skip to page content
 For Adult EducatorsOther Learning Web SitesAbout CDLPHelp With This Site
Adult Learning Activities | California Distance Learning ProgramCDLP

What is Distance Learning?


The Tutorial

This online document presents an overview of distance learning as it applies to adult basic education. It is designed for administrators, teachers, and resource persons seeking general or specific information on the history, state of the art, and practical resources. The California Distance Learning Project (CDLP) welcomes your comments and suggestions. Please send them to Dennis Porter.

Introduction to Distance Learning

Distance learning traditionally has provided access to instructional programs for students who are separated by time and/or physical location from an instructor. Distance learning has been thought of as prepackaged text, audio, and/or video courses taken by an isolated learner with limited interaction with an instructor or other students. This perspective is changing. Today information technologies and the Internet can allow rich interactive distance learning experiences that may surpass the interactivity of a traditional classroom.

Distance learning can be provided in several contexts including stand alone distance learning, blended learning where the student participates in a regular class and distance learning class concurrently, and hybrid learning where distance learning supplements classroom instruction.


Learning is defined as "the act, process, or experience of gaining knowledge or skill." Learning is the preferred term rather than education that is generally defined as the knowledge or skill obtained or developed by the learning process. However educators often use the terms interchangeably.

Distance learning is conventionally defined as... "any educational or learning process or system in which the teacher and instructor are separated geographically or in time from his or her students; or in which students are separated from other students or educational resources. Contemporary distance learning is effected through the implementation of computer and electronics technology to connect teacher and student in either real or delayed time or on an as-needed basis. Content delivery may be achieved through a variety of technologies, including satellites, computers, cable television, interactive video, electronic transmissions via telephone lines, and others. Distance learning does not preclude traditional learning processes; frequently it is used in conjunction with in-person classroom or professional training procedures and practices. It is also called distributed learning."

The California Distance Learning Project (CDLP) uses the following definition:

"Distance Learning (DL) is an instructional delivery system that connects learners with educational resources. DL provides educational access to learners not enrolled in educational institutions and can augment the learning opportunities of current students. The implementation of DL is a process that uses available resources and will evolve to incorporate emerging technologies."

This definition was developed in 1997 by a workgroup of adult educators.

Defining Elements

Several key features define distance learning. The importance of the teacher — learner communications cannot be overstated.

These definitions apply equally to high tech and low tech approaches to distance learning. Having the appropriate, enthusiastic, and qualified staff is a make or break requirement.

Two Types of Distance Learning

There are two distance education delivery system categories - synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous instruction requires the simultaneous participation of all students and instructors. The advantage of synchronous instruction is that interaction is done in "real time" and has an immediacy. Examples include interactive telecourses, teleconferencing and web conferencing, and Internet chats.

Asynchronous instruction does not require the simultaneous participation of all students and instructors. Students do not need to be gathered together in the same location at the same time. Rather, students may choose their own instructional time frame and interact with the learning materials and instructor according to their schedules. Asynchronous instruction is more flexible than synchronous instruction but experience shows that time limits are necessary to main focus and participation. The self-paced format accommodates multiple learning levels and schedules. Examples of asynchronous delivery include e-mail, listservs, audiocassette courses, videotaped courses, correspondence courses, and WWW-based courses.

The advantages of asynchronous delivery include student choice of location and time, and interaction opportunities among the students as well as the instructor. One disadvantage is that self paced instruction places a substantial burden on the student to maintain interest, focus, and pace. This motivation can be difficult to sustain.

Three elements are of paramount importance to any successful distance education program:

Support is often undervalued in design and implementation. Technology implementation studies show that teacher preparation and ongoing support are undervalued.

Why Distance Learning?

Distance education increases access to learning opportunities. Well organized distance learning accommodates multiple learning styles. Distance learning serves learners who are not likely to attend traditional classroom instruction (effectiveness). In some cases it can serve as many or more learners per dollar spent (efficiency). California research continues to show that it can attract and serve lower level learners (equity).

