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Using Distance Education Theory in Your Class

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

Are you in the world of techy teachers instructing from a platform? What do you need to know? What do you want to know? What should you already know? Most importantly, how much do you understand about the theory and practice in distance education? If you haven’t heard of Dr. Michael Grahame Moore, you'll want to. He was named as “one of the 128 most important, influential, innovative and interesting thinkers on education of all time,” by The Routledge Encyclopedia of Educational Thinkers in 2016. His understanding of the changing world of education has made a profound impact on our modern-day classrooms and what is yet to be seen in American education.

In a recent podcast interview with Dr. Moore on distance education theory, Moore spoke about the fascinating history of teaching remotely and how he developed his theory of transactional distance. He was teaching adult learners in the late 1960’s while in Kenya through a radio station. Yes, radio station (and we think it’s hard with Zoom…)! When Moore returned to his doctoral studies in Madison, Wisconsin, he noticed a gap in the literature regarding teaching. Teaching was defined as “activity which takes place during schooling and within the classroom setting.” He knew this wasn’t true, because he himself had spent the last seven years teaching that wasn’t in a classroom or schooling. The definition needed to be changed! Moore worked for years to develop the definition that did fit, and in 1973 his theory of transactional distance was published.

In 1997, Moore expanded on his original theory and defined transactional distance as the psychological and communications space that occurs between teachers and learners with the special characteristic of separation. Transactional distance profoundly affects teachers and learners and leads to the special patterns of learner and teacher behaviors. He broke the theory of transactional distance into three clusters of Dialogue, Structure, and Learner Autonomy. Dialogue and Structure define teaching procedures and Learner Autonomy describes learner behaviors. There is a lot to this, you’re going to want to look it up for all the details. Here are the basic theoretical constructs of the theory:

1. Determined by amount of dialogue between learner and instructor

2. Amount of structure that exists in the design of the course

3. More structure and less student-teacher

4. Dialog = greater transactional distance

5. Continuum of transactions

6. Blurs the distinctions between conventional and distance programs

Then, in 2020, as COVID hit and the world gained a more inclusive look at distance education’s potential, Moore was asked for some guidance in this new world for most educators. The article and list, 10 tips for instructors on effective distance education, was published through the University of Wisconsin-Madison ( in April, 2020. I consider this list as a kind of online teaching Cliff Notes:

  1. Plan every lesson as a series of chunks of time, typically three or four. For most students a sensible chunk is 15 minutes.

  2. At the beginning of each chunk of time, tell students what they should be able to do at the end of that period (“learning objectives”).

  3. Each objective should have one or more specific outcomes that will tell you if the objective is achieved.

  4. Select resources that will help students achieve the objectives. These could be recorded materials, your own presentation, or student-generated knowledge.

  5. Recorded materials include text, video and audio resources, and online documents. Every resource should be curated so that it contributes directly to the achievement of the learning objectives.

  6. If you make a personal presentation, limit yourself to about 10 minutes of talking to the camera.

  7. Tasks can be set for students to reach an objective through discussion or team projects.

  8. Design an evaluation task to wrap up each chunk of lesson time. This might take up as much as five minutes of a 15-minute lesson chunk.

  9. If many students fail the task, you have to start over-adjusting the remainder of that lesson (also rethinking the objective). If one or a few fail the task, you must arrange remedial activities for those students in “after class” time.

  10. If possible, take time to plan the objectives, resources, and evaluation tasks for the course before beginning, and place this information on the course website. The more you do upfront, the better your time can be spent facilitating student activities, managing evaluation activities, and giving individual remedial assistance.

For more on Dr. Moore and to hear him describe the world of distance education in his own voice, listen to my podcast, Distance Education Theory with Dr. Michael Grahame Moore, on The Brighter Side of Ed podcast ( If you haven’t heard a theorist speak before, I highly recommend you take the time to listen to this one while in the car or out for your daily exercise. I’ve listened to it four times now and am pulling more out of it every time, and I interviewed him!

Now as we head into the post- COVID era, the way we are instructing students has morphed and so has the terminology. Many classrooms took on a hybrid or blended approach to learning. I was at the Online Learning Consortium conference in Orlando last month and heard yet another term: hyflex. It’s gotten to be a Pandora’s Box out there of distance education terms! Which one do you fall into? Here are some definitions of the most recent versions of classrooms described to help boost your online learning lingo:

Online Learning- when teacher and students are separated by distance, and everyone is in their own learning environment. The class exclusively uses an online platform. Students view material online with live or saved lessons. Live lessons are called synchronous. Asynchronous are previously recorded lessons than can be viewed at any time.

Blended Learning- when a teacher uses online learning resources in the face-to-face classroom

Hybrid Learning- when the teacher has separate face-to-face (in person) classes and online (virtual- not in person) classes for a single course. It is set up in advance as to which days and times the face-to-face and online classes are to take place.

Concurrent Learning- (this is a local term that I think needs to be defined because it doesn’t quite fit the hybrid term) when a teacher instructs in the face-to-face environment but also has students live-streaming into the daily lessons. The students have designated the face-to-face or online option and stay with this option.

Hyflex Learning- when the teacher uses both face-to-face and online simultaneously for the class as daily options. The teacher instructs in the face-to-face classroom and online at the same time. Students can be a part of the lesson live-streamed or face-to-face. The student chooses to be in person or online for the day. It is a combined class hybrid model with the flexibility of student choice (hybrid+flexible).

So now that you are armed with theory, online teaching tips, and have updated your lingo, what’s next? Well, the future depends on you to make positive change in the growth and success of not only our children, but the places where learning is taking place. Dr. Moore is hopeful! So, elevate what you know and elevate your teaching.

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