Chapter 10 Focus Question: The Theoretical Basis for Distance Education
Julie Barbadillo
EMC 598
Arizona State University
Summer 1998



In Chapter 10 "The Theoretical Basis for Distance Education" of Moore and Kearsley's Distance Education: A Systems View (1996), the authors trace the history of the term "distance education" and discuss the major theories in the field. One of these is the theory of transactional distance. Farhad Saba's system dynamics theory employs transactional distance "to describe the interrelationships of the variables that make up structure and dialog" (Moore and Kearsley, 1996, p. 208). Another theory, Kember's open learning model, is one that Moore and Kearsley regard as compatible with the authors' own systems approach to distance education. Moore and Kearsley recommend that these theories be used to guide the creation of useful research questions, the questions that are often neglected in the study of distance education (p. 197).


This paper describes Moore's theory of transactional distance, discusses how Saba's systems dynamics model enhances Moore's theory, and explains how Kember's open learning model can be utilized by distance educators. In addition, on-line research about Dr. Farhad Saba and Dr. David Kember will be presented.


Moore's Theory of Transactional Distance


Moore's theory of transactional distance is grounded in the concept of transaction, derived from Dewey and developed by Boyd and Apps in 1980 (Moore and Kearsley, 1996, p. 200). Transaction "connotes the interplay among the environment, the individuals, and the patterns of behaviors in a situation" (Boyd and Apps, 1980, as cited in Moore and Kearsley, 1996, p. 200). Further, the transaction known as distance education is "the interplay between people who are teachers and learners, in environments that have the special characteristic of being separate from one another, and a consequent set of special teaching and learning behaviors" (Moore and Kearsley, p. 200). The physical distance inherent in distance education "leads to communication gaps, a psychological space of potential misunderstandings between the behaviors of instructors and those of the learners" (Moore and Kearsley, p. 200). This is the transactional distance.

To overcome this transactional distance, which is pedagogical not geographic, Moore and Kearsley (p. 200) recommend instructional design and interaction procedures. Although there is some transactional distance in any educational event, Moore and Kearsley (p. 200) note that in distance education the separation of teacher and learner significantly affects their behaviors:

The separation actually dictates that teachers plan, present content, interact, and perform the other processes of teaching in significantly different ways from the face-to-face environment. The degree of transaction distance dictates just how much and what kinds of instructor-provided dialog and structure are needed in order to accommodate for the distance (Moore and Kearsley, pp. 200-201).

Moore and Kearsley (p. 201) define dialog as a term that "helps us focus on the interplay of words, actions, and ideas and any other interactions between teacher and learner when one gives instruction and the other responds." The extent and nature of this dialog is determined by

The environmental factors affecting dialog include the existence and size of a learning group, language, and the medium of communication (Moore and Kearsley, pp. 201-202). The type of distance education course inherently controls some of these factors. For instance, videotelecourses have very little or no dialog (Moore and Kearsley, p. 202). This is because often the videotelecourse is set up so that the student watches the televised videocourse but is not required to communicate with the instructor. Further, since no mechanism is in place for the student to give feedback to the instructor and vice versa, no dialog occurs (Moore and Kearsley, p. 202).

In addition to dialog, a second set of variables influences transactional distance: elements of the course design (Moore and Kearsley, p. 202). These elements include "learning objectives, content themes, information presentations, case studies, pictorial and other illustrations, exercises, projects, and tests" (Moore and Kearsley, pp. 202-203). According to Moore and Kearsley (p. 203),

Since structure expresses the rigidity or flexibility of the course's educational objectives, teaching strategies, and evaluation methods, it describes the extent to which course components can accommodate or be responsive to each learner's individual needs.
Saba's Systems Dynamics Model

Dr. Farhad Saba, Professor of Education at San Diego State University, has developed a systems dynamics model based on Moore's theory of transactional distance. Using a computer simulation based on systems dynamics modeling techniques, Saba describes the interrelationships between dialog and structure variables.

His findings reveal that there is an inverse relationship between levels of dialogue and structure: "As dialogue increases, structure decreases, and as structure decreases dialogue increases to keep the system stable" (Saba, 1988, as cited in Moore and Kearsley, 1996, p. 208). In essence, Saba's systems dynamics model can be used to study changes in dialog and structure and the effects on transactional distance. Saba's model indicates that the distance teacher will adjust goals, instructional materials, and evaluation procedures based on teacher/learner interaction as needed to maintain the balance between dialog and structure and, in the end, achieve the desired level of learner autonomy (Moore and Kearsley, 1996, pp. 208-209).

The dynamics of Saba's model indicate that transactional distance can be increased or decreased by changes to dialog and structure and that such changes result in predictable outcomes.


Kember's Open Learning Model

Dr. David Kember has written numerous articles about adult learners and the factors contributing to the successful completion of distance courses. In addition, he has conducted research on international distance programs at institutions such as the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the British Open University, and others.

Dr. Kember's open learning model is "perhaps the best illustration of how theory should affect practice and vice versa," according to Moore and Kearsley (p. 209). The open learning model "focuses on the factors that affect a student's successful completion of a distance education program with particular focus on the extent to which students are able to integrate their academic study with the often conflicting employment, family, and social commitments" (Moore and Kearsley, p. 209).

The open learning model is useful to distance educators because Kember's findings reveal that student progress can be enhanced by course design, collective affiliation, and congruence between student expectations and course procedures (Moore and Kearsley, p. 210). Further, because the model identifies the difficulties distance students are likely to face, it can serve as a guide for counseling and guidance activities (Moore and Kearsley, p. 210).



Both Saba's system dynamics and Kember's open learning models are compatible with Moore and Kearsley's systems approach to distance education. Both models ask the kinds of questions that Moore and Kearsley deem important. By focusing on transactional distance, systems dynamics, and causal relationships affecting student performance, both Saba and Kember provide models which will assist educators in promoting learning autonomy and, therefore, contribute to distance learners' successful course completion.




Moore, M. G., & Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance education: A systems view. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.


Humphrey, J. (1996, December). Distance learning: Completely virtual university courses offered for credit on the WWW in 1997.

Saba, F. (1997). EDTEC 650: Distance Education [Course description].

Saba, F. (1998). EDTEC 650: Distance Education [Professor's homepage].

Saba, F. (1998). EDTEC 653: Hypermedia and Multimedia [Course syllabus].