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Online and Distance Education: A Look Back

Updated on October 15, 2019
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A former university communications professor, Sallie, an independent publisher, also writes romantic fiction novels and short stories.

Even though distance education is not new to the United States, as a means of obtaining a college degree, it is rapidly finding more acceptance in our nation’s academic community as it vigorously carves out its own “niche.” In America, distance education institutions are still relatively young entrants in the market for educational services when you consider the hundreds of years many traditional colleges and universities have been on the scene. In fact, exclusively external degree schools did not appear in the United States until the early 1970’s.

The use of and advancements in the field of telecommunications has been an essential element in the expansion and acceptance of distance learning. The word telecommunications can refer to any of a broad array of tools—from using computers to link to Internet-based courses, to teleconferencing via television and cable hookups, to use of electronic mail. Such equipment enables distance education to operate in a time-efficient manner, more than was possible during the time in history when communication between a distant student and a school occurred primarily through postal mail. Advancements in Telecommunications made possible easier and more accessible avenues of instantaneous communication, thereby helping to foster immediate and potentially stronger bonds of interaction among distance learning students, faculty, and administrative staff.

Correspondence Schools Seen as Pioneers in Distance Education

Researchers view the history of correspondence schools (a school offering instruction by mail, sending lessons and examinations to a student, usually using postal mail) as part of the history of distance education. Correspondence schools of some sort have been in operation since the beginning of reliable postal mail service in the U. S. These schools can be said to have “invented” distance education, since they originated the procedure in which students apply to a school, gather books and course materials, study independently, and communicate with a distant professor or advisor who administers assignments and/or tests that are delivered by mail, and who finally evaluates the student’s progress. Some of the pioneer U. S. institutions that were set up primarily for the purpose of delivering distance education to a remote student constituency were California Western University (now called California Coast University), Regents College (New York), and Walden University (Minneapolis).

The Open University

Many of the United States’ distance education institutions were established in the tradition of the Open University (external degree schools) of Europe, Africa, and Asia. In these countries, distance learning has a 100-plus year history and is well-accepted in the international academic community. The Open University was established by Royal Charter in 1969 to serve the United Kingdom as a second chance for adults needing advanced study or university degrees. Located in Milton Keynes, north of London, it was established by the labor government under Harold Wilson. Today, the Open University serves more than 250,000 students. By the end of the 2010 school year, the OU had educated more than 1.5 million, awarding qualifications to more than 800,000. It enrolls more than 30,000 students younger than 25, and approximately 200,000 continuing education students—with around 50,000 being sponsored by their employers. Widely heralded as the world’s most successful institution for distance learning, the Open University offers a variety of subject and degree areas to students who study primarily in their own homes, or in regionally operated study centers. In addition to the United Kingdom, among other international countries offering distance learning programs are Africa, Australia, Europe, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands.

While there may be a slight difference between the concept of distance and open colleges and universities, the things the two types of education/learning providers have in common outnumber their differences. Both distance and open learning are non-traditional education alternatives. In addition, self-instruction, independent study, and noncontiguous (one-sided), communication with faculty or administrators are common characteristics of distance and open learning. Instructional processes are likely to be varied among providers of distance education, and the degree of student autonomy and student control over what is learned is also likely to vary within, as well as among, institutions. Even though the types of instructional processes offered by different schools and the degree of autonomy enjoyed by students may vary, the most important thing to know is that distance learning refers to a style of study in which there is a physical distance between the student and teacher. Since student and teacher are not in the same place at the same time, distance learning relies on flexible delivery of communication and information resources between the distance education provider and the distant student.

In the United States, the last few decades of the twentieth century brought about advancements in technology, computers, and telecommunications (as well as improvements in postal services), making distance learning more feasible as a mode of delivery for American education services. Such developments, along with changes in America’s demographics and life styles, brought about increased interest in and need for distance learning. Expanding markets for this type of education ushered in a new era of marketing possibilities for distance education providers in the U. S., and new opportunities and challenges for well-established and new distance education providers.

© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD


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