there should be equivalent learning experiences for learners of distance education. Equivalency theory assumes that in traditional courses there are useful learning experiences and these learning experiences result in equivalent results. The initial goal of equivalency theory is to ensure that the effectiveness of distance education is equal to that of traditional education. Therefore, the effort is to extend the effectiveness of both distance and face-to-face education. Equivalency theory asserts that if learning experiences provided to distant learners are equal to those provided to face-to-face learners, learning outcomes will be equal for all learners (Simonson, Schlosser, & Hanson, 1999). Trying to create identical learning experiences for all learners without taking into account where and when they are learning is problematic. Instead of providing equivalent learning experiences and expecting equivalent learning outcomes from the learners, a more effective approach would be to aim for equitable outcomes and learning experiences for all learners. While designing an instruction for a distance learning environment, instructors should try to create equivalent learning experiences and so learners can achieve the objectives of that instruction (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright & Zvacek, 2008).

Simonson, Schlosser and Hanon (1999) states that there are some key elements of Equivalency Theory. These elements areequivalency,learning experiences,appropriate application,students, andoutcomes.

For distance education classes, the criteria for equivalency cannot be based on time. For traditional educational institutions, 750 minutes with an instructor means one academic credit hour and it is called as Carnegie unit. The Carnegie unit uses the time in a classroom to make comparisons between courses and degrees in different institutions. This is not an appropriate approach for distance education in which there is no real classroom. In face-to-face classes, time in the classroom is constant and achievement varies. On the other hand, in distance education, achievement is supposed to be constant while time is varied. Therefore, a new standard should be developed for distance education. Watkins and Schlosser (2000) proposes a model which is called Capabilities-Based Educational Equivalency (CBBE) units. To make comparisons between distance education courses, how much skills, attitudes, knowledge and abilities learners acquire after completing the course will be measured.

(Video) Theories in Distance Learning

Industrialized learning (Peters)

Peters (2007) envisions distance education as being the “most industrialized form of education”, a product of transformative processes brought about by the mechanisms of industrialization since the 19th century. This theory (which is descriptive in nature) seeks to explain how distance education came into existence and its relationship to the global changes brought on by industrialization. Just as the Industrial Revolution allowed for themass productionof goods, distance learning allows for the mass distribution of education. According to this theory, seven dimensions explain distance learning as an evolution of education: historical, organizational, economic, cultural, sociological, anthropological, and pedagogical. The following table gives a brief introduction to the hypotheses underlying these dimensions.

Table 2.6 – The Seven Dimensions of Industralized Learning

DimensionHypothesis Related to Distance Education
HistoricalOnline and distance education are part of long-term trends and are the most advanced form of education up to the present.
OrganizationalDistance education utilizes methods from industrial practice.
EconomicDistance education is related to business and commercialization due to the industrialized nature of distance education.
CulturalDistance education relies on a more progressive societal structure.
SociologicalIt is possible to use sociological characteristics to describe distance education.
AnthropologicalIndustrialization has changed the relationship of human beings to themselves, resulting in changing needs.
PedagogicalDue to the impact of industrialization, distance education has unique elements of teaching and learning that make it distinct from traditional education.

Under this framework, other concepts from industrialization are also applied to distance education. It can be said that distance education employs aneconomy of scale. Economies of scale result in less expensive products when mass produced and distributed. In distance education, the content can be created centrally and then distributed to dozens, hundreds, or thousands of learners easily. A real-world example of this is the online introductory computer science course CS50 offered by Harvard University (accessible at Thousands of learners from around the world have access to pre-recorded lectures, assignments, and resources for free. These learners can interact with each other via discussion forums and meetups. For a small fee, they can also access the expertise of the teaching staff of the course. This type of course is possible because of the economy of scale; there is little to no extra cost in allowing additional learners access to the course.

Another important idea from industrialization is that ofdivision of labor. When creating a product, the tasks involved are split between specialists (e.g. an engineer designs the product, a worker builds it, and a marketer advertises the product). In face-to-face settings, the instructor may create the learning materials and then present it to the learners. Distance education allows for the roles involved in the creation, distribution, and assessment of education to be split up amongst specialists. For example, an instructional designer may design the course, an instructor may then facilitate the course, and an evaluation specialist may assess the effectiveness of the course.

On a final note, it is important to emphasize that this theory is descriptive in nature and independent of value judgements. This theory explains a process and not a goal. Peters states that he is not “a supporter of industrialization or a promoter of industrialized education” and that he believes “industrialization will disrupt and finally destroy … our traditional forms of education” (p. 66). Yet, there are benefits to the mass distribution of education and ease of use found in distance education.

