Paragons of online education; Börje Holmberg: Pioneer and advocate of distance education, Sweden

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Börje Holmberg, from Lund, Sweden is an internationally known and respected pioneer in the field of distance education. He is 95 years old. From 1972 to 1975 he was the ninth ICDE President, (ICDE was at that time the International Council for Correspondence Education', then ICCE), he was also at that time the Director of Hermods Foundation, Sweden . Prior to being ICDE President he was on the ICDE executive committee for a while.

Holmberg is held in very high esteem as a scientist in the field of distance education. In 1999 Börje Holmberg received the ICDE Prize for Excellence Award for lifelong contributions in the field of open and distance learning. He was also named an ICDE Honorary Member by the ICDE Executive Committee in recognition of his outstanding contributions to ICDE.


Holmberg is best known for his theory of personal communication between teachers and learners in distance education. He regards distance education as the conversational interaction between the student on the one hand and the tutor/adviser of the host organization. The central concepts of his theory are motivation, empathy, non-contiguous communication, learner autonomy and interpersonal communication.

To describe in Holmberg's way how distance teachers should communicate with students to ensure real learning, he uses the analogy of the conversation to describe the didactic conversation and derived seven postulates.

Guided didactic communication includes: Simulated conversation (one-sided, presentation of materials) and Real conversation  (two-sided between tutor and student). Examples of simulated conversations are conversations like presentations of learning matter, self-control exercises, review questions with model answers and inserted questions. In essence, Holmberg believes that by promoting empathy between learning and tutoring parties through appropriate one- and two-way interactions, learners are motivated and encouraged to participate personally in their studies. It also generally assumes that "genuine learning is primarily an individual activity and can only be achieved through a process of internalization". This assumption is one in which the theory of distance education can be justified. The aim of his theory is therefore to support individualized learning.

With his international research and his contribution with more than 200+ publications, he is one of the most cited paragons in distance education (today often referred to as the open online education sector). He is particularly recognized for his work and contribution to "the empathy approach" and "individualization" and "individual distance learning".

A whole life dedicated to the emphatic approach

ICDE - What is your key project nowadays?

- I am still following with great interest, the discourse on distance learning. In the discussion, as in this interview, Börje Holmberg recalls almost everything and all the great people he has met from all over the world in the field of distance education. (interviewers’ comment). I read a lot in a variety of areas. In 2009 I wrote my biography about "PÅ DISTANS OCH PÅ NÄRA HÅLL" (ON DISTANCE AND ON CLOSE - A distance pedagogues' memories).

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Some of my earlier international achievements:

  • Managing Director at Hermods Foundation, Sweden for almost 20 years

  • In 1976, I became Professor of Distance Education Methodology and Director of the Institute for Distance Education Research at the FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany. During my tenure there I published several books and made contributions to scholarly journals and papers. Among my works are Theory and Practice of Distance Education, a second and revised edition of which was published by Routledge in 1990, and Holmberg, B. (2005). The Evolution, Principles and Practices of Distance Education, Vol. II. Oldenburgh: B/S-Verlag der Carl von Ossietzky Universitat, even this one in a second edition.

  • In 1995 I became Planning President of the new Private FernFachhochschule Darmstadt (Distance Polytechnic, now Wilhelm Büchner Hochschule [de]) in Darmstadt. After my retirement from the FernUniversität, I continued contributing both to research and debate on distance education as an active practitioner in the field.

  • In July 2003, I joined a project concerned with online teaching and learning initiated by Ulrich Bernath and Eugene Rubin. As a member of their team I contributed to the development of the Virtual Seminar for Professional Development in Distance Education, which was successfully conducted in 1997 and 1998 with participants from all over the world. This course became the recommended first core course in the online Master of Distance Education (MDE) program, which was jointly offered by the University of Maryland University College and the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg.

Learning throughout the lifespan

ICDE - How did you become aware of ICDE?

