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Distance education

Distance education or distance learning is a mode of delivering education and instruction, often on an individual basis, to students who are not physically present in a traditional setting such as a classroom. Distance learning provides "access to learning when the source of information and the learners are separated by time and distance, or both."[1] Distance education courses that require a physical on-site presence for any reason (excluding taking examinations) have been referred to as hybrid[2] or blended[3] courses of study. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), aimed at large-scale interactive participation and open access via the web or other network technologies, are a recent development in distance education.


  • History 1
    • First distance education courses 1.1
    • University correspondence courses 1.2
    • Radio and television 1.3
    • Open University 1.4
    • Internet 1.5
  • Technologies 2
  • Paced and self paced models 3
  • Benefits 4
  • Criticism 5
  • Educational technology 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


The earliest distance education courses may date back to the early 18th century in Europe. One of the earliest examples was from a 1728 advertisement in the Boston Gazette for "Caleb Phillips, Teacher of the new method of Short Hand," who sought students who wanted to learn through weekly mailed lessons.[4]

First distance education courses

Sir Isaac Pitman, pioneer of distance education in the 1840s.

The first distance education course in the modern sense was provided by Sir Isaac Pitman in the 1840s, who taught a system of shorthand by mailing texts transcribed into shorthand on postcards and receiving transcriptions from his students in return for correction - the element of student feedback was a crucial innovation of Pitman's system.[5] This scheme was made possible by the introduction of uniform postage rates across England from 1840.[6]

This early beginning proved extremely successful, and the Phonographic Correspondence Society was founded three years later to establish these courses on a more formal basis. The Society paved the way for the later formation of Sir Isaac Pitman Colleges across the country.[7]

University correspondence courses

The University of London was the first university to offer distance learning degrees, establishing its External Programme in 1858. The background to this innovation lay in the fact that the institution (later known as University College London) was non-denominational and, given the intense religious rivalries at the time, there was an outcry against the "godless" university. The issue soon boiled down to which institutions had degree-granting powers and which institutions did not.[8]

The London University in 1827, drawn by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd

The compromise solution that emerged in 1836 was that the sole authority to conduct the examinations leading to degrees would be given to a new officially recognised entity called the "University of London", which would act as examining body for the University of London colleges, originally University College London and King's College London, and award their students University of London degrees. As Sheldon Rothblatt states, "thus arose in nearly archetypal form the famous English distinction between teaching and examining, here embodied in separate institutions."[8] With the state giving examining powers to a separate entity, the groundwork was laid for the creation of a programme within the new university that would both administer examinations and award qualifications to students taking instruction at another institution or pursuing a course of self-directed study.

William Rainey Harper, encouraged the development of external university courses at the new University of Chicago in the 1890s

Referred to as "People's University" by Charles Dickens because it provided access to higher education to students from less affluent backgrounds, the External Programme was chartered by Queen Victoria in 1858, making the University of London the first university to offer distance learning degrees to students.[9][10] Enrolment increased steadily during the late 19th century, and its example was widely copied elsewhere.[11] This program is now known as the University of London International Programme and includes Postgraduate, Undergraduate and Diploma degrees created by colleges such as the London School of Economics, Royal Holloway and Goldsmiths.[10]

In the United States William Rainey Harper, first president of the University of Chicago, developed the concept of extended education, whereby the research university had satellite colleges of education in the wider community. In 1892 he also encouraged the concept of correspondence school courses to further promote education, an idea that was put into practice by Columbia University.[12][13] Enrollment in the largest private for-profit school based in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the International Correspondence Schools grew explosively in the 1890s. Originally founded in 1888 to provide training for immigrant coal miners aiming to become state mine inspectors or foremen, it enrolled 2500 new students in 1894 and matriculated 72,000 new students in 1895. By 1906 total enrollments reached 900,000. The growth was due to sending out complete textbooks instead of single lessons, and the use of 1200 aggressive in-person salesmen.[14][15] There was a stark contrast in pedagogy:

