Definition of Online Education as Distance Learning

Sabri g. Bebawi

     Online education is defined as the creation and proliferation of the personal computer, the globalization of ideas and other human acts, and the use of technology in exchanging ideas and providing access to more people.  Audio, video, computer, and networking technologies are often combined to create a multifaceted instructional delivery system. The fundamental method to unite the distance learning instructor with the distance learner is the network. Networks suitable for distance learning implementations include satellite, cable modem, digital subscriber lines (DSL), and wireless cable, (Collins, 2002).

     Greenberg (1998) defines contemporary distance learning as “a planned teaching/learning experience that uses a wide spectrum of technologies to reach learners at a distance and is designed to encourage learner interaction and certification of learning” (p. 36).  Teaster and Blieszner (1999) say “the term distance learning has been applied to many instructional methods: however, its primary distinction is that the teacher and the learner are separate in space and possibly time” (p. 741).  Desmond Keegan (1995) provides another definition.   He states that distance education and training result from the technological separation of teacher and learner which frees the student from the necessity of traveling to “a fixed place, at a fixed time, to meet a fixed person, in order to be trained” (p. 7).  From these definitions we can see that the student and teacher are separated by space, but not necessarily by time. 

     There are many terms for on-line education.  Some of them are virtual education, internet-based education, web-based education, education via computer-mediated communication.  The web-edu project uses a definition of online education that is based on Desmond Keegan’s (1988) definition.  It is by:

  1. The separation of teachers and learners which distinguishes it from face-to-face education;
  2. The influence of an educational organization which distinguishes it from self-study and private tutoring;
  3. The use of a computer network to present or distribute some educational content; and
  4. The provision of tw0-way communication via a computer network so that students may benefit from communication with each other, teachers and staff.

Historical Background  

      A few years ago, online education was unthinkable; now it is a reality and it has expanded beyond imagination.  The Internet has allowed us to cross boundaries that took a long time to cross; technology has allowed us to learn and grow with people from around the world. It has given access to new opportunities in work, learning and in socializing.  We are now witnessing a transformation in the way people learn. The future of education in general, and college education in particular, will be of more access, more educational choices, and new fields in educational research.  

The roots of the Internet lie in 1957, when the Advanced Research Projects Agency was created within the Defense Department. In 1969, ARPA created a computer network called ARPANET.


1957: Soviets launch Sputnik. In response, U.S. forms Advanced Research Projects Agency.

1982: DOD builds Defense Data Network based
on ARPANET technology.

1983: ARPA splits into ARPANET and Milnet. The Internet is now in place.

1989: ARPANET ceases to exist.

1998: 102 million people are using the Internet worldwide.

1969: Researchers create the first hosts for ARPANET, UCLA, UCSB, Stanford and the University of Utah .

1981: ARPANET links computers
at more than 200 sites.

1972: The first
e-mail program
is created.

1992: Internet links more than 17,000 networks in 33 countries.

1991: The
World Wide
Web is

1994: Mo re than 3 million hosts exist on the Interne

 Figure 1: Historical Background of the Internet   (ABC.COM)

Expansion of Online Education

     In the last 20 years, with the advancement in technology, independent study has become more accessible for distance education students. The ease with which modern communications technologies can link educational institutions to homes, work-sites, and community centers has made college, adult education and lifelong learning matters of national policy.  Figure 2, page 6, illustrates such growth.  

The Internet is not owned or controlled by any one person or organization.





 Figure 2: Expansion of Online Education   (ABC.COM)

     At the same time, the loads and responsibilities of adults have become of interest to experts and educators in distance learning.  Feasley (1983) stated that individuals who must learn at a distance have ongoing obligations such as employment, family responsibilities, handicaps, or live in geographically isolated area. The 1970s and 1980s introduced the related concept "distance education" which posed new challenges to traditional independent study, forcing a reexamination and redefinition of the place of independent study in this new international movement (Wright, 1991).

     In the late 1970s and early 1980s, cable and satellite television came into use as a delivery medium for distance education courses. During the 1980s, many quality telecourse offerings were available by using cable and satellite delivery. But as Munshi (1980) said, "Unfortunately, systematic efforts to evaluate telecourses have been the exception rather than the rule." In the fall of 1991, eighteen institutions, including the University of California , the University of Oklahoma , Penn State , and Washington State , used the Mind Extension University (MEU), Educational Network to deliver video course materials for independent study courses (MEU catalog, 1991). Women’s desire and participation in distance education helped the growth of distance education in the 1980s and 1990s. The report of the survey of telecourse enrollments in five states showed 67% of the participants in the distance education were women (Instructional Telecommunication Consortium, 1984). Participation of women in distance learning was directly related to political and social changes in women’s position within the family and society, technological changes in the work place, and the economic necessity of participation, and the job market and new job opportunities, (Vision Quest Team: Lopez, Milon and Bebawi, The Future of Educational Institutions, Capella University, 2003).

     With the recent development and expansion of new technology, it has become expected that computers will play an integral part of the process of education. The future of education lies within the capabilities of this new and growing technology.