Teaching-learning conversations (Holmberg)

Holmberg focuses on the application of distance education as teaching-learning conversations (Holmberg, 2007). His approach focuses on empathy and the feelings between the student and the supporting organization, as evidenced by four hypotheses. The first three of these hypotheses are (1) the stronger the teaching-learning conversation, the stronger the learners’ feelings towards the supporting organization, (2) the stronger the learners’ feelings towards the supporting organization, the greater their personal involvement, (3) the stronger the learners’ feelings of personal relations and of being personally involved in the learning matter, the stronger the motivation and hence the more effective the learning. The fourth hypothesis breaks this chain by stating that learners who are more independent and scholarly do not benefit as much from the teaching-learning conversations.

In essence, Holmberg prescribes content and interactions to be empathetic and relatable for the same reasons that these sort of interactions benefit face-to-face education. Personal and didactic materials help to stimulate learner thinking and make the learner feel part of the learning process.

Community of inquiry (Garrison and Archer)

Garrison and Archer’s approach to distance education is that of acommunity of inquiry(Garrison & Archer, 2007). There are three overlapping elements in the community of inquiry:social presence,cognitive presence, andteaching presence (see Figure 2.1 below). The social presence is the ability of the learners to project their “personal characteristics” and interact as real people. The cognitive presence is defined as “the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse” (Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, & Archer, 2001). The teaching presence is the construction, design, and facilitation of the cognitive and social processes that lead to the learning outcomes.

Theoretical Frameworks – Distance Education Theory and Practice (1)

Figure 2.1 – Community of Inquiry Framework
(from Handbook of Distance Education 2nd Edition edited by Michael Graham Moore)

As an example of the importance of attending to the online presence of learners and instructors, Meyer (2003) conducted a study that compared face-to-face discussions versus threaded discussions. There were differences in the social presence: face-to-face discussions were described as being more off the cuff while online discussions were described as being more thought-out and reasoned. However, learners in the study complained that threaded discussions took more time to read and understand. Additionally, Meyer found that there was a lack of teaching presence; questions were being raised and then only resolved 7% of the time.

Transactional distance (Moore)

Moore’s theory establishes a relationship betweendialog,structure, andlearner autonomyin education (Moore, 2007). These variables contribute to how psychologically distant the learner is from the learning materials, otherwise known astransactional distance. Dialog refers to an “interpersonal interaction that … happens after a course is designed … when teachers exchange words and other symbols with learners, aimed at the latter’s creation of knowledge” (p. 92). Structure refers to the elements that make up lessons, which can leave a variable amount of room for learners to deviate from the material. Learner autonomy is defined as the ability of learners “to develop a personal learning plan, to find resources for study in their work or community environments, and to evaluate for themselves when progress was satisfactory” (p. 93).

Theoretical Frameworks – Distance Education Theory and Practice (2)

Figure 2.2 – Relationship Between Structure, Dialog, and Transactional Distance
(from Handbook of Distance Education 2nd Edition edited by Michael Graham Moore)

In transactional distance theory, as dialog increases, there a decrease in transactional distance. However, as structure increases, there is a corresponding increase in transactional distance. Essentially, the less structure there is, the more opportunities there are for dialog, and the psychological feeling of distance decreases. For example, in a recorded lecture, there is high structure and minimal dialogue, thus resulting in a large transactional distance. Because the learner cannot interact directly with the instructor or influence the course of the instruction, there is no ability for a learner to deviate from the program according to his or her personal needs.

Relationship Between Autonomy and Transactional Distance

Moore describes that in courses with low transactional distance “learners receive information, directions, and guidance with their instructors and through instructional materials that allow modifications to suit their individual needs, learning style, and pace” (p. 95). This is useful to learners who desire low autonomy (in other words, they desire more support and structure).

However, learners who are more autonomous are fine with less dialog and support. Moore states that with low dialogue or structure, “students are forced to find their own information and make decisions for themselves about what to study, when, where, how, and to what extent” (p. 95).

Knowing to what extent the learners wish to be autonomous can help in planning a distance education course with the right amount of transactional distance via dialog and structure.

