Original Research - Special Collection: OEH: The Online Educated Human

Online learning as a form of distance education: Linking formation learning in theology to the theories of distance education

Jennifer J. Roberts
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 75, No 1 | a5345 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v75i1.5345 | © 2019 Jenny Roberts | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 30 November 2018 | Published: 26 September 2019

About the author(s)

Jennifer J. Roberts, Institute for Open and Distance Learning, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa


Distance education (DE) has a long and complex history. It accounts for more than one-third of all higher education students in the world and, because of its very nature, has produced some of the top graduates worldwide who were unable to study fulltime and on-campus for various reasons. One of the most prestigious graduates of the DE system was the former state president of South Africa, the late Nelson Mandela. Online learning is a form of DE and fast becoming the preferred method of instruction and delivery. Critiques of online learning, and of DE itself, will argue that, because of the separation of the teacher and the student, only academic skills can be taught and learnt using this medium. The so-called ‘softer skills’ – those that focus on the development of the person – are best taught in a face-to-face, traditional environment. This article focuses on a review of DE theories and models. A particular emphasis is placed on online learning theories, and how the teaching of formational learning skills can be successfully incorporated into this educational setting. The article draws from a range of studies that have been conducted, based on conceptual and empirical research evidence from various authors. Drawing from Garrison, Anderson and Archer’s Community of Inquiry framework for online education, it presents key elements that relate to the formational (spiritual) training of theology students. The article examines research that both supports and cautions against online learning for formative development. It concludes by suggesting a blended model of both face-to-face and online learning, where meaningful interactions between the learner and teacher take place, is desirable. The article highlights the important role that DE (and specifically online education) can play in developing the human component of education.


Distance education; Online learning; Formation; Theological education; Community of inquiry.


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