Adult life for many is complex and demanding. Many adults are unable to or unwilling to attend traditional adult education schools and classrooms for many reasons including:

People who can't attend traditional classes because of these realities need alternatives. These adults are prime targets for distance learning. They are motivated to continue their education, but limited by circumstances as to how they participate in adult basic education. Flexible learning approaches that are not classroom centered appeal to these potential learners.

Image of globe Questions are raised whether lower literacy learners benefit from the rich opportunities emerging with distributed Internet instruction? This is the well known digital divide. While the Internet broadband access is available in schools, libraries, and community centers, it still may not be available in some homes. The CDLP encourages adult education programs that are considering including Internet delivered instruction to survey its learners about their home access to computers and the Internet.

In the past most adult learners had videotape players (VCRs) or access to them. This is why video delivered instruction has been so popular in California. Now the same popularity and increased instructional functionality is being provided via digital video disks (DVDs). One challenge for adult educators is to transition to interactive Internet based instruction that offers a much richer palate of learning materials, communications, and testing possibilities.

Distance Learning: Basic Assumptions

The following set of common assumptions was developed for the California Distance Learning Project by a 21 person resource team. It was developed to help guide collective thinking and discussions about distance learning policies and priorities.

Core Values

These principles assume that the practice of distance learning contributes to the larger social mission of education and training in a democratic society. With that in mind, the principles reflect the following tenets and values:

[Quoted from the American Council on Education’s "Guiding Principles for Distance Learning in a Learning Society"]


There are several useful glossaries to find commonly used distance learning terms. They can be found at the Distance Learning Clearninghouse. E-learning terminology can be found at ASTD's e-learning.

Types of Distance Learning

Distance learning is a modality - a broad, mixed category of methods to deliver learning. The types can be organized along several descriptive dimensions. Low tech to high tech is useful in the adult basic education field. Remember, however, that these individual types can be mixed into hybrid forms. The following table outlines the most popular types of distance learning by their characteristics and notable features.

Type Characteristic Notable Features
Audiotape Audio learning tool, very mobile and inexpensive when combined with print materials. Useful in language learning and practice as well as literature. Linear format.
Videotape in VHS and DVD formats Visual and audio tool; the checkout approach with print materials is very popular in California. Multi-sensory tool with linear delivery format.
Laptop computer checkout Versatile approach to providing a wide range of learning activities from skill and drill to simulations. Hardware is expensive and being replaced by less expensive Internet delivery.
Mobile van / lab Resources taken to the learners, useful for work site learning and reaching parents at elementary schools. Van learning. Historically useful way to distribute videos, audiotapes, DVDs, and other learning tools, but it can be expensive to operate. It is less and less popular as distributed learning increases.
Radio course Low cost way to reach ESL learners. Ideally it should be used by more learning providers. The radio course must include ways for learners to interact with the instructor. Phone call in during or after air time could be integrated into the programming.
Telecourse Delivery over television, usually a cable public access channel or school owned channel. The telecourse must include ways for learners to interact with the instructor. Phone call in is popular. Print materials accompany on-air instruction.
Videoconference – Two way interactive video Electronic communications among people at separate locations. Can be audio, audio graphic, video or computer based. Often uses proprietary software and consequently expensive. Internet models and broadband communications are making it more affordable and accessible.
Email Asynchronous text files and attachments. Good tool to stimulate learning, writing, and communications skills.
Internet Instructionally delivery over the Internet, either learning modules or entire courses.

Instructional learning systems permit teachers to create, manage, communicate with, and test students online. The interactivity and ability to hyperlink to worldwide learning resources are extremely attractive. Improved broadband communications are enabling the effective use of video and synchronous communications.

Chat and asynchronous communications facilitate links between the teacher and learner and among the learners.

The medium for instructional delivery usually defines the type. It is generally assumed that print materials can and should be integrated with the other media.

The History of Distance Learning >