Keegan’s Theoretical framework of distance education

Keegan uses three historical theories which are theory of independence and autonomy, theory of industrialization and theory of interaction and communication to provide a framework for distance education. According to Keegan (1986), “distance education is a distinct field of education, parallel to and a complement of conventional education” (p. 178). In the theoretical framework Keegan (1986) proposed, he answers three questions that should be answered by any theoretician. He states the characteristics of distance education and differences between face-to-face and distance education setting. He also indicates what distance education can make changes to oral, group-based education. Finally, he provides three hypotheses that should be articulated in distance education studies. You can find the details of Keegan’s theoretical framework of distance education in below table:

Table 2.7 – Desmond Keegan’s Theoretical Framework of Distance Education

Main characteristics of distance education
  • Quasi-permanent separation of a teacher and a learner throughout the length of teaching process
  • Quasi-permanent separation of a learner from a learning group throughout the length of the learning process
  • Participation in a bureaucratized form of educational provision
  • Utilization of mechanical or electronic means of communication to carry the content of the course
  • Provision of means for two-way communication so that learner can benefit from or initiate dialogue. (Keagan, 1986, p.105).
The institutions that have these characteristics are called distance education institutions.
Questions need to be addressed by a theory of distance education
  • Is distance education an educational activity?
  • Is distance education a form of conventional education?
  • Is distance education possible? Is it a contradiction in terms? (Keagan, 1986, p.105).
  • It is just more industrialized form of education.
  • It is distinct from conventional education because it lacks interpersonal communication and privatization of institutionalized learning.
  • It is contradiction in terms because of no intersubjectivity of learners and instructors. On the other hand, distance instruction is possible (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright & Zvacek, 2008).
Two acts which helps success in distance education when they are reintegrated
  • Learning materials, both print and non-print, are designed to achieve as many of the characteristics of interpersonal communication as possible.
  • When courses are presented, reintegration of the teaching act is attempted by a variety.
  • Easily read, anticipate students’ problems, include self-testing questions, instructional objectives, inserted questions, model answers and typographical considerations like designs, diagrams and drawings.
  • Correspondence, telephone tutorials, on-line computer communications, comments on assignments by tutors or computers, teleconferences, videoconferences and computer conferences
The differences from interpersonal communication that should be compensated
  • No heard language
  • Absence of non-language communication
  • Absence of feedback processes student-to-teacher
  • Absence of feedback processes teacher-to-student
  • Delayed reinforcement
  • Absence of student-to-student communication
  • Change in role of non-cognitive learning processes (peer contact, anxiety, peer support, and criticism)
What distance education lacks: providing information, expressing feelings, stimulating others, making social contact, controlling others and some functions related to contact seeking and role playing.
Five changes to oral, group-based education
  • The industrialization of teaching
  • The privatization of institutional learning
  • Change of administrative structure
  • Different plant and buildings
  • Change of costing structures (Keagan, 1986, p.114)
  • Industrialized processes like the design of mechanical and electronic means of communication, the physical production of printed, audio, video and computer-based materials.
  • There is no group of learners. They study individually and teaching is focused on individual student.
  • Distance education institutions have two different operating sub-systems: course development and student support services.
  • Student facilities like seminar rooms and library are reduced or spread throughout the territory.
  • Although initial start-up costs are high in distance education, it has lower average costs per student and variable costs per students.
Three hypotheses articulated by this framework
  • Distance students have a tendency to drop out of those institutions in which structures for the reintegration of the teaching acts are not satisfactorily achieved.
  • Distance students have difficulty achieving quality of learning in those institutions in which structures for the reintegration of the teaching acts are not satisfactorily achieved.
  • The status of learning at a distance may be questioned in those institutions in which the reintegration of the teaching acts is not satisfactorily achieved. (Keagan, 1986, p.113).
  • The main reason for tendency to drop out is the weak integration of the student into the life of institution which is caused by the separation of the teaching and learning acts.
  • Weak achievement of interpersonal communication is linked to the low quality of the learning in distance education.
  • Distance education can be placed among non-traditional forms of education in which degrees, diplomas, and qualifications achieved may not be accepted as full academic.

Related Theories of Teaching and Learning

The theories described in this section (self-regulatory learning, situated learning, and collaborative learning) are general teaching and learning theories not specifically related to distance education. While not distance education theories per se, we have included these theories in this chapter as they are helpful tools in designing and implementing effective distance education learning environments.

