Long before people and communities were connected through the internet, distance education existed to facilitate learning over large spans of geographic distance. Learning material in a pre-internet, pre-industrial setting was naturally rigid and student interaction was challenging if not non-existent. I recently read this chapter from Dr. Karen Swan's research in the book Understanding Distance Learning in the 21st Century: Teaching and Learning in a New Era. Dr. Swan writes about how the advent of online learning has changed the the model of learning from a materials-focused approach to a student-focused approach.
This model of online learning is called the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model. It's based on the notion that a learning community must be developed with a cognitive, social, and teaching presence.
What I found most interesting from Swan's writing was the reference to research that indicates a correlation between successful online learning and the individual student's ability to engage and connect with her or his peers in a learning setting. Certainly this connection is easier to obtain in a physical setting; considering the past difficulty students likely faced in pre-industrial/pre-internet distance learning settings, it's clear that the required framework element of social presence is becoming more attainable as our tools for connecting improve.
Here's a bit more on the CoI model as it applies to an academic setting: