March/April 2000 // Commentary
The Nature and Purpose of Distance Education
by Diana G. Oblinger
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Diana G. Oblinger "The Nature and Purpose of Distance Education" The Technology Source, March/April 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Distance education has generated tremendous excitement both inside and outside higher education. For some, it offers the potential to provide learning to new audiences; for others, it offers the opportunity fundamentally to transform learning delivery and the competitive landscape. However, in spite of all of its potential, distance education remains confusing because of the many issues that converge within it.

What Problem Does Distance Education Solve?

Although most institutions have become involved in some form of distance learning, their rationales for doing so are not always clear. Often presidents, trustees, faculty and students feel that they are being swept along by a tidal wave of public expectations for distance learning, and none of them wants to be left behind.

Among those institutions with more well-defined reasons for embracing distance education, the rationales vary, but they often fall into one of four broad categories:

  • Expanding access. Most states need to expand access to education in order to meet the education and training needs of state residents and companies and to educate under-served populations. For many people in the past, academic program calendars have not matched work and family responsibilities, and program offerings may not have met learner needs.
  • Alleviating capacity constraints. Many states are expecting more college students over the next decade than their facilities can accommodate. Some are hoping to leverage the scalability of distance education to avoid overwhelming their bricks-and-mortar capacities.
  • Capitalizing on emerging market opportunities. The public’s growing acceptance of the value of lifelong learning has fueled an increased demand for higher education services among people outside the traditional 18-24 age range. Emerging student segments, such as executives seeking further education and working adults, may be more lucrative than traditional markets. By capitalizing on emerging market opportunities, many educational institutions hope to generate significant revenue.
  • Serving as a catalyst for institutional transformation. Higher education institutions are being challenged to adapt rapidly to an increasingly competitive environment. Distance education can catalyze institutional transformation.

At the University of North Carolina, we believe that each of these rationales has its merit, but in exploring them it became obvious that we could not meet all four goals with a single model of distance education. Each rationale determines the organizational structure, governance and financial model required to serve it. For example, if we chose to enhance access to education for the state’s citizens, we would likely choose a different technology, different courses, and different delivery systems from those we would choose if we were trying to capitalize on emerging market opportunities. Enhancing educational access might cause us to focus on general education courses, whereas capitalizing on emerging market opportunities would lead us to offer courses in the state’s high-growth fields such as financial services, genomic sciences, or marine sciences.

Whom Should Distance Education Serve?

Almost everyone recognizes the rapid expansion in the market for distance education. The desire for lifelong learning and educational flexibility and the growth in student populations are among the trends fueling this growth. The distance education "market," however, is not homogeneous. Learners range from traditional students seeking additional scheduling flexibility to "recreational learners" engaged in expanding their personal knowledge.

Once a school chooses its rationale for distance education, it is important to identify the type of learner it intends to serve (i.e., to define learner segments). Segment definitions depend upon several factors, including the goals and maturity level of the learner as well as who makes the purchasing decision. Different segments also signal the need for alternative educational approaches. The kind of program designed to serve those interested primarily in personal fulfillment will be quite different from one designed for corporate learners. In working to develop a system-wide instructional technology strategy, the University of North Carolina and PricewaterhouseCoopers defined these learner segments:

  • Life fulfillment learners are interested in education for its own sake. They enjoy learning and the academic environment, and they view additional education as a hobby or a source of personal development. They make their own decisions whether or not to purchase education.
  • Corporate learners are seeking education to advance their careers with their corporate employers. The purchase decision is made by the corporation, not by the individual. Corporate learners demand a broad range of services, from instructional technology end-user training to advanced scientific training.
  • Professional enhancement learners are seeking to advance their careers or shift careers. They work for companies but are making the purchase decision themselves.
  • Degree completion adult learners are seeking to complete a degree later in life than usual. They are frequently working adults who must balance work and family responsibilities with their educational goals.
  • "College experience" learners (a.k.a. the "traditional student") are preparing for life. This segment includes many 18-to-24-year-old residential college students for whom the "coming of age" process is as important as academic learning. They may make the purchase decision themselves, or it may be made by their parents.
  • Pre-college (K-12) learners are interested in taking baccalaureate-level work prior to the completion of high school. This segment may be interested in getting a "jump start" on college. Their purchase decision is most often made by their parents.
  • Remediation and test prep learners are interested in learning as a prerequisite for an examination or enrollment in another program. The decision to purchase distance education in this case often depends upon the age of the learner.

Is Distance Education About Education or Technology?

Complicating the issues of goals and learner segments even further is the tendency to see distance education as a technology issue. Certainly the advent of new technologies has enabled institutions to think quite differently about distance education. However, distance education should be an educational issue rather than a technology one. Some strongly believe that new distance education possibilities have the potential to alter (and perhaps transform) our traditional institutions of higher education; others argue that this technology may lead to a reduction in educational quality.


Determining the nature and purpose of distance education—and defining its appropriate role—can be difficult because it requires that institutions locate themselves in the midst of multiple issues: technological advances, pedagogical change, business model change, organizational adaptability, knowledge management, and increased access to education. Some assert that distance education represents a strategic "inflection point" for higher education, signaling the fundamental transformation of education as we know it.

If we are clear about the problem we are trying to solve and whom we wish to serve with distance education, we will be able to make better decisions regarding it. Distance education is fundamentally an education issue. Viewed in this light, it offers students and faculty an alternative to our still-rich residential tradition, one which need not threaten the current tradition but can work alongside it to broaden the number and types of people with access to an education, and thus help to serve us all.

This paper is modified from a presentation at the 1999 EDUCAUSE conference in Long Beach, CA.

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