Journal of Distance Education/Revue de l'enseignement distance (1999)

ISSN: 0830-0445

Will Distance Disappear in Distance Studies? - A Reaction


D Randy Garrison

D. Randy Garrison is a professor and Dean of the Faculty of Extension at the University of Alberta. He has authored or co-authored three books and over 70 articles and papers. His area of research focuses on critical thinking, self-directed learning, and communications technology.

The thesis of Rolf Arnold’s article “Will Distance Disappear in Distance Studies?” (in press, this issue) is that distance no longer represents a boundary to teaching and learning, and essentially no longer should it be considered a relevant issue for university teaching. The author goes on to suggest that distance education designs, largely defined in this article as self-instructional course packages (i.e., correspondence study), “make possible a greater nearness between teacher and learner” and, in fact, “could be a model for scientific[?] learning in a knowledge society.” Given this, it is stated that “it is an extremely small step to the thesis that distance studies will take the place of face-to-face studies in the future.”

Before I comment, it may be helpful to outline my position. I have long believed that distance may be a defining characteristic of distance education, but it cannot be a defining educational issue (Garrison, 1989; Garrison & Shale, 1990). Distance is but a morphological constraint of decreasing challenge as new communications technologies appear. It is the design of the educational experience defined largely by the transactional nature of the relationship among teacher, students, and subject matter that is of significance in the quality of an educational experience. Moreover, I have more recently argued that distance learning technologies may well have a transformative influence on higher education (Garrison & Anderson, 2000). It may have either a strong or weak influence in shaping the nature of the teaching and learning transaction for the better.

For these reasons, I too believe that distance is disappearing as a significant challenge to designing worthwhile educational experiences. However, I have varying degrees of opposition to the three theses that frame the article and arguments used to support these ideas. To be clear at the outset, the focus of the argument and comparison is between correspondence and lecturing. With this in mind, I respond to each thesis in turn.

Proximity and Remoteness

The first thesis has to do with elements of proximity and distance found in both distance and face-to-face education. Two points are raised: one to do with curriculum and the other to do with self-reliance. The first is that curriculum in both methods is compiled at a distance without interaction with students. This is generally true but with one crucial difference. Teaching and learning founded on sustained communication (e.g., face-to-face) has an opportunity to adapt content to the changing needs and interests of the students. On the other hand, distance education in the form of “correspondence-course materials” is a rigid, institutionalized, and often prescriptive approach to learning that is impervious to change and input.

The second point turns the issue of independence (isolation?) on its head by arguing that this is an advantage because it promotes self-reliance and is “not based on teaching.” However, a defining characteristic of “education” is sustained interaction with a teacher, and in higher education a critical community of learners. Now I agree we seldom come close to this ideal in higher education with our overreliance on lectures, but it is a weak argument to use the worst example of higher education (i.e., lecturing) to support learning by independent correspondence course materials. Face to-face education in its best sense is facilitated by sustained interaction and adaptable teaching responses that do not leave learning outcomes to chance. Opportunities to facilitate critical thinking and support self-directed learning through collaborative constructivist approaches are central to the teaching and learning transaction in higher education (Garrison & Archer, in press).

The second thesis is that distance studies make possible a greater nearness, again defined as “correspondence course materials.” Frankly, this is difficult to accept. Here it is argued that students are closer to the content of the material. Again the comparison is with a worst-case lecture approach where neither interaction nor feedback from assignments is provided. Notwithstanding this questionable comparison, it is assumed that complex, ambiguous content can be transmitted via text and grasped whole without question by all students, who on most counts could not be considered sophisticated, let alone emancipated, learners. Moreover, it is argued in this thesis that they will be more highly motivated, whereas the evidence suggests that the more independent (i.e., less interaction) the learners are, the less likely they are to persist (Garrison, 1987).

What Remains to be Proved

Certainly little has been proved with regard to determining the superiority of the lecture to correspondence study, which is the focus of the third thesis and of the arguments regarding the disappearance of distance. What we see is the creation of a straw man in depicting the lecture as synonymous with teaching and learning in higher education. The lecture is not defended by many in higher education, nor does it represent the ideal of a teaching and learning relationship. Although this convenient comparison may serve to argue for parity of face-to-face and distance education, it will not further the development and influence of the field of distance education in traditional institutions of higher education.

There is little to be gained by trying to “prove” that one educational method is superior to another. We should turn our attention to more worthwhile activities such as exploring the characteristics and use of oral and written communication as well as synchronous and asynchronous methods in realizing educational outcomes. We must also better understand the unity of reflection and discourse in acquiring meaningful and worthwhile knowledge. Assimilating information without meaning or value is too common an outcome of both the lecture and correspondence approaches to learning. Optimizing deep and meaningful learning necessitates an appropriate balance of reflection and confirmatory dialogue. This is true for traditional higher and distance education.


The lecture may well have serious “structural limitations <193> that impair its sustainability,” but this does not mean correspondence study is superior in sustaining the attention of students or in optimizing the quality of educational outcomes. This is simply a bad comparison and mode of distance delivery. Distance is disappearing as a significant issue, but not for the reasons stated in this article. What is missing is a sophisticated appreciation of the diversity of educational purposes, audiences, and outcomes as well as the increasing range of affordable and accessible distance education technologies and options. One such technology worthy of consideration is computer-mediated communication (e.g., computer conferencing), which is capable of providing all the advantages of asynchronous learning advocated in this article while providing a supportive community of inquiry (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, in press).


Arnold, R. (in press). Will distance disappear in distance studies? Preliminary considerations on the didactic relevance of proximity and distance. Journal of Distance Education, 14(2).

Garrison, D.R. (1987). Researching dropout in distance education: Some directional and methodological considerations. Distance Education, 8(1), 95-101.

Garrison, D.R. (1989). Understanding distance education: A framework for the future. London: Routledge.

Garrison, D.R., & Anderson, T. (2000). Transforming and enhancing university teaching: Stronger and weaker technological influences. In T. Evans & D. Nation (Eds.), Changing university teaching: Reflections on creating educational technologies. London: Kogan Page.

Garrison, D.R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (in press). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2).

Garrison, D.R., & Archer, W. (in press). A transactional perspective on teaching-learning: A framework for adult and higher education. Oxford, UK: Pergamon.

Garrison, D.R., & Shale, D. (Eds.). (1990). Education at a distance: From issues to practice. Melbourne, FL: Krieger.

CADE prefers APA style guides.