- My first meeting and contact with ICDE was during a visit to US, in the early 1960s, when I was in contact with Charles A. Wedemeyer, University of Wisconsin, US who later became the eighth ICDE president (1969-1972) and author of the book on Learning at the Back Door. Reflections on Non-Traditional Learning in the Lifespan, 1981. What was particularly groundbreaking at that time was how distance educators worked with the marginalised black community, treating them as equal learners to those in the white communities. In addition, the possibilities for people to learn throughout the lifespan was emphasized.

Images from Wedemyer, (1981). Learning at the Backdoor. Reflections on Non-Traditional Learning in the Lifespan. The University of Wisconsin Press.

Images from Wedemyer, (1981). Learning at the Backdoor. Reflections on Non-Traditional Learning in the Lifespan. The University of Wisconsin Press.

Possibilities to make a difference

ICDE - Tell us about your foremost memory of ICDE

-       Of course, there are many great memories, both what was discussed and achieved. However, an organization is nothing without its dedicated people for advocating and for making a difference.

-       I was president from 1972-1975 in ICDE, which of course was a great time. A reminder from that time was the planning of the ICDE annual conference planned to be held in Japan in 1975, but at an international meeting in the UK I was told late, that Japan would not make it as planned, some professors were against it. I then asked my UK colleagues if they could help to organize the upcoming ICDE conference, and some colleagues from Brighton were willing to take over the host. So, the conference was held in Brighton, and as President I was responsible.

-     Another memory is the work of Renée Erdos of the Department of Technical Education, New South Wales, Australia, the seventh ICDE president (1965-1969). During her Presidency the 8th International ICCE Council for Correspondence Education, (the name before the name was ICDE) International Conference, was held in May 1969 in Paris at the headquarters of UNESCO. This conference was organized to pay UNESCO tribute to the Council's membership and to set the first milestone in the close relationship between the two organizations that continues to this day.

-    Erdos influenced us all in the field of distance learning at that time, and I worked with her for a long time. She worked with distance education in Australia but moved to Africa to teach Africans through distance learning with great success. She was very active in Africa and one of her strengths was that she was obviously practical, more than academic, she took command and did it brilliantly. She used to say, "That's how we do it."

-          Wedemyer and Erdos are the two people I remember most from that ICDE time.

-          At that time, the discourse in distance learning was very much about how to express oneself, about terminology and concepts.

-          Other important issues were the way correspondence was formulated, how communication was carried out, the frequency of contacts with students, the empathic approach and presence with learners, teachers and materials. However, advice based on international research was not always adapted by course authors and editors.

The international community


ICDE - What did you first and foremost learned from being an active ICDE member?

-          Distance education was a new concept at the time. So, we who were on the field became a community, it was as sisterhood and fraternity.

-          Although distance education was a new concept, the reviews from my books and other publications were very promising and positive, not least in Sweden and by Professor Torsten Husén (an internationally recognized professor of education, with an emphasis on the general educational level (Folkbildning).

-          Through ICDE its people it was possible to build an international network and community. One met with people from all over the world, with a great variety of cultures, experts, languages and diversity on all paths and levels under completely different conditions than in Sweden.

The role of the Open universities

ICDE - Tell about your best effort for ICDE?

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-          The time as ICDE President was of course a very interesting time. One of the most important events in our field was the inauguration of the Open University UK and its developments. Other open universities were then also founded, not least in Europe. Besides the Open University in UK, the Open University in Israel is one of the most impressive in my opinion.

Since the launch of the open universities, education for all throughout the lifespan became more accepted and a decisive.  The entire field of distance education got a boost due to the inaugurations of the Open Universities.

Challenges from the early stage of distance education remains - Getting to know the learners

ICDE - What are the challenges of education today?

 -          The students have to be aware of the theoretical basics in the study programs.

-          Individualization and the emphatic approach are still decisive for getting to know the learners. Furthermore, the importance of presence and genuine interest in each individual is crucial and one of the biggest challenges.

