Definitions of Key Terms in Open and Distance Learning (ODL)

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of learners around the world are engaged in some form of Open and Distance Learning (ODL) . Therefore, it is important to understand some of the key terms that relates to ODL.

Adult learning and education (ALE):

ALE is a core component of lifelong learning. It comprises all forms of learning and education that aim to ensure that all adults participate in their societies and the world of work. It denotes the entire body of learning processes — formal, non-formal and informal — through which those regarded as adults by the society in which they live can develop and enrich their capabilities to live and work, and consequently advance both their own interests and those of their communities, organizations and societies. Adult learning and education involves sustained activities and processes of acquiring, recognizing, exchanging and adapting capabilities. Given that the boundaries of youth and adulthood are shifting in most cultures, in this publication the term ‘adult’ denotes all those who engage in adult learning and education, even if they have not reached the legal age of maturity (UIL, 2016d).

Blended learning:

Blended learning involves a combination of online and face-to-face learning experiences. Three examples of blended learning are flipped classrooms, online interaction followed by face-to-face teaching and online learning supplemented by face-to-face practical exercises (COL, 2020).

Distance education:

Distance education is a process of teaching and learning characterized by the separation of the educator and learner in time, place, or both, for most of the educational transaction, which is mediated by technology for the delivery of learning content but with the possibility of face-to face interaction for learner-educator and learner-learner interaction and which offers provision of two way didactic communication. Distance in this context refers to transactional distance and not physical distance. It is a conceptual construct with two key dimensions: structure and dialogue. Programmes with more structure and less dialogue are considered to have more distance (ibid.).


e-Learning is an umbrella term that refers to the use of any digital device or medium (multimedia) for teaching and learning, especially for delivery or accessing of content. Thus, e-Learning can take place without any connection to a network or connectivity. The digital device used by the learner to access materials need not be connected to a digital network, either a local area network or the internet (or even a mobile phone network if a tablet is used as a terminal or access device) (ibid.).

Information and communication technology (ICT):

 ICT refers to a range of technologies and tools used to create, collate and communicate information and knowledge. ICT is used in daily life to prepare documents, talk to others by phone, listen to the radio, watch television, and conduct countless other activities. Some ICT involves one-way communication, while some facilitates two-way communication. Some can include only one medium (e.g. telephone), while some can handle more than one medium (e.g. computer and television) (ibid.).

Learning management system (LMS):

Also called a course management system or virtual learning environment, an LMS is a web-based software system that helps educators to manage courses and deliver lessons online. It helps with the administration, tracking and reporting of the learning process. An LMS usually has the following constituent components: content creation, organization, delivery, learner support interactions, assessment and grading, and management of the learning process (ibid.).


Literacy is a key component of adult learning and education. It involves a continuum of learning and proficiency levels that allows citizens to engage in lifelong learning and participate fully in their community, workplace and wider society. It includes the ability to read and write; to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute using printed and written materials; and to solve problems in an increasingly technological and information-rich environment. Literacy is an essential means of building people’s  knowledge, skills and competencies to cope with the evolving challenges and complexities of life, culture, economy and society (UIL, 2016a).

Mode of provision:

The delivery approach by which learning takes place at institutions. For example, in single-mode institutions, courses and programmes may be mediated by either distance or contact-based methodologies. In dual and mixed-mode institutions, courses and programmes may be mediated by a range of distance, resource-based and contact-based methods.

Online learning:

Online learning is e-Learning via a digital network through which a learner accesses at least part of the learning materials and services. It refers to network-enabled teaching and learning that allows the learner to have increased interaction with content, educators, and other learners (COL, 2020).

Open educational resources (OER):

 Any educational resources (including curriculum maps, course materials, textbooks, streaming videos, multimedia applications, podcasts, and any other materials that have been designed for use in teaching and learning) that are published under an open licence and are available for use without an accompanying need to pay royalties or licence fees. Openly licensed content can be produced in any medium: text, video, audio or computer-based multimedia (UNESCO, 2019b).

Open learning:

Open learning refers to policies and practices of openness in entry requirements (with minimal or no restriction on qualifications), choice of courses, place of study and time, etc. It is an educational philosophy whereby learning can happen anywhere, at any time and via any resource. It can therefore also inform practice in face-to-face institutions (ibid.).

Universal design for learning (UDL):

UDL is an educational framework that guides the development of flexible learning environments and learning spaces that can accommodate individual learning differences. It comprises a set of principles that allows content developers and teachers to develop instructions to meet the diverse needs of all learners. UDL is intended to increase access to learning by reducing physical, cognitive, intellectual and organizational barriers to learning, as well as ensuring fair and accurate assessment (Rose and Meyer, 2002)

Source:   Guidelines  on Open and Distance Learning for youth and adult literacy by the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) and UNESCO Institute for Life Long. This resource material is available via the link below.