The regular technical school or college aims to educate a man broadly; our aim, on the contrary, is to educate him only along some particular line. The college demands that a student shall have certain educational qualifications to enter it, and that all students study for approximately the same length of time, and when they have finished their courses they are supposed to be qualified to enter any one of a number of branches in some particular profession. We, on the contrary, are aiming to make our courses fit the particular needs of the student who takes them.[16]

Education was a high priority in the Progressive Era, as American high schools and colleges expanded greatly. For men who were older or were too busy with family responsibilities, night schools were opened, such as the YMCA school in Boston that became Northeastern University. Outside the big cities, private correspondence schools offered a flexible, narrowly focused solution. In 1916 efficiency was enhanced by the formation of the National Association of Corporation Schools.[17]

Universities around the world used correspondence courses in the first half of the 20th century, especially to reach rural students. Australia with its vast distances was especially active; the University of Queensland established its Department of Correspondence Studies in 1911.[18] In South Africa, the University of South Africa, formerly an examining and certification body, started to present distance education tuition in 1946. The International Conference for Correspondence Education held its first meeting in 1938.[19] The goal was to provide individualized education for students, at low cost, by using a pedagogy of testing, recording, classification, and differentiation.[20][21]

Radio and television

The very rapid spread of radio in the United States in the 1930s led to proposals to use it for distance education. By 1938, at least 200 city school systems, 25 state boards of education, and many colleges and universities broadcast educational programs for the public schools.[22] One line of thought was to use radio as a master teacher.

" Experts in given fields broadcast lessons for pupils within the many schoolrooms of the public school system, asking questions, suggesting readings, making assignments, and conducting tests. This mechanizes education and leaves the local teacher only the tasks of preparing for the broadcast and keeping order in the classroom." [23]

A typical setup came in Kentucky in 1948 when John Wilkinson Taylor, president of the University of Louisville, teamed up with the National Broadcasting Corporation to use radio as a medium for distance education, The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission endorsed the project and predicted that the "college-by-radio" would put "American education 25 years ahead." The University was owned by the city, and local residents would pay the low tuition rates, receive their study materials in the mail, and listen by radio to live classroom discussions that were held on campus.[24] Charles Wedemeyer of the University of Wisconsin–Madison also promoted new methods. From 1964 to 1968, the Carnegie Foundation funded Wedemeyer's Articulated Instructional Media Project (AIM) which brought in a variety of communications technologies aimed at providing learning to an off-campus population.

Open University

Walton Hall, renovated in 1970 to act as the headquarters of the newly established Open University. (Artist: Hilary French)

The Open University in the United Kingdom was founded by the then serving Labour Party government under Prime Minister Harold Wilson, based on the vision of Michael Young. Planning commenced in 1965 under Minister of State for Education Jennie Lee, who established a model for the OU as one of widening access to the highest standards of scholarship in higher education, and set up a planning committee consisting of university vice-chancellors, educationalists and television broadcasters, chaired by Sir Peter Venables. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Assistant Director of Engineering at the time James Redmond, had obtained most of his qualifications at night school, and his natural enthusiasm for the project did much to overcome the technical difficulties of using television to broadcast teaching programmes.

The University revolutionised the scope of the correspondence program and helped to create a respectable learning alternative to the traditional form of education. It has been at the forefront of developing new technologies to improve the distance learning service and is still the largest such institution in the world. Its success helped to hasten the establishment of similar institutions elsewhere, including in the US and Japan.[25] Walter Perry was appointed the OU's first vice-chancellor in January 1969, and its Foundation Secretary was Anastasios Christodoulou. The election of the new Conservative Party government under Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1970 led to budget cuts under Chancellor of the Exchequer Iain Macleod (who had earlier called the idea of an Open University "blithering nonsense").[26] However, the OU accepted its first 25,000 students in 1971, adopting a radical open admissions policy. At the time, the total student population of conventional universities in the United Kingdom was around 130,000.

