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With the rise of technology, distance learning has grown from a novelty to a necessity. Before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, many instructors and teachers resisted utilizing a partial or complete distance learning option. Despite the evidence that an online course is as effective as a face-to-face course, the assumption that distance education is inferior persists. Understanding this resistance is a complex undertaking; however, I believe one reason may be unfamiliarity with Dr. Michael Simonson’s equivalency theory.

Before we examine equivalency theory, it is necessary to discuss the events that precipitated Simonson’s work. Before the 1960s, the concept of distance education was limited to correspondence courses. Charles Wedemeyer’s book, Independent Study, marked an important event in understanding distance education (1971). His book indicated a shift from correspondence study and focused instead on independent research (1971). This change is a significant event in the history of distance education for many reasons; however, Wedemeyer’s pedagogical assumptions of independent study marked a turning point in understanding learning at a distance. This discussion intends not to elaborate on every distance education researcher or theorist; however, recognizing the importance of Michael Moore, Otto Peters, Bjore Homberg, and many others influenced equivalency theory development.

In a nutshell, equivalency theory posits that distance education is not identical to traditional education, but it is equivalent.

(Simonson et al., 2011)

In a nutshell, equivalency theory posits that distance education is not identical to traditional education, but it is equivalent (Simonson et al., 2011). In a 2008 podcast, Dr. Simonson shared that the “initial thought for distance learning is that you can use a video, CD, or stream a video. Then students will have an identical experience. But, it is impossible for the learning to be identical” (Simonson, 2008). The false assumption that video or live lectures are identical to a classroom experience created dissatisfaction and frustration from educators, students, and parents following the abrupt shift to online education. What many viewed as online learning was more akin to remote learning. This confusion further supports the need for an accurate understanding of equivalency theory.

The key to understanding equivalency theory is to reject the notion that each student will learn in the same way. Instead, recognizing that the more equivalent the experiences of distant learners are to traditional learners, the more similar will be the learning outcomes. Schlosser and Simonson (2019) point to the necessity of “instructional design procedures [that] attempt to anticipate and provide the collection of experiences that will be most suitable for each student or group of students.”

In elaborating on this theory, Simonson (1995) states that it should not be necessary for any group of learners to compensate for different, possibly lesser, instructional learning experiences. Students should have tailored learning experiences relative to the distance learning environment. Thus, those developing distance education systems should strive for equivalency in all students’ learning experiences.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is the reality that distance education is needed now more than ever. The concept of equivalency is central to the acceptance of distance education. Suppose teachers, learners, and the public identifies distance or online learning as equivalent to what they consider to be traditional learning; this knowledge would elevate online education to its rightful place; however, if the false assumption that online learning is identical to traditional learning, the power of distance education will be significantly diminished as a viable learning environment.


Schlosser, L., & Simonson, M. (2009). Distance Education: Definition and glossary of terms (3rd ed.). Charlotte, NC. Information Age Publishing.

Simonson, M. 1995. Does anyone really want to learn at a distance? Tech Trends 40 (5): 12.

Simonson, M., Schlosser, C., & Hanson, D. (1999). Theory and distance education: A new discussion. The American Journal of Distance Education. 13(1). Retrieved from

Simonson, M. (2008). Equivalency theory. [Podcast]. Retrieved from

Wedemeyer, C. A. (1971). Independent study. In R. Deighton (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Education IV (pp. 548-557). New York: McMillan.

ISPI. (2012). International Society for Performance Improvement. Retrieved August 14, 2017, from

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