Generations of Distance Education: Technologies, Pedagogies, and Organizations

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Distance education has often been discussed in terms of generations as its forms and methods have been evolved over

years. Most often, generations of distance education has been discussed in terms of the dominant technologies it utilizes in teaching and learning. There has been another attempt to classify distance education into generations in terms of its dominant pedagogy. It is important to consider distance education in terms of its organizational structure and optimize a new organizational structure for distance education in which a division of labor can be observed across institutions.

Challenges of Distance Education[edit]

The term “distance education” may sound somewhat outdated as today’s technologies decreases the importance of the actual distance between instructors and students. What matters more today is flexibility and distributed aspect of teaching and learning using technologies. However, distance education still exists as a field of research and practice and many educational scholars and practitioners identify themselves as those in the field.
There have been numerous attempts to classify distance education in the past. Most of them classify distance education in terms of dominant technologies used. Distance education and technologies are considered inseparable as in order to reach students at a distance, one must use certain tools or technologies to do so. While technologies of instruction have been examined closely, the organizational transformation those technologies necessitate tends to be overlooked. In changing the mode of instruction or the educational model of distance education, an institution must also rearrange or transform its organizational structure to enable and effectuate such changes. Actually many distance education institutions fail to transform themselves to adapt to the changes and stay behind in adopting new technologies and methods of teaching and learning.

Generations of Distance Education[edit]

Technological Perspective[edit]

The history of distance education follows the evolution of technology. Bates(2005) and Peters (1994) see distance education in three stages:

  • Print-based correspondence education, mainly used printed texts delivered via postal services. In this stage, interaction between teachers and students was usually limited to hand-written correspondence via mail. It is difficult to gauge the extent of student learning in this mode, as student evaluation is usually summative and left at the end of the course.[citation needed]
  • The industrial mode added radio and television as instructional media. It relied more on specialized division of labor to produce and deliver instructional materials. Many Open universities in the world—including British Open University, Anadolu University’s Open Educational Faculty in Turkey, Korea National Open University, and the Open University of Japan began as institutions of this second generation. When those institutions opened, they selected broadcast media—television and radio—as instruction mediums. These let them easily reach a mass audience, and supported their mission to expand educational opportunities. All those institutions began as national initiatives with heavy national government involvement.
  • The third generation, according to Bates and Peters, uses information and communication technologies to provide interaction and content delivery. This provides interactivity between learner and content—as in CD-ROM and web-based materials—and interactivity between teachers and students. This third method facilitates content personalization to match learning preferences.

Taylor (2001) suggested five distance education generations:

  • Correspondence model, based on print technology
  • Multi-media model, based on print, audio, and video
  • Tele-learning model, using telecommunications to provide synchronous communication
  • Flexible learning model based on Internet delivery
  • Intelligent, flexible learning model based on the interactivity of the Internet

Pedagogical Perspective[edit]

Criticizing those classifications based on technologies, Anderson and Dron (2010) suggests three generations of distance education based on dominant pedagogy:

  • Cognitive-behaviorist pedagogy
  • Social-constructivist pedagogy
  • Connectivist pedagogy

According to Anderson and Dron, the first generation, cognitive-behaviorist, is characterized by the thinking that learning means behavioral changes from learning stimuli, and was the dominant thinking in computer-assisted instruction and instructional systems designs. The second generation, social-constructivist, originated in the work of Vygotsky and Dewey, and focuses more on learning instead of teaching. This pedagogy emphasizes human interaction (student-teacher and student-student), which makes it costly. The third generation, the connectivist, is built around networked connections and based on the learners’ ability to actively participate in networked communities.

Anderson and Dron state that, “Connectivism is built on an assumption of a constructivist model of learning, with the learner at the centre, connecting and constructing knowledge in a context that includes not only external networks and groups but also his or her own histories and predilections.” The connectivisit pedagogy may not seem significantly different from the social-constructivist pedagogy, but differs from other education paradigms in the degree of control an institution has over students’ learning. In previous paradigms, institutions have a major role in designing and evaluating students’ learning. In the connectivist model—where learners rely on existing networked communities to develop their own net presence—the institution's role may be reduced to credentialing what students learn.

Organizational Perspective[edit]

Distance education can be also be classified into three organizational models:

  • Supplementary model: Distance education supplements or complements traditional education, providing access and equity to those excluded from traditional education for some reasons. This is also called independent study, self-directed learning, and nontraditional and open education (Saba, 2011).
  • Industrial model: This was discussed earlier. The industrial

model has been associated with mass education, where hundreds or thousands of students learn in the same program using the same content and the same methods. To enable this, the institution must divide labor into specialized areas—hence, it is the industrial model. Institutions that use educational broadcasting—radio, television, telecommunications satellites) must organize themselves into this model as it is labor-intensive to produce such educational broadcasting programs, and requires different skillsets and expertise to do so. This organizational model can cause difficulty in responding to changing learner needs, inflexibility of adopting new methods and content, and large organizational overhead.

  • Ad hoc model: Institutions may play one part in the whole process of learners’ learning in various ways. This model uses technologies to provide individualized learning programs—and structures that respond to individual learner needs instead of presenting a one size-fits-all system. However, achieving

this can be too costly for one institution. Hence, an institution may offer services that cover some part of the learning. For example, one institution may offer learning content while another institution offers tutorials and student support. This third organizational model is still emerging from experimental bases.


  • Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2010). Three generations of distance education pedagogy. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3), 80-97.
  • Bates, T. (2005). Technology, e-learning and distance education: RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Peters, O. (1994). Distance education and industrial production: A comparative interpretation in outline(1973). Otto Peters on distance education: The industrialization of teaching and learning, 107-127.
  • Saba, F. (2011). Distance Education in the United States: Past, Present, Future. Educational Technology, 51(6), 11.
  • Taylor, J. C. (2001). Fifth generation distance education. e-Journal of Instructional Science and Technology (e-JIST), 4(1), 1-14.
  • Terry Evans, M. H., David Murphy (Ed.). (2008). International Handbook of Distance Education. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.