Athabasca University, Canada's Open University, was created in 1970 and followed a similar, though independently developed, pattern.[27] The Open University inspired the creation of Spain's National University of Distance Education (1972)[28] and Germany's FernUniversität in Hagen (1974).[29] There are now many similar institutions around the world, often with the name "Open University" (in English or in the local language). All "open universities" use distance education technologies as delivery methodologies and some have grown to become 'mega-universities',[30] a term coined to denote institutions with more than 100,000 students. In 1976, Bernard Luskin launched Coastline Community College as a college beyond walls, combining computer assisted instruction with telecourses produced by KOCE TV, the Coast Community College District public television station. Coastline has been a landmark strategic success in helping to establish online distance learning using modern technology for learning.


The widespread use of computers and the internet have made distance learning easier and faster, and today virtual schools and virtual universities deliver full curricula online.[31] In 1996 Jones International University was launched by Glenn Jones, CEO and Bernard Luskin, Chancellor as the first fully online university accredited by a regional accrediting association in the US.[32]

Between 2000 and 2008, undergraduate enrollment in at least some distance programs became more and more common. The share of students "in at least one distance education class expanded from 8 percent to 20 percent, and the percentage enrolled in a distance education degree program increased from 2 percent to 4 percent."[33]

Many private, public, non-profit and for-profit institutions worldwide now offer distance education courses from the most basic instruction through the highest levels of degree and doctoral programs. Levels of accreditation vary: Widely respected universities such as Stanford University and Harvard now deliver online courses—but other online schools receive little outside oversight, and some are actually fraudulent, i.e., diploma mills. In the US, the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) specializes in the accreditation of distance education institutions.[34]

In the United States in 2011, it was found that a third of all the students enrolled in postsecondary education had taken an accredited online course in a postsecondary institution.[35] Even though growth rates are slowing, enrollment for online courses has been seen to increase with the advance in technology. The majority of public and private colleges now offer full academic programs online.[35] These include, but are not limited to, training programs in the mental health,[36] occupational therapy,[37][38] family therapy,[39] art therapy,[40] physical therapy,[38] and rehabilitation counseling[41] fields.

Distance education has a long history, but its popularity and use has grown exponentially as more advanced technology has become available. By 2008, online learning programs were available in the United States in 44 states at the K-12 level.[42]

SazmandAsfaranjan, Y., Shirzad, F., Baradari, F., Salimi, M., & Salehi, M. in a 2013 research paper argued that implementation of internet forum, online discussion group and online learning community contribute to an efficacious distance education. Researchers showed that socialization plays the most vital role in effective distance education.[43]


Although the expansion of the Internet blurs the boundaries, distance education technologies are divided into two modes of delivery: synchronous learning and asynchronous learning.

In synchronous learning, all participants are "present" at the same time. In this regard, it resembles traditional classroom teaching methods despite the participants being located remotely. It requires a timetable to be organized. Web conferencing, videoconferencing, educational television, instructional television are examples of synchronous technology, as are direct-broadcast satellite (DBS), internet radio, live streaming, telephone, and web-based VoIP.[44] Online meeting software such as Adobe Connect has helped to facilitate meetings in distance learning courses. Another form of synchronous learning that has been entering the classroom over the last couple of years is the use of robot proxies.[45]

In asynchronous learning, participants access course materials flexibly on their own schedules. Students are not required to be together at the same time. Mail correspondence, which is the oldest form of distance education, is an asynchronous delivery technology, as are message board forums, e-mail, video and audio recordings, print materials, voicemail, and fax.[44]

The two methods can be combined. Many courses offered by both open universities and an increasing number of campus based institutions use periodic sessions of residential or day teaching to supplement the sessions delivered at a distance.[46] This type of mixed distance and campus based education has recently come to called "blended learning" or less often "hybrid learning". The Open University uses a blend of technologies and a blend of learning modalities (face-to-face, distance, and hybrid) all under the rubric of "distance learning."

