Distance education offers geographically or time-constrained students access to the full depth and breadth of higher education offerings. Yet, distance education has significant drawbacks, including limitations to communication abilities, feelings of separation from instructors and peers, and an increased likelihood of dropping out. Educational informatics researchers argue that learning is a socially constructed activity, and thus students need to be able to communicate in order to develop a learning community. Consequently, historically, disconnected distance-learning practices were problematic for many students. As distance education has evolved to include a range of online offerings, including for-credit online degree programs and massive open online courses (MOOCs), new technologies have arisen that can make these challenges easier to surmount. Current literature suggests that faculty-encouraged use of both course-based and external Web 2.0 interactive tools may help students in online degree programs to succeed and feel connected to other students and faculty while participating in their distance-education courses. This paper examines the literature on distance education in order to provide a context for future research into communication patterns within MOOC courses, particularly within longer sequences of MOOC courses, and the role of student motivations on student-communication expectations and needs.