Models of Distance Education

By Jason D. Baker
January 1999

Although many people have a monolithic view of distance learning, there are numerous models of distance learning which have their own particular strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, some approaches may be better suited to your learning style and life circumstances. Therefore in this chapter will examine the major models used in distance education programs. Specifically, we?ll look at class size, instructional delivery, and interaction.

Class Size

At one time the only type of distance education was independent study. The Moody Bible Institute, for example, has been offering independent study course for almost 100 years. However, because of the educational advantages to personal interaction, many of the distance learning programs have adopted a tutorial or group approach.

Independent studies are fairly self-explanatory. You, the student, work through a course independent of other students or the instructor. Typically you receive a packet of information at the beginning of a course, including lectures, books, and assignments, and you then work through the material at your own pace. Once you have completed all of the assignments, and possibly a proctored final exam, you submit your materials and receive a grade for the course. The advantage of this approach is that you can usually work at your own pace (within general limits such as six months to a year per course) and study whenever is convenient. The two primary disadvantages are that you lose the feedback of fellow classmates and you also lack regular interaction with the instructor.

The tutorial model attempts to address the second disadvantage of independent studies by facilitating interaction between the instructor and the student. Like an independent study, you can often work through the tutorial at your own pace and in your own time, however you have regular interaction with the instructor. This may occur through weekly or monthly telephone conversations in which you discuss your learning activities. Other programs facilitate such interaction by requiring you to submit each assignment as you complete it, giving time for the instructor to grade and return it prior to continuing. The advantage of tutorials is that you aren?t completely alone, you have your instructor to guide and mentor you. The disadvantage, particularly if you have to sequentially submit each assignment, is that you may not be able to progress as quickly as with an independent study.

The group approach simulates a traditional classroom experience, except all of the students are at a distance. Using various communication technologies, which will be discussed further in the interaction section of this chapter, students interact with each other as well as the instructor throughout the duration of the class. This can not only improve the learning experience but it greatly decreases the feeling of isolation so often associated with distance learning. Sometimes a cohort is formed ? the same group of students works through a series of courses together in pursuit of a degree ? which makes it possible for distance students to develop real relationships over time. The drawback to group courses is that they hamstring the student who wants to move through a program at a different rate, either faster or slower, than the academic calendar permits.

Class Size




Independent Study

Work through the course alone

Can learn at your own pace

Can feel isolated


Work one-on-one with an instructor

Can learn at your own pace while still benefiting from interaction

Not as time-flexible as independent study


Many students work through the course together

Can learn from other students throughout the course

Forced into a traditional academic calendar

Instructional Delivery

Obviously there has to be a way to deliver the actual instruction, the lectures if you will, in order to help students to learn. The five major instructional delivery modes are texts, audiocassette, videocassette or television, videoconference, and online. Let?s briefly look at each of these methods.

Most distance education courses, like most traditional ones, incorporate a lot of reading. Textbooks, novels, magazines, articles, and individual handouts are commonplace in academe. While traditional classes often contain lectures in addition to the books, some distance education courses deliver all of the instruction using texts. Typically you receive a book list at the beginning of the class and then the syllabus or study guide leads you through the required readings. Since reading has historically been part of education, textual lectures are not that far removed from traditional learning. However, if you are a slow reader or don?t learn well through books, you should avoid this method.

Audiocassette lectures have a number of advantages over other delivery methods. First, cassette tapes are inexpensive which benefits both the institution and the student. Second, they?re very portable which enables distance students to listen at home, in the car, while jogging, or wherever they have access to a cassette player. Third, audio lectures permit instructors to supplement the reading with personal comments, suggestions, and other information normally shared in the classroom. Sometimes instructors simply tape their regular lectures while others create special talks just for the distance students. Audio learners will find this approach more beneficial than the aforementioned text-only method, but visual learners do better with videocassettes.

Videotaped or televised lectures add the sense to sight to the learning experience. As with audiocassettes, sometimes video lectures are created specially for the distance program while other times institutions stick a video camera into a classroom and record a regular lecture. Video lectures enable the instructor to use more charts, graphs, television clips, and other visual information precluded by audio lectures. They also can feel a bit more personal to the student since they get to see the instructor as they teach. Furthermore, like audio teaching, a video lecture can be stopped, rewound, and watched again until the student grasps the content. However, video production is more costly than audio and therefore increases the materials cost to the student.

