Study Guide for Distance Education: A Systems View (Moore & Kearsley), 1st Edition

(Second Edition now available: see

Version: 3/20/03

Introduction: This study guide is intended to help you learn more about distance education, either in the context of independent learning or a formal course. It consists of additional information (including links to relevant web sites) and questions for self-evaluation or group discussion.

Chapter 1: Fundamentals of Distance Education
Chapter 2: The Historical Context of Distance Education
Chapter 3: The Scope of Distance Education
Chapter 4: Research on Effectiveness
Chapter 5: Technologies and Media
Chapter 6: Course Design and Development
Chapter 7: Teaching and Tutoring
Chapter 8: The Distance Education Student
Chapter 9: Administration, Management and Policy
Chapter 10: The Theoretical Basis for Distance Education
Chapter 11: International Perspectives
Chapter 12: The Transformation of Education

About the Authors:

There is a brief background statement about the authors on the back cover of the book. If you would like to find out more about the courses we teach and the academic programs/projects we have been involved with, you can check out these sites:

Michael Moores ACSDE home page

Greg Kearsley's Home Page

Chapter 1: Fundamentals of Distance Education

This first chapter provides the foundation for the rest of the book and addresses 3 major things:

  • what is distance education?
  • what is the systems approach and how does it apply to distance education
  • distance education entails fundamental change to schools and training

Definition of Distance Education
This first chapter attempts to define distance education. You can find more definitions at  and  in some of the materials provided in the Resources section at the end of this guide.  The explanation of what distance education means in the book does not discuss in detail its relationship to "open learning" -- a term which is often used synonymously. However, the concept of open learning is different from distance education since it embraces the idea of students being able to take courses or programs without prerequisites and being able to choose to study any subject they wish. Indeed most of the "Open Universities" (discussed in Chapter 3) were founded upon this basic premise. While some distance education programs may involve open learning, most do not. For further discussion of open learning, see the work of Kember (1995) whose model of open learning is described briefly in Chapter 10.

Systems Approach
The critical aspect of the systems approach is that all components of a system are inter-related and interdependent. This means that if you change one component of the system, it will likely affect others too. For example, if you change or add a different communications medium, this will affect the instructional design, nature of interaction, and possibly the learning environment. So, if you try to design or implement distance education without taking into account these interdependencies, it will likely fail or be ineffective. There is much more to a systems approach to distance education than we have outlined in this chapter. We encourage you to read some of the major works about the systems approach such as Banathy (1993) or Reigeluth & Garfinkle (1994).

Distance Education = Change
Distance education is part of the overall educational system (which includes schools, corporate training departments, federal/state/local educational agencies, etc). So, when you implement a distance education program, it affects the entire system in some manner. For example, if you offer courses at a distance that were previously taught in a classroom, this eliminates the need for that physical space -- and the funds required to occupy and maintain it. It might also affect parking space required, traffic patterns, utility rates, custodial services, real estate values, and so on. While the level of change involved may be relatively small at the course or program level, once distance education progresses to the institutional or consortia levels, the impact on the system can become substantial. The implications of such changes are discussed further in Chapter 12.

Questions for Further Thought:

1. Is the distinction between distance education and traditional classroom instruction absolute (i.e., is there any overlap)?
2. What are the major differences between distance education at the program, unit, institution and consortia levels?
3. What are strengths and weaknesses of applying the system approach to distance education?
4. What is the role of technology/media in the systems model of distance education?
5. What is the role of instructors in the systems model of distance education?
6. Think of a school system or training group that you are familiar with; what are the fundamental changes that would occur if they were to convert their activities to a distance education format?

Chapter 2: The Historical Context of Distance Education

Distance education has a long history, beginning in the late 19th century in the U.S. This chapter describes four evolutionary stages:

  • correspondence/independent study
  • open universities
  • teleconferencing & consortia
  • multimedia/networks

Correspondence/Independent Study (1890-present)
The oldest form of distance education involves the use of print materials distributed though the mail (i.e. correspondence study). This form of distance learning is still with us today, particularly for commercial home study courses (see the
Distance Education & Training Council for details on the latter). Historically, interaction between the student and instructor was via the mail, but today it is likely to involve the email, telephone, or fax. Independent study is the term used by colleges and universities for correspondence courses. While correspondence/independent study courses are still primarily print-based, today they are likely to include audio or videotapes as well as computer software. From a teaching/learning perspective, what is significant about this form of distance education is that students work by themselves (often at their own pace) and have relatively little interaction with an instructor or other students. One of the most important administrative issues in correspondence/independent study is ensuring that the student has completed all learning requirements; for this reason, a lot of emphasis is placed on exams and testing procedures.