Self-regulatory learning

The base of the economy has been transformed from industry to information due to improvements in technology. To have better jobs and more prestige in society, it is better to have knowledge and skills. Therefore, pedagogy is needed to find the ways to help learners to be capable and motivated to regulate their learning (Zimmerman, 1990). For successfulself-regulation, learners should control their own learning motivationally, behaviorally and metacognitively (Zimmerman, 1986). Self-regulation is based upon Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, Piaget’s Self-regulation Theory and Theory of Internalization of Vygotsky (Hsu, 1997). According to Bandura’s theory (1977), people do not only make reactions to external factors in learning environment, they also make choices, selections and transformations of what they faced in the environment. According to Piaget, there are three types of self-regulation which are autonomous, active and conscious. Vygotsky believes that self-regulation is a result of development of cognitive control (Hsu, 1997). Self-regulation is critical especially in distance education because of the absence of the very active role of the instructor and the requirement for high-autonomy (Hsu, Ching, Mathews & Carr-Chellman, 2009). Learners in distance education should be responsible for their own learning by arranging the time, pace and strategies (Puzziferro, 2008). Self-regulation can be seen as individuals’ decisions about their own motivation, process of thinking, affective conditions and behaviors (Bandura, 1994). It can be a mechanism that can be used to explain why people have different levels of achievement and how they can improve their own learning. Self-regulation is a cyclical process which includes behaviors such as checking if there are announcements from the instructor, environment which includes both the place people work in and the online platform where the courses exist and personal factors such as beliefs of being successful while taking online courses (Hsu, Ching, Mathews & Carr-Chellman, 2009). Self-regulated learners are active people in terms of their own metacognition, emotion and behaviors (Hsu, 1997). As we talk about self-regulatory learning in distance education settings, we should talk about goal setting, self-monitoring, self-evaluation, use of task strategies, help seeking and time planning and management (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2004).

  • Goal setting: Zimmerman (2002) indicates that goal setting means that students make decisions about some outcomes for their learning and determine which strategies are effective to achieve these outcomes. To set goal, people use their self-beliefs and also self-efficacy which is closely related to performance (Hsu, 1997). Self-regulated learners are good at assigning challenging but manageable and realistic goals for themselves. These goals can be both process and product goals. Self-regulation skills are more important especially for process goals (King, 2001). In distance education settings, people make their decisions about what they want to achieve.
  • Self-monitoring: This refers to giving attention to behaviors which may affect efforts for a learning task. People observe their own performance, make comparisons according to a standard and finally take action according to the difference between performance and the standard (Dabbagh & Kistantas, 2004, 2005). This leads to self-evaluation. Dabbagh and Kistantas (2004) states that in distance education settings, learners can use discussion forums to make reflections about what they have learned.
  • Self-evaluation: Learners make evaluations of their effort and performance, while they try to achieve the goals they set. They judge themselves and make strategic planning for their learning. In distance education settings, people make self-evaluations according to rubrics in the course website and feedback from peers and instructors (Dabbagh & Kistantas, 2004).
  • Use oftask strategies: Self-regulated learners choose the best learning strategies to achieve the goals they have set. These strategies can be information processing and rehearsal strategies. For distance education settings, people may use visuals, audios and some graphics to learn more deeply (Dabbagh & Kistantas, 2004).
  • Help seeking: This is one of the most critical activities of self-regulated learners. They try to find some help from their peers and instructors. In distance education settings, learners may seek help via sending emails and using discussion forums to ask questions (Dabbagh & Kistantas, 2004).
  • Time Planning and Management: This refers to scheduling and making study plans (Hsu, 1997). In online courses, learners need to manage their time according to the agenda of the course. Instructors may help distance education learners by making the timeline of the courses available at the beginning (Dabbagh & Kistantas, 2004) so learners can make schedules for their study.

Situated learning

Situated learningis strongly related to learning in contexts. In situated learning theory, learning is positioned in a real-world context. It may also be seen as learning in any setting (Lave, 1991). According to Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989), people can learn meaningfully only if they apply the knowledge they have learned in a social and physical context. The concept ofcognitive apprenticeshipwhich is proposed by Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) is one of the important components of situated learning. According to this concept, people learn best through activity and social interaction. By observing others in a community, people become experts.

After forming a theoretical basis, situated learning has started to be used in instruction. Especially with the improvement of computer-based applications, situated learning has started to be applied in classroom environments more easily (Herrington & Olliver, 1995). The main characteristics of situated learning in instruction (formed from Herrington & Olliver, 1995 and Conole, Dyke, Oliver & Seale, 2004):

