Definition of distance education
Defining open learning, flexible learning, online/virtual learning and distance education
Although the four terms are often used to mean the same thing, there are significant differences.
Open learning is primarily a goal, or an educational policy. An essential characteristic of open learning is the removal of barriers to learning. This means no prior qualifications to study, and for students with disabilities, a determined effort to provide education in a suitable form that overcomes the disability (for example, audio tapes for students who are visually impaired). Ideally, no-one should be denied access to an open learning program. Thus open learning must be scalable as well as flexible. Open-ness has particular implications for the use of technology. If no-one is to be denied access, then technologies that are available to everyone need to be used.
More recently, the move to open content has widened the meaning of open learning. The open content movement would like to see all digital learning materials available free of charge to anyone with access to the Internet (see the Capetown Open Education declaration)
Distance education on the other hand is less a philosophy and more a method of education. Students can study in their own time, at the place of their choice (home, work or learning centre), and without face-to-face contact with a teacher. Technology is a critical element of distance education.
However, distance education programs may not be open. That is certainly the case at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Students who wish to take distance courses and receive a UBC degree must meet UBC’s admission requirements (which are set very high), and take the necessary course pre-requisites. For undergraduate education, at least half the program must be done ‘in residence’, that is, by taking face-to-face classes on campus. Thus in practice students who live out of province or in foreign countries cannot obtain a UBC undergraduate degree wholly at a distance.