Videoconferencing, or full-motion teleconferencing, is when the instructor and students are located in specially-equipped rooms with cameras, microphones, and television screens which permit two-way conference calls. Everyone then participates in a traditional class experience whose only distinctive is that the students are physically in remote rooms. However, the students watch the instructor live, can ask questions, mingle with fellow classmates, and often the instructor can view the various remote sites as well. This distance model offers the closest reconstruction of a traditional classroom but is also the most costly and inconvenient. The lead institution, and the various students, must have access to a compatible videoconferencing facility in order to make this work. Therefore, this is most commonly done between sites in a corporate training program or multi-campus university system.

Online distance learning is the most recent trend and one that is growing rapidly. Online classes really shine in the interactivity arena but in the instructional delivery category they generally adopt one of the four previous models. Some programs place lecture material is placed on the World Wide Web for reading and printing, others deliver it using streaming audio or video technology, which a few even dabble with computer conferencing as a way to replicate the videoconferencing model. Sometimes the course material is developed as an interactive multimedia presentation which is available online. The limitation to the online approach for every model other than text is the connection speed of the students ? those with slow modems cannot handle large multimedia files or streaming audio and video. As connection speeds increase, and the second-generation Internet is developed, these limitations will be eliminated. The advantage of online instructional delivery is that it can offer the benefits of the other methods without the delay time associated with tape duplication ? new materials can be distributed almost instantly to all of the students. Of course, one must be at their computer in order to access the course content.

Instructional Delivery





Book learning


Audio and visual learners at a disadvantage


Audio lectures on tape

More content than with text model; portable

Lacks visual component

Videocassette or Television

Video lectures on tape

Even more content, more personal

More expensive, longer lead-time needed to produce


Live video delivery

Just like a traditional classroom lecture

Very expensive, must have access to a compatible facility


Computer-based mixture of other models

Instant delivery and the ability to mix any of the other models

Limited by connection speed


Interaction, with the instructor and with fellow students, is an important part of one?s learning experience. There are four basic approaches to such interaction: none, audio or video conferencing, synchronous online chat, and asynchronous online discussion. As you can guess, the class size and instructional delivery methods chosen often dictate which interaction model is selected.

No interaction, either with the instructor or student, is the hallmark of most independent study programs. Obviously one must be a good independent learner to benefit from this approach. Audio or video conferencing, which permits live interaction between the instructor and students, is the model used with classroom videoconferences. However, some programs use a telephone conference call to facilitate this interaction which offers the benefits of live discussion without the high costs assocated with full-motion videoconferences.

Online interaction falls into two categories: synchronous, meaning at the same time, and asynchronous. Synchronous interaction is the online equivalent of a conference call, except you use a chat room. Everyone in the class gets online at the same time and then logs on to a chat room for discussion. Instead of speaking to one another with voices, you type all of your interaction.

This, of course, works best if you are a fast typist. The benefit of such online chats is that there are no long distance fees or other high-costs associated with them. However, because of slow typing speeds, you aren?t able to accomplish as much as with corresponding audio/video conversations.

Asynchronous discussions don?t require that everyone is online at the same time. Rather, you post your message at a time convenient to you and then others read it when they are online and post their response. Sometimes this takes place using electronic mail, where each student e-mails everyone their message, while others use electronic message boards. A message board is the electronic equivalent of a bulletin board where each participant posts their message for others to read. Over time, students can read each of the postings and compose their responses.

Besides the time benefits, the asynchronous approach provides an archive of all discussions throughout the course. Therefore you can reference, or resume, any conversation which happens ? this adds a new twist to the learning experience. Another benefit is that such discussion enables certain students to participate who would normally be excluded from live discussions, either because they are quiet or they don?t think as fast. However, asynchronous discussions lack the spontaneity associated with live interaction.






No interaction

Benefits independent learners

Missing the insights of fellow students

Conference Call

Live audio or video discussion

Lively group discussions

Can be costly

Synchronous Online Chat

Computer chat room

Low cost, real-time interaction

Slower than verbal chats

Asynchronous Online Discussion

E-mail or message boards

Everyone doesn?t have to be connected simultaneously, archive of discussions

Less spontaneous than live chats


There is no one best model. The asynchronous online models of instructional delivery and interaction have the most momentum right now and will probably become the de facto standard in the coming years. Remember that you many not always be able to choose exactly which models you want. Therefore, you need to examine which models work best for your circumstances and learning styles and then select a program which offers the closest fit to your ideal.

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