  • Availability ofauthenticactivities: in distance education learning environments, learners can be given activities in which learners can find and solve the problem. Instructors can give a task which learners can integrate it across different subject areas, fields and contexts.
  • Social interactions as an important way of learning: Learners can interact with educational materials in their own environment at their own pace.). In addition to this, through many forms ofasynchronouscommunication andsynchronouscommunication, learners have chances to interact and communicate with their peers and instructors. This helps learners in a distance education setting to observe community of practice (Conole, Dyke, Oliver & Seale, 2004).
  • Reflecting to abstractions: In a distance education setting, people can share their reflections on discussion forums while they are completing the tasks given.
  • Articulation of knowledge by learners: learners can use bulletin boards and discussion forums to present and advocate the arguments they developed (Herrington, Herrington & Sparrow, 2000). Students can also be given the opportunity of presenting their products virtually in distance education settings.
  • Coaching andscaffolding: In distance education settings, learners can get support from the instructors via emails, discussion forums more quickly. When people seek help in a discussion forum, peers can also help the learner who needs scaffolding.
  • Interpersonal relations likemodeling: In distance education settings, learners can use the Internet to access learning materials and reach out to experts in the field. This provides opportunities for learners to construct their own knowledge and access scaffolding and modeling anytime (Anderson, 2008). Instructors could encourage the learners to subscribe list-serves to access the experts and the others with different levels of expertise.
  • Collaboration to construct knowledge: Working together can be easy via communication technologies especially when learners work asynchronously (Herrington, Herrington & Sparrow, 2000).

Collaborative learning

Incollaborative learning, there are two or more people working together to make a solution to a problem (Swan, Shen & Hiltz, 2006). Collaborative activities in any learning setting foster many positive results. People who attend collaborative activities in any learning setting can be active learners and prepared for their future works. Additionally, they can feel connected to the group they are working with and the group members who have a common goal can influence each other (Clark, 2001; Haythornthwaite, 2006; Swan, Shen & Hiltz, 2006). There are some behaviors which support collaboration (Curtis & Lawson, 2001). These are:

  • Share of knowledge
  • Feedback
  • Exchange of resources
  • Help and assistance
  • Checking how much others contribute to group work

Collaborative learning can be more effective online than face to face and it also promotes learning in online settings (Clark, 2001; Swan, Shen & Hiltz, 2006). Both asynchronous and synchronous online discussions which give opportunity to every member of a group to talk equally support collaborative learning (Beldarrain, 2006; Swan, Shen & Hiltz, 2006). Beldarrain (2006) states that thanks to technology, collaborative learning in online settings are promoted. Learners have more flexibilities to participate in collaborative activities. There are many tools and delivery methods we can use to promote collaborative learning in distance education. There are a variety of technology tools including video-conferencing, chats, voice, and live presentation tools, which are essential for distance education. These tools will be discussed specifically in Chapter Four. Other communication tools include blogs, wikis and email between group members. These are essential for collaboration in distance education (Beldarrain, 2006). In addition, debates and structured controversies can be effective instructional strategies for promoting collaboration online in distance education settings (Clark, 2001).

Chapter Summary

In this chapter, we discussed four philosophical approaches to the nature of knowledge: empiricism, rationalism, pragmatism, and humanism. These philosophical approaches have influenced various psychological approaches. We discussed behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and connectivism and how these psychological approaches influence distance education. From there, we discussed three theories that contribute to an underlying understanding of how distance education works: systems theory, communication theory, and media theory. We then provided an overview of eight common distance education theories. Finally, we ended the chapter with three related theories of teaching and learning (self-regulatory learning, situated learning, and collaborative learning) that influence teaching strategies utilized in distance education.

The next chapter will discuss research in distance education, specifically how research has been conducted in practice. You will learn about common arguments on distance education effectiveness, shortcomings encountered in research, gaps in the research, and quality of distance education research.

Theoretical Frameworks Practice Assessment

The end-of-chapter practice assessment retrieves 10-items from a database and scores the quiz with response correctness provided to the learner. You should score above 80% on the quiz or consider re-reading some of the materials from this chapter. This quiz is not time-limited; however, it will record your time to complete. The scores are stored on the website and a learner can optionally submit their scores to the leaderboard. You can take the quiz as many times as you want.


  • Are the concepts of industrialization (mass production, economy of scale, and division of labor) as applied to distance education a good thing? Why or why not?
  • Which of the psychological approaches do you subscribe to? Is your chosen approach applicable to all learning situations? How does your approach influence teaching strategies in distance education?
  • Describe distance education as a system utilizing systems theory and list the factors that make up the distance education system.
  • Which of the common distance education theories best describes how distance education works?
  • Think about your personal experience with distance education. How does your personal experience correspond to self-regulatory learning, situated learning, and collaborative learning?

Assignment Exercises

1. Create a lesson plan for a distance education course that utilizes one or more of the theories found in this chapter. Explain your design decisions using the terminology of your chosen theories.

2. Analyze a distance education course you are currently taking or have taken in the past. Is it consistent with the theories found in this chapter?

3. Interview an instructor of a distance education course. Which of the four psychological approaches do they follow and how do they use the principles of that approach in designing the course?

4. Create a graphic organizer that describes the relationships between the various components of a distance education system.


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(Video) Validity theories, frameworks and practices in using tests and measures Milan, 2023

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(n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2016, from http – //


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