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Consideration of the place of theory in distance education suggests that existing definitions do not adequately account for economic, cultural and historical factors. The application of the notion of hegemonic valency to distance education highlights the ways in which tools, technological systems and online environments operate in predictable ways. Historically, the imperatives of market forces and social justice have displayed a tension that is continued in contemporary contexts including virtual learning environments. A characteristic of this tension can be seen in the forces and interactions associated with globalisation and technology. These forces, in association with others, have contributed to a null curriculum in which some alternatives open to distance education practitioners remain invisible. It is likely that this situation is further compounded by the difficulty of ascertaining what distance education practices are actually operating world-wide at any identifiable time. Available options for distance educators can be understood in terms of instrumental and interpersonal axes that can potentially indicate the relative consideration that can be given to these factors. This approach is suggested as one way to understand available options at a time when there has been an apparent increase in instrumental approaches to distance education at the expense of interpersonal approaches and issues of social justice. While this problem is of concern, it is more appropriate to reflect on the unintended consequences of distance education for society and identify them than it is to uncritically oppose globalisation and its adherents.