Photo: Ian Schneider via Unsplash

Rediscovering Distance Education: A full circle experience

Thembi Duncan – October 22, 2023

As a 100% remote graduate student specializing in the use of technology in education, I seek the human stories behind the innovations that shape our lives. Over the past few months, I’ve been studying the evolution of distance education and exploring the fascinating ways that technological innovations have been embraced – or rejected – by our society. 

The History of Distance Education

When you think of “distance education,” what picture comes to mind? A person sitting at a computer, taking an online course? An informative webinar? You’d be correct, but that’s not all there is to distance education. Imagine students in Chicago attending school via radio broadcasts, or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police carrying materials to learners in remote locations by horseback. These are early versions of distance learning that are often overlooked because they are not widely considered innovative in today’s digital age.

Once I began to explore the vast history of distance education around the world, I discovered that it’s not just about remote computer learning. Distance education is a rich tapestry that includes any form of remote learning where certain conditions are present (we’ll get into those conditions later).

I had my first experiences with distance education while working on the National Oratory Fellows program at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., from 2009-2015. Our team collaborated with superstar middle school teachers from across the United States to implement arts-centered connections to their History and English Language Arts lessons, using oratory and Lincoln’s leadership as starting points. 

We met with the teachers in person at the beginning of each school year, followed by a monthly hybrid of in-person and remote workshops with their students. At the end of the year, teachers brought student delegates from their classes to perform speeches on the stage of the theatre where U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865

I’ll never forget how distance education deepened the learning of students who were given the opportunity to access relevant, place-based history from hundreds of miles away.

Meeting with educators at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Working with middle schoolers in Independence, Missouri
Showing teachers how to use tableau as a teaching tool for History and ELA
Students in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania attend a virtual field trip to Ford's with Discovery Education

Returning to 2023, I’m learning about distance education’s broader history, and now I’m empowered to seek even more ways to deliver remote learning to a variety of individuals – whatever their circumstances.

Discovering that prior versions of distance education were achieved through postal mail, radio, TV, and the telephone, I realized that computers and the Internet don’t have to be the final evolutionary point of distance learning. Perhaps many existing technologies could be used to fill the increasing digital divide between those who have consistent, high-quality access to the Internet, and those who don’t.

Learn more about the history of Distance Education

From Crisis to Opportunity

In March of 2020, thousands of K-12 schools and higher education institutions around the world began long shutdowns as public officials scrambled to get the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 under control. Consequently, many teachers and learners were forced into distance education with very little warning, and even less preparation. Three years later, many in-person learning environments have been restored, but some educators and administrators are finding that distance learning continues to be a valuable tool for equitable access to information.

Though it had been years since I’d delivered distance education, I began to ponder the opportunities of applying my expertise to innovations in the field. That’s what led me to the pursuit of a Master of Science in Instructional Design and Educational Technology at SUNY Potsdam in New York State. It’s fitting that the program is 100% remote, and my first visit to campus will be on graduation day.

Definitions and Theories

In my studies of distance education, I’ve encountered many definitions and theories that provide guidance for the understanding of, categorization of, and delivery of remote learning. Three of those concepts have stood out to me and sparked further study: The Four Main Components of Distance Education (Simonson, et al., 2014), The Community of Inquiry Framework (Cleveland-Innes, et al., 2019) and the Diffusion of Innovations Theory (Sahin, 2006).

The Four Main Components provide clear parameters to separate distance education from self-guided studies. For example, one essential component of this definition states that distance education must include the presence of an educator, who is separate from the learner. This means that if you are independently researching articles about horses on the Internet, you are not engaged in distance education. The Community of Inquiry Framework defines distance education, but takes things a step further by providing a road map for dynamic, meaningful distance education.

The Diffusion of Innovations Theory explores how new ideas, products, and technologies are introduced and adopted in societies. Though applied broadly across academic fields, there are relatively few studies that employ the Diffusion of Innovations framework to technology-based education. This presents an opportunity to carve new pathways between this well-known theory and distance learning.

Four Main Components of Distance Education

The Four Main Components of Distance Education establish cornerstones for modern online learning that teachers and learners can use to define distance education:

Institutionally Based: This component emphasizes the importance of the institution in shaping the online learning experience. It involves designing courses, selecting appropriate technologies, and establishing policies to support teachers and learners.

Separation of Teacher and Student: The teacher and student do not share a traditional classroom in distance learning. However, a teacher in a physical classroom may use digital technology to provide instruction to learners in remote locations.

Interactive Telecommunications: This component explores the various technologies and tools that enable real-time or asynchronous interactions, such as computers and the Internet.

Sharing of Data/Voice/Video: Effective distance education requires an exchange of information through the sharing of text, images, voice, video, and other media.

Community of Inquiry Framework

The Community of Inquiry Framework identifies three key presences toward meaningful distance learning experiences:

Teaching Presence

The Teaching Presence refers to the design and organization of a course or program of study by an individual or group with content expertise. Educators provide direct instruction to learners and facilitate discussion with and among the learning cohort.

The Cognitive Presence involves the process of critical thinking, content analysis, and the synthesis of existing ideas into new conclusions and discoveries. Beyond rote learning, the cognitive presence stimulates thought and discussion, creating opportunities for profound learning.

The Social Presence relies on collaboration, group cohesion, and a sense of belonging among the learners and instructors. Mutual support, respect, trust, and open communication contribute to a strong social presence, increasing the likelihood of a fulfilling learning experience.

The balance of these three essential presences specifies an effective definition of distance education, and facilitates a meaningful learning experience. The Community of Inquiry framework also resonates with my commitment to providing engaging educational encounters for students of all backgrounds.