Distance learning can also use interactive radio instruction (IRI), interactive audio instruction (IAI), online virtual worlds, digital games, webinars, and webcasts, all of which are referred to as eLearning.[46] Media psychology and media studies have evolved as the research area in the study of media effects. Each has grown into important academic areas with graduate degree programs now providing professional research, teaching and field staff to help build understanding of the behavioral implications of media. The first MA, PhD and EdD programs in Media Psychology and Media Studies were launched in 2002 by Bernard Luskin at Fielding Graduate University.

Paced and self paced models

Distance education can be delivered in a paced format, much as traditional campus based models in which learners commence and complete a course at the same time. Paced delivery is currently the most common mode of distance education delivery. Alternatively, some institutions offer self-paced programs that allow for continuous enrolment and the length of time to complete the course is set by the learner's time, skill and commitment levels. Paced courses may be offered in either synchronus mode, but self-paced courses are almost always offered asynchronously. Each delivery model offers both advantages and disadvantages for students, teachers and institutions.

Paced models are a familiar mode as they are used almost exclusively in campus based schools. Institutes that offer both distance and campus programs usually use paced models as teacher workload, student semester planning, tuition deadlines, exam schedules and other administrative details can be synchronized with campus delivery. Student familiarity and the pressure of deadlines encourages students to readily adapt to and usually succeed in paced models. However, student freedom is sacrificed as a common pace is often too fast for some students and too slow for others. In addition life events, professional or family responsibilities can interfere with a students capability to complete tasks to an external schedule. Finally, paced models allows students to readily form communities of inquiry[47] and to engage in collaborative work.

Self-paced courses maximize student freedom, as not only can students commence studies on any date, but they can complete a course in as little time as a few weeks or up to a year or longer. Students often enrol in self-paced study when they are under pressure to complete programs, have not been able to complete a scheduled course, need additional courses or have pressure which precludes regular study for any length of time. The self-paced nature of the programming, though is an unfamiliar model for many students and can lead to excessive procrastination resulting in course incompletion. Assessment of learning can also be challenging as exams can be written on any day, making it possible for students to share examination questions with resulting loss of academic integrity. Finally, it is extremely challenging to organize collaborative work activities, though some schools[48] are developing cooperative models based upon networked and connectivist pedagogies,[49] for use in self-paced programs.


Distance learning can expand access to education and training for both general populace and businesses since its flexible scheduling structure lessens the effects of the many time-constraints imposed by personal responsibilities and commitments.[50] Devolving some activities off-site alleviates institutional capacity constraints arising from the traditional demand on institutional buildings and infrastructure.[50] Furthermore, there is the potential for increased access to more experts in the field and to other students from diverse geographical, social, cultural, economic, and experiential backgrounds.[39] As the population at large becomes more involved in lifelong learning beyond the normal schooling age, institutions can benefit financially, and adult learning business courses may be particularly lucrative.[50] Distance education programs can act as a catalyst for institutional innovation[50] and are at least as effective as face-to-face learning programs,[37][51] especially if the instructor is knowledgeable and skilled.[40]

Distance education can also provide a broader method of communication within the realm of education. With the many tools and programs that technological advancements have to offer, communication appears to increase in distance education amongst students and their professors, as well as students and their classmates. The distance educational increase in communication, particularly communication amongst students and their classmates, is an improvement that has been made to provide distance education students with as many of the opportunities as possible as they would receive in in-person education. The improvement being made in distance education is growing in tandem with the constant technological advancements. Present-day online communication allows students to associate with accredited schools and programs throughout the world that are out of reach for in-person learning. By having the opportunity to be involved in global institutions via distance education, a diverse array of thought is presented to students through communication with their classmates. This is beneficial because students have the opportunity to "combine new opinions with their own, and develop a solid foundation for learning.".[52] It has been shown through research that "as learners become aware of the variations in interpretation and construction of meaning among a range of people [they] construct an individual meaning," which can help students become knowledable of a wide array of viewpoints in education.[52] To increase the likelihood that students will build effective ties with one another during the course, instructors should use similar assignments for students across different locations to overcome the influence of co-location on relationship building.[53]