Open Universities: (1969- present)
Two things gave rise to the development of open universities: the increasing desire to use more media (especially radio and television) in distance learning courses, and the desire to "open up" higher education to a larger percentage of the population. The idea was that by using media and eliminating entrance requirements, college level courses and degrees could be offered at an affordable price to many more people. The British Open University (established in 1969) was the first institution to be put this form of distance education into practice; today there are dozens of open universities around the world (see Chapter 3). Open universities introduced some new elements into the distance teaching/learning process: the use of course development teams; the use of tutors; regional study centers; and the inclusion of audio/video material into course materials.

Broadcasting & Teleconferencing (1960s-present)
While educational broadcasting has been practiced in the U.S. since early in the 20th century (circa 1920s for radio and 1950s for television), it did not become a common component of distance education courses till the 1970s with the advent of PBS, ITFS, and cable television. About that same time, audioconferencing became more popular for distance education programs at a number of universities. In the mid-70s, satellites began to be used for television broadcasting and the idea of teleconferences began to emerge. Because television and teleconferencing required large amounts of money to develop and needed large audiences to be cost-effective, consortia started to develop in order to achieve the desired economies of scale. Audio and teleconferences added two important dimensions to distance education: groups of students together at each site and real-time interaction among the students and instructor.

Multimedia & the Web (1980s - present)
With the widespread availability of personal computers, two new forms of technology became viable for distance education purposes in the last two decades of the 21st century: multimedia (especially CD-ROM) and the World Wide Web. CD-ROM means that large amounts of course materials (including audio and video) can be cost-effectively distributed to students. The Web provides easy access to an enormous amount of material (instructional or otherwise) as well as web-based learning systems featuring discussion forums and synchronous conferencing. While neither of these developments presents totally new teaching or learning capabilities, they do represent ways to provide more interaction among students and instructors than previous technologies. In this sense, they make distance education more feasible and powerful.

For more details on the history of distance education, see or .

Questions for Further Thought:
1. What are the strengths and limitations of correspondence/independent study as a form of distance education?
2. Why do you think we do not have an open university in the USA?
3. Teleconferencing tends to be used more by corporations and professional organizations than schools and colleges. Why?
4. The World Wide Web is the newest technology being used for distance education. How do you think it compares to previous technologies?
5. The history of distance education is primarily one of technology/media developments. Has teaching/learning theory kept pace with the emergence of technology?

Chapter 3: The Scope of Distance Education

This chapter describes the broad range of distance education activities including correspondence schools, open universities, schools, colleges and universities, teleconference consortia, corporations, and the department of defense.

The table below lists 5 major U.S. distance education consortiums:

American Distance Education Consortium


Members consist of over 60 large state universities

Original focus was on satellite-delivered programs for agriculture

California Virtual Campus (CVC)

Members consist of 132 schools of the University of California or California State University system

National Technological University (NTU)

Established in 1984

Members consist of over 50 major universities

Original focus was on satellite-delivered programs in engineering for companies

Satellite Education Resources Consortium


Members consist of  public television and state education departments offering satellite-delivered programs to K-12

Western Governors University (WGU)

Established 1998

Members consist of more than 50 colleges and universities mainly in the western USA but with international partners

You can find much more about distance education activities in various domains from the Resources section below. Some particularly interesting sites to check out are

Asynchronous Learning Networks

Distance Educator Daily News

Elearning Post  (corporate training)

EarmyU : The U.S. Army University Online

U.S. Dept Education Distance Learning

Questions for Further Thought
Of the various types of distance education activities described in this chapter (or found on the web), which one impresses you the most? Why?
2. How many different types of distance education programs can you identify in own locality or region?
3. The comparison chart provided at the end of the chapter does not distinguish between approaches that involve individual or group interaction. Which ones allow students to interact with each other in a course?

Chapter 4: Research on Effectiveness

This chapter summarizes past research on distance education including the effectiveness of technologies, learner achievement, course design, teaching strategies, cost-benefits, and policy.

Most research in distance education focuses on media effectiveness, i.e., the success of a given course (measured in terms of student satisfaction) using one or more different communications media. While this kind of research may be useful for making media selection decisions in a particular distance education program, it does not contribute much to our overall understanding of distance education. In fact, most media comparison studies result in a "no significant difference" finding (see the bibliography prepared by Thomas Russell of NC State on this phenomenon). Instead, we need research studies that examine the variables affecting distance education outcomes (see Table 4-1) across many different courses/programs.

In recent years, many studies have been focused on the effectiveness of online learning:

IHEP – Quality on the Line: Benchmarks for Success in Internet-Based Distance Education (PDF document)

ALN Learning Networks Effectiveness Research

Siragusa, L. (2002). Research into the effectiveness of online learning in higher education. WAIER 2002 Proceedings.

