D. Randy Garrison
September 1, 2020

Bozkurt (2019) has provided a needed insight into the intellectual and theoretical development of the field of distance education through an analysis of 1685 articles from 1916 to 2018. This was precipitated by the fact that distance education (DE) has evolved to employ both online and offline technologies which “gives DE a multidimensional and multilayered ecology” (p. 497). More importantly, regarding its purpose, the review “attempts to map the intellectual network of DE ... [to provide] further understanding ... [as to] what has been created ... and how the field should move forward” (p. 497). From my perspective this review is invaluable to understand the evolution of DE from independent approaches to learning encompassing stand-alone learning materials to interactive and collaborative online learning environments we see emerging today. These are very different approaches and it is not clear whether we will see a true paradigm shift to online approaches. Intellectually and theoretically can these approaches co-exist or complement each other going forward. From this understanding we can begin to explore how the field will move forward.

This review provides a rigorous longitudinal methodological approach and for those who are interested in this I direct them to the article. However, my interest here is with the findings regarding “pivotal contributions and turning points.” From his review Bozkurt describes four pivotal contributions that relate to the social nature of learning and specifically potential interactive and collaborative dynamics of DE. Not surprisingly I was pleased to see this statement regarding the fourth turning point in terms of the intellectual (theoretical?) roots of DE:

The fourth and final pivotal contribution and the one with the greatest impact was made by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000, 2001), who introduced the community of inquiry (CoI) model and its three elements: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence. The value of the CoI lies in its potential to provide effective learning experiences in computer-based, online educational spaces. (p. 505)
I would add that the core contribution of the CoI is a coherent framework and grounding for collaborative constructivist learning experiences online.

Bozkurt notes that the pivotal contributions that emerged from his review offers intellectual roots to DE that surpasses the understanding provided by innovative technologies per se. The importance of theoretical perspectives is that they provide insights and practical guidance in DE. This causes me to think back to my introduction to DE in the eighties and my initial struggle to make sense of the field grounded in independent study and inert course packages. My attempt to grasp the scope of, and rationale for, DE resulted in my first book perhaps appropriately titled – Understanding Distance Education (Garrison, 1989). In it I began with the premise that the essence of education is a transactional experience. From this I explored how the theme of two-way communication should influence the direction and future of DE. To be clear this perspective was precipitated by my work with audio teleconferencing and the introduction of real time interaction as well as my background in adult education and its collaborative approach to learning. This transactional focus and collaborative constructivism greatly influenced my work going forward.

I have described my perspective of the evolution of DE from the mid-1980s to the present shaped by my belief in the importance of two-way communication in any educational enterprise (Garrison, in press). Keep in mind that the eighties was a time when the field of DE, both theoretically and practically, began to evolve. At that time Doug Shale and I argued that the way forward for DE was to place greater emphasis on the educational transaction and see distance as simply as a constraint (not discounting its challenge) as opposed to the practice at the time of idealizing and defining DE from its structural constraint of distance. With this perspective we viewed DE as education at a distance and thereby focused on the educational transaction (Garrison & Shale, 1990). As Bozkurt reveals, during the 1990s there was a clear shift to interactional and transactional dynamics of a DE experience. This was consistent with our focus on mediated two-way communication. With technological developments such as computer conferencing the definition and terminology of DE was beginning to be challenged. This opened the door to development of pedagogic and not simply geographic grounded theories of DE. In this regard I have described my view of the evolution of DE in the 1990s as a shift from structural to transactional issues (Garrison, 2000). The assumption and ideal of two-way communication eventually emerged as a central tenet of the CoI framework and opened the door to collaborative constructivist approaches to DE.

Let me conclude my personal reflections on the evolution of DE with the following passage:
The shift from the theoretical and practical dominance of independent approaches to sustained collaborative approaches to learning at a distance has created challenges in maintaining a clear identity to the field of distance education. At the end of the last century there was a clear shift in thinking from the structural challenges of distance education to considering a transactional education at a distance. That is, the focus shifted the structural constraints of distance to putting the emphasis on the educational experience. Recent developments blending online and face-to-face approaches have further blurred the distinction between distance and campus based educational experiences. The CoI framework is a generic model applicable to a variety of educational contexts ... (Garrison, in press)
Implicit in our work with the CoI framework was the desire to address inherent limitations of traditional distance education shaped by physical distance and reliance on prepackaged independent learning materials. From this perspective each of the presences that constitute the CoI framework address the previously insurmountable geographical constraints of the time. Addressing Social Presence was probably the most obvious challenge regarding traditional DE. In this regard we identified social presence in terms of the need and value of two-way communication and personal connection. Furthermore, Cognitive Presence shifted the focus from assimilation of information to creating meaning through collaborative inquiry that fused critical reflection and discourse. The third element, Teaching Presence, addressed the need for timely facilitation and direction that previously could only be simulated in independent study materials (see Holmberg). Together the elements of the CoI framework represented a clear paradigm shift in DE.

I raise all this to bring us back to how an intellectual map of the field of DE is important to move forward. Hopefully my reflections provide a helpful perspective in understanding the evolution of DE and how we move forward. I believe the shift is clearly toward online learning driven by the ability to offer collaborative constructivist approaches to learning at a distance. This brings my attention to the “multidimensional and multilayered ecology” of DE that Bozkurt describes. From this perspective it is important to bring into the discussion blended approaches to learning. Blended learning is an example of DE becoming more complex as the advantages of blending online and face-to-face learning becomes apparent (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008). Considering these evolutionary developments there is a growing need for a theoretical grounding of our practices. I would argue that the impact the CoI theoretical framework may well be its generic nature and applicability to multiple contexts including both online and face-to-face environments.

In conclusion, let me emphasize that Bozkurt’s examination of the intellectual roots is a valuable contribution and I thank him for bringing attention to this important topic. However, I do believe more work remains. There are gaps in the intellectual network of DE that might be fleshed out. For example, I would suggest exploring the theoretical developments in the 1990s that reflects a challenge to independent study and the move to computer conferencing and online learning. As well, it may prove interesting to analyze the positions of the early theorists such as Holmberg and Peters. Hopefully others will engage in this work and help clarify the direction of DE.


Bozkurt, A. (2019). Intellectual roots of distance education: a progressive knowledge domain analysis. Distance Education, 40(4), 497-514.

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

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

Garrison, D. R. (2000).Theoretical challenges for distance education in the 21st Century: A shift from structural to transactional issues. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 1(1), 1-17.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2, 87-105.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15, 7-23.

Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. (2008). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles and guidelines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Garrison, D. R. (in press). From independence to collaboration: A personal retrospective on distance education. In M. Cleveland-Innes, & D. R. Garrison, (Eds.). An introduction to distance education: Understanding teaching and learning in a new era (2nd edition). London: Routledge.



D. Randy Garrison
Professor Emeritus, University of Calgary
D. Randy Garrison is professor emeritus at the University of Calgary.Dr. Garrison has published extensively on teaching and learning in adult, higher and distance education contexts. He has authored, co-authored or edited twelve books and well over 100 refereed articles/chapters.His recent books are Thinking Collaboratively: Learning in a Community of Inquiry (2016) and E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Community of Inquiry Framework for Research and Practice (3rd Edition) (2017); for which he won second place for the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Division of Distance Learning Book Award, 2017.


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