Global diversity, an eye opener

ICDE - And how can ICDE contribute to finding good solutions?

Professors Börje Holmberg, Michael Moore and Otto Peters (left to right),  at the EDEN conference, Barcelona, 2006. Photo with permission from EDEN.  (Tait, 2017,  European Figures in Distance and e-Learning, JL4D)

Professors Börje Holmberg, Michael Moore and Otto Peters (left to right),
at the EDEN conference, Barcelona, 2006. Photo with permission from EDEN.
(Tait, 2017, European Figures in Distance and e-Learning, JL4D)

-          Distance education is practiced in all parts of the world and has developed enormously and rapidly in recent years. It has become an integral part of many national education systems and an independent academic discipline. The exploration of the field has led to a theoretical work that is now being used to improve its practice. ICDE can and should encourage and support members, both individuals, institutions and organizations, to engage in the field of distance and open online learning.

-          As a community of professionals from all over the world, it can contribute to the exchange of knowledge and experience in the field of distance education. Global diversity can be an eye-opener to how solutions have been found based on different cultures and contexts, and much can be learned from it. In addition, the Sister and Brotherhood fellowship strengthens professionals and individuals who work at the local level with a global understanding and approach.

The guided didactic conversation, interaction and personal relationships

ICDE - Do you have a favorite quote that you would like to share?

-          I consider empathy and personal relationships between the parties involved in the teaching and learning process to be central to distance education. Interactions, conversations, atmosphere, feelings and trust are essential. I have dedicated my research and contribution in the field of distance learning to these characteristics.

-          The first correspondence letter must examine the student's previous experience and willingness to learn. Personal contact is essential. Also, in the course materials it is necessary to establish a personal contact and to try to win interested parties.

-          The empathy approach and individualization have always been my guiding principles.

-          Lifelong and learning throughout the lifespan are also guiding principles.

 A bouquet of roses

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ICDE - If you were going to give a bouquet of roses to someone in the ICDE community, who would it be?

-          During my professional life and after having dedicated my whole life to distance education, there are of course many respected people whom I have met over the years from all over the world. If you want me to choose just one, I will give by bouquet of roses to Charles A. Wedemeyer, University of Wisconsin, US who is one of the most important and inspiring people I have met in this area. He does deserve my bouquet of roses.


Name, country: Börje Holmberg, Lund, Sweden

Born: 1924, Malmö, Sweden

Hon. Dr Deakin University, Australia

Hon. Dr. The Open University, United Kingdom

Hon. Dr. La Universidad de Guadalajara, Mexico

1975-1989 Professor and Director of the Institute of Distance Education Research of the Fern Universität, Hagen, Germany

1966-1975 Director General, Hermods Foundation Sweden

1955-1966 Education Director of Hermods Foundation of Distance Education, Sweden

Previously Associated Professor in English, Lund University

Positions in ICDE (present and former): 1972-1975 President of ICDE (in ICDE Executive Committee some years before). 1999 Börje Holmberg received the ICDE Excellence Award for lifelong contributions. ICDE Honor member.

Holmberg has written profusely on distance education in English, German and Swedish.

Holmberg is a member of the Royal Physiographic Society in Lund, an academy of sciences founded in 1792, is a Knight of the Royal Order of Vasa, Sweden, as well as of the Order of the White Rose of Finland


Almost some 200 publications in the field of distance education

Holmberg has over 200 publications in the field of distance education. Holmberg carefully examined the character and applications of distance education and presented his overarching theory. Particular attention was paid to the innovative nature of distance learning and the role of technology in today's practice. He is particularly respected and recognized for his international work on the guided didactic conversation, the emphatic approach and individualization. Some examples as follows:

  • Holmberg, B. (1960). On the methods of teaching by correspondence. Lunds universitets årsskrift. N.F. Avd.1, Bd. 54, Nr.2. Lund: Gleerups.