The high cost of education affects students in higher education, to which distance education may be an alternative in order to provide some relief. Distance education has been a more cost-effective form of learning, and can sometimes save students a significant amount of money as opposed to traditional education. Distance education may be able to help to save students a considerable amount financially by removing the cost of transportation.[54] In addition, distance education may be able to save students from the economic burden of high-priced course textbooks. Many textbooks are now available as electronic textbooks, known as e-textbooks, which can offer digital textbooks for a reduced price in comparison to traditional textbooks. Also, the increasing improvements in technology have resulted in many school libraries having a partnership with digital publishers that offer course materials for free, which can help students significantly with educational costs.[54]

Within the class, students are able to learn in ways that traditional classrooms would not be able to provide. It is able to promote good learning experiences and therefore, allow students to obtain higher satisfaction with their online learning.[55] For example, students can review their lessons more than once according to their need. Students can then manipulate the coursework to fit their learning by focusing more on their weaker topics while breezing through concepts that they already have or can easily grasp.[55] When course design and the learning environment are at their optimal conditions, distance education can lead students to higher satisfaction with their learning experiences.[56] Studies have shown that high satisfaction correlates to increased learning. Students who are enrolled in distance education with high satisfaction in their online coursework are then motivated intrinsically to learn, which often means that their performance in class will improve.[56][57] For those in a healthcare or mental health distance learning program, online-based interactions have the potential to foster deeper reflections and discussions of client issues[38] as well as a quicker response to client issues, since supervision happens on a regular basis and is not limited to a weekly supervision meeting.[41] This also may contribute to the students feeling a greater sense of support, since they have ongoing and regular access to their instructors and other students.[38][41]

Distance learning may enable students who are unable to attend a traditional school setting, due to disability or illness such as decreased mobility and immune system suppression, to get a good education.[58] Children who are sick or are unable to attend classes are now able to attend them in “person” through the use of robot proxies. This helps the students have experiences of the classroom and social interaction that they are unable to receive at home or the hospital, while still keeping them in a safe learning environment. Over the last few years more students are entering safely back into the classroom thanks to the help of robots. Attached is an article from the New York Times: A Swiveling Proxy Will Even Wear a Tutu that explains the positive impact of virtual learning in the classroom.[59] Distance education may provide equal access regardless of socioeconomic status or income, area of residence, gender, race, age, or cost per student.[60] Applying universal design strategies to distance learning courses as they are being developed (rather than instituting accommodations for specific students on an as-needed basis) can increase the accessibility of such courses to students with a range of abilities, disabilities, learning styles, and native languages.[61] Distance education graduates, who would have never have been associated with the school under a traditional system, may donate money to the school.[62]

Distance Learning may also offer a final opportunity for adolescences that are no longer permitted in the General Education population due to behavior disorders. Instead of these students having no other academic opportunities, they may continue their education from their homes and earn their diplomas, offering them another chance to be an integral part of society.


Barriers to effective distance education include obstacles such as domestic distractions and unreliable technology,[63] as well as students' program costs, adequate contact with teachers and support services, and a need for more experience.[64]

Some students attempt to participate in distance education without proper training of the tools needed to be successful in the program. Students must be provided with training on each tool that is used throughout the program. The lack of advanced technology skills can lead to an unsuccessful experience. Schools have a responsibility to adopt a proactive policy for managing technology barriers.[65]

The results of a study of Washington state community college students showed that distance learning students tended to drop out more often than their traditional counterparts due to difficulties in language, time management, and study skills.[66]

Distance learning benefits may outweigh the disadvantages for students in such a technology driven society however before indulging into use of educational technology a few more disadvantages should be considered. Some say a negative to distance education is the lack of direct face-to-face social interaction, however as more people become used to personal and social interaction online (for example dating, chat rooms, shopping, blogging etc.) it is becoming easier for learners to both project themselves and socialize with others. Not all courses required to complete a degree may be offered online. Health care profession programs in particular, require some sort of patient interaction through field work before a student may graduate.[67] Studies have also shown that students pursuing a medical professional graduate degree who are participating in distance education courses, favor face to face communication over professor-mediated chat rooms and/or independent studies. However, this is little to correlation between student performance when comparing the previous different distance learning strategies.[37]

