We’ve all had the experience: it’s your first week of an exciting new job and your motivation is burning brighter than ever when, suddenly, the flame is tamped out by a barrage of clunky, boring, out-of-touch eLearning modules. Yawn. Who wrote this stuff, anyway?

It’s an instructional designer’s worst fear. We often don’t have the opportunity to be in the room when our courses are being taken, so how do we connect with our learners and keep them from feeling distant and out of touch?

Understanding the basic theory behind distance learning may hold the key.

What is distance learning?

Distance learning refers to a course instructed by someone in a different physical location than their learners.

It’s a practice that has existed for hundreds of years. In the late 1800s, teachers and students would send materials back and forth through the mail. By the 20th century, the more efficient telecommunication became the primary medium of distance learning: first the phonograph and then radio and television. Today distance learning typically takes the form of online courses.

Distance learning has great potential to create access for learners who may not have otherwise been able to take a particular course or earn a particular degree; it can be a life-changing option for working parents, people looking to get their degree without moving overseas, or people whose disabilities prevent them from excelling in a classroom environment.

In a corporate learning setting, it also has the potential to create or worsen a feeling of disconnectedness between new employees and higher ranks of the organization. Who wants to sit in an over-air conditioned room taking online course after online course feeling like the people who wrote the course have no interest in getting to know them or understanding their day-to-day at the company?

How can that help me design courses?

In the 1970s, distance education theorist Dr. Michael G. Moore began to develop what is now known as the Theory of Transactional Distance.

It’s kind of dense, but basically it says this: physical distance between instructor and learner creates psychological distance and a communication gap, called “transactional distance.” According to Moore, the three key variables of distance learning are learner independence, dialogue between instructor and learner, and the structure of the course. Transactional distance can be managed by adjusting these variables.

The goal isn’t necessarily to lower or eliminate transactional distance between you and your learners; it’s to consider what kind of distance your course creates and make sure it’s an appropriate and comfortable amount for your learners.

Learner Independence

The whole point of educating at a distance is to accommodate your learner’s independence, right? Having a feel for how independent your learners are can help you decide how much transactional distance to give them. Very independent, self-motivated learners can succeed with a high amount of transactional distance, while dependent learners who are accustomed to a more traditional in-person training setting might be more comfortable with a smaller transactional distance.


A course that simply talks at your learners creates a wide transactional distance, because there’s no room for connection or response. If you want to close the gap when it comes to dialogue, consider building in opportunities for your learners to provide their input or have a conversation with their supervisor about the content of the course.


A rigidly structured course with time limits and frequent quizzes creates a big transactional distance, and you had better be certain that your learners are very independent and self-motivated if you expect them to stay engaged. A course with a looser structure will encourage communication between the learner and the person administering the course (if there is one), shrinking the transactional distance.

Distance between you and your learners can be an inconvenience, but it can also be a powerful tool to create access and reach a multitude of targets. By taking the variables we’ve learned from Moore’s Theory of Transactional Distance into account, we can ensure that we’re creating the best possible learning experience for our learners, even if we can’t be in the room with them.

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