  • Holmberg, B. (1973). Supervised correspondence study - a Swedish case study based on experiences within the school system. Epistolodidaktika 2,29–34.

  • Holmberg, B. (1977). Distance education: a survey and bibliography. London: Kogan Page.

  • Holmberg, B. (1980). Aspects of distance education. Comparative Education, 16(2), 107-119.

  • Holmberg, B. (1981). Status and Trends of Distance Education. London: Kogan Page; New York: Nichols.

  • Holmberg, B. (1982). Essentials of distance education (a distance-study course based on a handbook and a reader). Hagen: FernUniversitat, ZIFF.

  • Holmberg, B. (1982). Recent research into distance education. Gesamthochschule, Fern Universität.

  • Sewart, D., Keegan, D., & Holmberg, B. (Eds.). (1983). Distance education: International perspectives. Beckenham, Kent: Croom Helm.

  • Holmberg, B. (1983). Guided didactic conversation. In D.Stewart, D.Keegan,& B. Holmberg (Eds.), Distance education: International perspective. London: Croom Helm.

  • Holmberg, B. (1985). The feasibility of a theory of teaching for distance education and a proposed theory. ZIFF Papiere, 60. Hagen:FernUniversitat, ZIFF. Holmberg, B. (1986). A discipline of distance education. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education, 1(1), 25-40.

  • Holmberg, B. (1987). Growth and structure of distance education. London: Croom Helm.

  • Holmberg, B., & Schuemer, R. (1989). Tutoring frequency in distance education - an empirical study of the impact of various frequencies of assignment submission. Hagen: FernUniversitat, ZIFF.

  • Holmberg, B. (1989). Mediated Communication as a Component of Distance Education. Hagen: FernUniversitat.

  • Holmberg, B. (1990). A bibliography of writings on distance education. Hagen: FernUniversitat, ZIFF.

  • Holmberg, B. (1990). Serving academic purposes by an empathy approach to distance education. In D. Eastwood, B. farmer, & B. Lantz (Eds.), Aspects of Educational and Training Technology XXIII. London: Kogan Page; New York: Nichols.

  • Holmberg, B. (1995). The evolution of the character and practice of distance education. Open learning, 10(2), 47-53.

  • Holmberg, B. (1995). Theory and practice of distance education-2nd edition. London and New York: Routledge.

  • Holmberg, B. (1995). The sphere of distance-education theory revisited. ZIFF Papiere, 98. Hagen: FernUniversitat, ZIFF.

  • Holmberg, B. (1997). Distance-education theory again. Open Learning 12(1), 31-39.

  • Holmberg, B. (1998). Critical reflection, politics, obscurantism and distance education. Epistolodidaktika 2, 27-37.

  • Holmberg, B. (1999). The conversational approach to distance education. Open Learning 14(3), 58-60.

  • Holmberg, B. (2000). Status and trends of distance-education research. In E. Wagner, & A. Szucs (Eds.), Research and innovation in open and distance learning 1-5. Prague: European Distance Education Network - EDEN.

  • Holmberg, B. (2001). Distance education in essence: An overview of theory and practice in the early twenty-first century. Bibliotheks-und Informationssystem der Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg (BIS).

  • Holmberg, B. (2001). Distance education in essence. Oldenburg, Germany: Bibliotheksund Informations system der Universitat Oldenburg.

  • Holmberg, B. (2003). Distance Education in Essence. An overview of theory and practice in the early twenty-first century. Oldenburg: Bibliotheks-und Informationssystem der Universitat Oldenburg.

  • Holmberg, B. (2005). Distance Education and Languages: Evolution and Change. New Perspectives on Language and Education. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

  • Holmberg, B. (2005). The Evolution, Principles and Practices of Distance Education, Vol.II. Oldenburgh: B/S-Verlag der Carl von Ossietzky Universitat.


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Interview conducted by Ebba Ossiannilsson



Caroline Seville