There is a theoretical problem about the application of traditional teaching methods to online courses because online courses may have no upper size limit. Daniel Barwick noted that there is no evidence that large class size is always worse or that small class size is always better, although a negative link has been established between certain types of instruction in large classes and learning outcomes; he argued that higher education has not made a sufficient effort to experiment with a variety of instructional methods to determine whether large class size is always negatively correlated with a reduction in learning outcomes.[68] Early proponents of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)s saw them as just the type of experiment that Barwick had pointed out was lacking in higher education, although Barwick himself has never advocated for MOOCs.

There may also be institutional challenges. Distance learning is new enough that it may be a challenge to gain support for these programs in a traditional brick-and-mortar academic learning environment.[38] Furthermore, it may be more difficult for the instructor to organize and plan a distance learning program,[41] especially since many are new programs and their organizational needs are different from a traditional learning program.

Another benefit of distance education is one for developing countries. Judith Adler Hellman states, "In the face of the pressure on these countries to join the global information economy, distance education appears to provide the opportunity to train more people better and at lower cost." [69]

Even though there are advantages in advancing industrial countries, there are still negative sides to distance education. Hellman states, "These include its cost and capital intensiveness, time constraints and other pressures on instructors, the isolation of students from instructors and their peers, instructors’ enormous difficulty in adequately evaluating students they never meet face-to-face, and drop-out rates far higher than in classroom-based courses." [69]

Educational technology

The modern use of electronic educational technology (also called e-learning) facilitates distance learning and independent learning by the extensive use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT), replacing traditional content delivery by postal correspondence. Instruction can be synchronous and asynchronous online communication in an interactive learning environment or virtual communities, in lieu of a physical classroom. "The focus is shifted to the education transaction in the form of virtual community of learners sustainable across time."[70]

One of the most significant issues encountered in the mainstream correspondence model of Distance Education is transactional distance. Transactional distance results from the lack of appropriate communication between learner and teacher. This gap has been observed to become wider if there is no communication between the learner and teacher and has direct implications over the learning process and future endeavors in Distance Education. Distance Education providers began to introduce various strategies, techniques, and procedures to increase the amount of interaction between learner and teacher. These measures e.g. more frequent face-to-face tutorials, increased use of Information and Communication Technologies including teleconferencing and the Internet, were designed to close the gap in transactional distance.[71]

See also


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Further reading

  • Anderson, Terry. Theory and Practice of Online Education (2nd ed 2008) online from Athabasca University Press
  • Clark, J.J. "The Correspondence School—Its Relation to Technical Education and Some of Its Results," Science (1906) 24#611 pp. 327–334 in JSTOR
  • Hampel, Robert L. "The Business of Education: Home Study at Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin in the 1920s and 1930s," Teachers College Record (2010) 112#9 pp 2496–2571
  • Holmberg, Börje. Theory and Practice of Distance Education (2nd ed 1995) online
  • Kett, Joseph F. Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties: From Self-Improvement to Adult Education in America (1996) excerpt and text search
  • Moore, Michael Grahame and William Anderson (2012). Handbook of Distance Education (2nd ed.). Psychology Press.  online edition
  • Moore, M.G., ed. Contemporary issues in American distance education (1990)
  • Stubblefield, Harold W. and Patrick Keane. Adult Education in the American Experience: From the Colonial Period to the Present (1994) excerpt and text search
  • Walsh, Taylor. Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses (Princeton University Press, 2011) online

External links

  • Distance learning at DMOZ
  • The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning", widely cited, open access scholarly journal
  • The Journal of Distance Education / Revue de l'Éducation à Distance, scholarly journal
  • "Radio in education" full text books and articles online; from 1930s and 1940s
  • Issues in Distance Education book series from Athabasca University Press". A series of over 10 books related to distance education research. Available in print for sale or online as open access.
  • The Center on Accessible Distance Learning (AccessDL), DO-IT Center, University of Washington
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