Diffusion of Innovations Theory

Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations Theory offers a process for investigating the ways that societies adopt technological innovations. Rogers asserts that consideration must be given to four elements of innovation diffusion: innovation (something perceived as new), communication channels (how people share information about an innovation), time (the time-bound nature of the innovation adoption process), and social system (societal influence on potential adopters). These elements impact the adoption of innovations and provide important context for those interested in leveraging trends in social behavior.

  • Can be an idea, practice, or project
  • Perceived to be new, even if it has already existed for some time
  • Can create uncertainty among potential adopters
  • Serves as the vehicle of information delivery between two sources
  • Two main communication channels are mass media (TV, radio, newspapers) and interpersonal (two-way communication between individuals)
  • Can be categorized as localite (close friends and peers) or cosmopolite (media outside the person’s social group)
  • Often overlooked in behavioral research, but is crucial in diffusion research
  • The innovation-diffusion process, adopter categorization, and rate of adoptions all have a time dimension
  • interrelated units working together to achieve common goals
  • influenced by the social structure
  • the nature of the social system impacts individuals’ innovativeness and their categorization as adopters

The Process of Innovation

Rogers defines the process of innovation as containing five sequential, time-ordered steps:

Knowledge Stage
  • This is where the innovation-decision process begins
  • The person learns about the innovation and asks, “What?” “How?” “Why?”
  • Three types of knowledge are involved: awareness-knowledge, how-to-knowledge, and principles-knowledge
    • Awareness-knowledge motivates further learning
    • How-to-knowledge is essential for correct usage
    • Principles-knowledge explains how and why the innovation works
  • Centered around feelings (affective)
  • The person forms a positive or negative attitude toward the innovation, influenced by uncertainty and social reinforcement
  • Close peers’ subjective evaluations are often more impactful at this stage
  • The person continues to search for information
  • The person decides to adopt or reject the innovation
    • Adoption: full use
    • Rejection: not adopting
  • Rejection can be active or passive
    • Active rejection: the person tried the innovation and then decided not to adopt it
    • Passive rejection: the person never considered adopting the innovation
  • In some cases, the order of stages may vary, and culture can influence their sequence
  • The innovation is put into practice, but uncertainty about outcomes can be a challenge
  • Technical assistance may be needed to reduce uncertainty
  • Reinvention often occurs, and it involves changing or modifying the innovation
  • The more reinvention, the more rapidly the innovation is adopted and institutionalized
  • The person seeks support for their decision and looks outwardly for messages that confirm it
  • The person may avoid conflicting messages so as to remain settled in their decision
  • Discontinuance may occur due to replacement or disenchantment, where the innovation does not meet the person’s needs or give them the perception of advancement that they seek

Rogers’ definition of this process suggests that innovation is an evolving journey that depends on intentional information gathering, social persuasion, and decisive action. Through this lens, we begin to consider the ways that people travel through the progression of knowledge to confirmation.

Categories of Adopters

The adopter categories build on Rogers’ process of innovation, separating people into groups based on their innovation-related behaviors. Rogers offers us five major categories that include:

  • Willing to experience new ideas
  • Unfazed by unprofitable and unsuccessful innovations
  • Introduce innovations from outside the system
  • Tend to hold complex technical knowledge
  • Typically have boundaries within the social system
  • Likely hold leadership roles
  • Serve as role models for other members of the social system
  • Influence others through interpersonal networks
  • Usually have positive interactions with others in the social system
  • Tend to lack leadership roles of early adopters
  • Deliberately thoughtful; not the first nor the last to adopt
  • Take more time than innovators and early adopters to decide on adopting an innovation
  • Wait until most of their peers have adopted the innovation
  • May remain skeptical about the innovation and its outcomes
  • Require persuasion from close peers to reduce uncertainty
  • Feel it is safe to adopt once persuaded by financial circumstances or peers’ opinions
  • Usually the most skeptical about innovations of any kind
  • Tend to have lack of awareness-knowledge
  • Want to ensure the innovation works before adopting it
  • Spend a relatively long time in the innovation-decision period
  • Mainly interact with peers in similar socio-economic positions

Further, Rogers reconfigures these categories into two main groups: earlier adopters and later adopters. Earlier adopters include innovators, early adopters, and early majority, while late majority and laggards make up the later adopters group. Rogers notes differences between these groups in terms of socio-economic status, personality variables, and communication behaviors, which are usually positively related to the adoption of innovations. Understanding the socio-economic factors, personality variables, and communication behaviors that influence the acceptance of innovations is pivotal in designing effective strategies for influencing innovation adoption.

Adopting innovations takes time!

As I continue to study the evolution and theories of distance education, I’m able to strengthen connections to my past experiences in remote learning through the lens of theatre.

The recent shift to distance education in response to the global pandemic underscores the importance of reimagining ways to provide consistent, equitable access to deep learning. It intrigues me to envision the ways that we can employ theatre as an analog solution to the digital divide.


Beninger, K. (2010, February 26). Celebrating 60 Years of Distance Learning – Part I: The Beginnings of Distance Education at UBC.

Cleveland-Innes, M., Garrison, D.R., & Vaughan, N. (2019). The community of inquiry theoretical framework: Implications for distance education and beyond. In M. G. Moore & W. C. Diehl (Eds.), Handbook of distance education. (4th ed., pp. 67-78). Routledge.

QUT IFB101. (2015, February 12). Diffusion of innovations. [Video.]. YouTube.

Sahin, I. (2006). Detailed review of Rogers’ diffusion of innovation theory and educational technology-related studies based on Rogers’ theory. The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 5(1).

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Zvacek, S. (2014). Definitions, history, and theories of distance education (Chapter 2). In Teaching and learning at a distance (6th ed.). Information Age Publishing, Inc.

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