Cavanaugh, C (2001), The Effectiveness of Interactive Distance Education Technologies in K-12 Learning: A Meta-Analysis. IJET, 7(1), 73-88. (PDF document)

Questions for Further Thought:
1. Are there any results mentioned in this chapter that you found surprising or unexpected?
2. Propose a specific research study that you think should be conducted.
3. By looking over recent journal articles or browsing web sites, what are some of the current topics or issues in distance education that are being researched?

Chapter 5: Technologies and Media

This chapter discusses the different forms of technology and media used in distance education: print, audio/videocasettes, radio and television broadcasting, teleconferencing, and computer-based instruction. Media selection and media integration are also discussed.

To learn more about videoconferencing, see the Knowledge Network Videoconferencing for Learning web site.

Since this book was written, the World Wide Web has developed very quickly, and promises to become the critical technology for distance education. For more details on this subject see:

ASTD E-Learning Handbook

Badrul Khan’s Web Based Learning/Training books

Brandon Hall Elearning site

However, all of the media/technologies described in this chapter remain important in distance education programs in the U.S. and around the world.

Questions for Further Thought:
1. Print materials are increasingly being distributed in electronic format (either online or CD-ROM). How does this change the nature of the information or how it is used?
2. What are the pros/cons of distributing content in the form of videotapes versus television broadcasts?
3. What are the strengths/weaknesses of the different types of teleconferencing (audio, video, computer)?
4. Most forms of computer-based instruction today involve multimedia programs. What is the significance of multimedia for distance learning?

Chapter 6: Course Design and Development

This chapter discusses some of the issues and considerations associated with the design and development of distance education courses and materials.

Instructional Systems Design (ISD)
ISD methods (aka the systematic approach to instruction) have been practiced for many years in corporate and military training. However, ISD has not been applied much in the school or college domain since courses/classes in education tend to be developed by individual teachers, not instructional designers. This historical legacy affects the nature of distance education courses. You can learn more about this topic by browsing the
Big Dogs ISD web site.

Development Teams
Creating a distance education course or program requires many different kinds of skills and experience and normally requires a team approach. Team members might include: instructional designers, editors, producers, writers, media specialists or technicians, and administrative support staff. However, many distance education courses are developed by instructors (the author- editor model); this limits their effectiveness, but minimizes costs. Preparing Audioconferences and

Planning Teleconferences
The common element to a successful audioconference or satellite teleconference is adequate preparation and planning. In the simplest case, this involves deciding ahead of time what kinds of student participation activities will be conducted in an audioconference; in the more complex situation of a satellite teleconference to many locations, it involves the training of site coordinators, developing registration procedures, and organizing local activities and experts. In any event, relevant reading material must be prepared and distributed well in advance of the conference.

Questions for Further Thought
What are the factors that determine whether the author-editor or development team model is followed for a given distance education course?
2. How do the design ideas for printed study guides apply to an online study guide such as this?
3. As a rule, a satellite teleconference requires a lot more preparation time than an audio or computer conference. Why?
4. Despite overall agreement that student participation is a desirable thing in conferences, we often see very little. Why?
5. It is asserted that evaluation is typically the weakest component of distance education programs. Why should that be?

Chapter 7: Teaching and Tutoring

The most important points made in this chapter about distance teaching are:

  • distance education typically requires a lot more preparation time than traditional classroom teaching
  • distance educators need to pay a lot more attention to student motivation and feelings than in a traditional setting
  • the effectiveness of a distance educator is closely tied to their mastery of the particular media/technology involved
  • there are a number of different kinds of interaction possible in the context of distance learning; good distance teaching incorporates all forms of interaction

Some guidelines for online teaching can be found at:

Questions for Further Thought:
1. Based upon the discussion of what is involved in teaching at a distance, do you think every teacher can be a good distance teacher?
2. Of the three types of interaction discussed, which kind do you feel is most critical to learning?
3. How does student involvement or participation in a class affect learning outcomes?
4. How is the teacher's role in distance education different from traditional classroom instruction?

Chapter 8: The Distance Education Student

Until recently, almost all distance learning involved adults. Hence, an understanding of adult learning (andragogy) was fundamental to distance education. Today, there is a lot of distance education going on in K-12 schools, but the majority of all distance education courses still involve adults.

The factors that affect the success of students in distance education are well-known:

  • the extent of their formal education and prior experience with distance learning
  • learning style or personality
  • degree of support from family and at work
  • relevence of course content to personal or career interests
  • amount/nature of interaction with instructors/other students
  • amount/nature of feedback received in coursework

In short, given enough knowledge about a student and course, it is possible to predict their likely success with distance education.

Questions for Further Thought:
1. Should distance education courses intended for children be designed differently than those for adults?
2. Are all students capable of learning successfully at a distance? Are there some students who would be at an advantage/disadvantage?
3. Most students who take distance education classes seem to be quite satisfied with them. Why?
4. How does the lack of adequate student support affect learning?

Chapter 9: Administration, Management and Policy

This chapter discusses issues relating to planning, staffing, resources, budgets, scheduling, quality assessment and policy for distance education. Just as distance teaching differs considerably from traditional classroom teaching, the administration and mangement of distance education also differs significantly. The primary differences involve:

  • development of materials in terms of time and budget
  • type of personnel involved (e.g., instructional designers, tutors, technicians)
  • policy for teacher and staff workloads/compensation
  • significance of technology/media decisions
  • procedures for student registration, grading, and support
  • methods for assessment of students, faculty, staff and course/program effectiveness

One of the best sources of information on distance education policy in the U.S. is the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE)
An interesting discussion of the administrative and management issues associated with technology use in K-12  schools is provided in the Technology Standards for School Administrators developed by NCRTEC/NCREL.

Questions for Further Thought:
1. How do the planning process involved in distance education compare to the planning required for any educational program?
2. What are the factors to be considered in offering a course or program via distance education?
3. What kinds of staff are needed in a distance education program?
4. What is the significance of learning centers and libraries in distance education programs?
5. How does scheduling in distance education differ from traditional classroom instruction?
6. Of all the policy issues discussed in this chapter, which one do you feel in most critical to the success of distance education?

Chapter 10: The Theoretical Basis for Distance Education

While distance education tends to proceed on a pragmatic basis, the field does have a theoretical basis, which should guide research and practice. Michael Moore's transactional distance theory is the most developed and widely known. The work of Saba and Kember are important recent developments.

Theory in distance education should be connected to other major theories of learning and instruction. To peruse these theories, check out the Theory Into Practice (TIP) database.

Questions for Further Thought:
1. What are the practical and research implications of Moore's theory of transaction distance?
2. What are the limitations of current theories of distance learning?
3. Is the systems approach a theoretical framework?

Chapter 11: International Perspectives

Distance education is practiced extensively around the world with some nations having extensive distance education programs and instutitions. However, the nature of distance education varies considerably across countries in terms of the model and media employed. For example in some places, distance learning involves an instructor visiting local sites occasionally whereas in other places there is no physical contact and all learning materials are distributed via mail, radio, or tv. Computers are coming to play an increasing prominent role in information distribution and student-teacher interaction in all countries (developed and developing). For example, see the interesting effort in Ireland to promote online learning initiated by the Irish Chambers of Commerce:

The International Centre for Distance Learning maintains a comprehensive database of information about distance education around the world.
The International Council for Open and Distance Education is a good source of information about worldwide distance education efforts.
The Commonwealth of Learning has conducted many international distance learning initiatives.

Questions for Further Thought:
1. Is distance education in different countries fairly similar or quite different?
2. Does distance education increase or decrease the gap between the developed and developing countries?
3. It has been argued that the new forms of distance education (particularly those involving computer networks) make learning global in nature. Do you agree or disagree with this idea?

Chapter 12: The Transformation of Education

This final chapter discusses some of the major issues and implications associated with distance education including:

  • increasing adoption of distance education by existing institutions and organizations
  • the changes that distance education will bring to the way schools and educational institutions work
  • the impact of emerging technology on distance education
  • how distance education will affect teacher training
  • cooperation and competition among educational institutions

Here are some examples of online learning institutions that reflect new ideas about delivering education:

Cardean University

Established: 2000

- offers  an MBA degree taught by faculty from 5 major business schools.

- owned by UNext Inc.

Jones International University

Established: 1995

- offers undergraduate/graduate degree and certificate programs


University of Phoenix Online

Established: 1989

- offers undergraduate/graduate degrees

Michigan Virtual University

Established 1998

- offers high school, community college and vocational training

- not-for-profit corporation

Walden University

Established 1970

- offers primarily graduate degrees

- owned by Sylvan Inc

For more discussion on this topic, see:
- James Morrison, The
university is dead! Long live the university! (July 2002)
Global Summit of Online Knowledge Networks (March 2002)
From e-learning to m-learning, Desmond Keegan

Questions for Further Thought:
1. Do you think that all educational institutions will eventually offer their courses and programs in distance education form?
2. Do you think distance education will facilitate life-long learning?
3. Will all future teachers be comfortable teaching at distance?
4. Is distance education likely to result in greater cooperation or competition among institutions?


American Distance Education Consortium

Ann Barron’s Teachers Guide to Distance Learning

California Distance Learning Project

Distance Educator

Distance Education Network (European Assoc for International Education)

Distance Learning Resource Network (Star Schools)

Glenn Hoyle’s Distance Learning on the Net

Indiana Higher Education Telecommunication System - IPSE Distance Education Handbook

TeleTraining Institute - Distance Education Primer

TeleEducation NB (Canada)

University of Idaho/Engineering Outreach - Distance Education Guide

University of Wisconsin Distance Education Clearinghouse

United States Distance Learning Association