Distance education refers to teaching and learning that occurs when students and teachers are in different physical and/or geographic locations. Although many people believe that distance education is a recent development made possible by the Internet, it actually began in the late 1800s. Distance education has its roots in correspondence courses, which began around 1870. In fact, the first home study division of an American university was established in 1882 at the University of Chicago. Home study programs flourished in the early 1900s, and the National University Extension Associated established a Correspondence Study Division in 1915. Correspondence programs provided written educational materials leading to the completion of programs, certification, and college degrees to students via mail services. Generally, early distance education programs were targeted toward adults living in rural areas who did not have access to education otherwise.
During the 1930s, radio broadcast became a popular medium for providing distance education in the US, and by 1952, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had established public broadcasting with the primary objective of providing instructional television (Portway 1992). Telecourses became a mainstay in distance education throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Some colleges provided entire programs of study via distance education telecourses. Video-tape technology expanded the opportunities for distance education, and telecourses had their most extensive use during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Internet and world wide web revolutionized distance education, once again, during the 1990s and into the twenty-first century (see Portway , for a complete review).
Today, distance education is defined more broadly as a formal learning activity that occurs when students and instructors are separated by geographic distance or by time, supported by communications technology such as television, video tape, computers, electronic mail, mail, and/or interactive video conferencing. Distance education has become commonplace in higher education and is particularly appealing to adult learners who wish to enter college for the first time or re-enter college for degree completion, advanced training, certification programs, or professional development. Contemporary institutions of higher education offer variations of distance education in the form of web-based seminars and hybrid instruction (part face-to-face, part distance education). Recently, mobile phone technology has been added to the list of popular devices that are used to provide distance education to college students.
Corporations also make use of distance education as a cost-effective way to provide online training, web-based training (WBT), and computer-based training (CBT) to employees. Webinars and just-in-time training modules are also popular distance education models used in corporate institutions to provide employee training and professional development. WBT and CBT are less costly alternatives to face-to-face training; furthermore, employee time-on-task and learning outcomes can be easily monitored and measured. Additionally, employees may access these learning opportunities at home or from their offices. The flexibility provided by web-based distance education makes it an attractive option for corporate training and development. The term e-learning is used by corporations and by higher, elementary, and secondary education to refer to a wide range of learning materials accompanying learning technologies.
The concept of distance education can no longer be viewed as a separate category of instruction. Few colleges provide faculty and students with exclusively in-person access to university and course-related information. In fact, distance access to course-specific learning material, even in face-to-face only courses, is commonplace. Learning management systems (LMS) are used widely to provide students with access via the Internet or mobile phone to course-specific learning material, communication with faculty, communication with classmates, class group communication venues, virtual office hours, electronic submissions for course assignments, grades and graded assignments, and online testing and evaluation.
Perhaps the most important distinction in contemporary education is how communication takes place in distance education. Historically, communication in distance education was defined by its asynchronous nature. In fact, the term asynchronous learning emerged from the distance education context to describe learning where interaction is delayed over time (student-to-learning interface, student-to-student, and student-to-instructor). Emerging technologies have allowed for the rapid growth of synchronous learning in distance education. Synchronous learning refers to any learning event where interaction happens simultaneously in real time (student-to-learning interface, student-to-student, and student-to-instructor). As such, distance learning communication can be categorized by its asynchronous or synchronous nature. Asynchronous communication, then, is characterized by communication that does not occur in real time, while synchronous communication occurs in real time (Roblyer & Ekhaml 2000).
Teleconferencing or video conferencing has become a popular method for delivering synchronous distance education. Teleconferencing uses a combination of television, telephone, and Internet technology to provide instruction and learning from one point of service to another in real time. The instructor is in one location and students may be in any variety of other locations as long as they have appropriate access to the communication devices being used for real-time instruction. Students may ask questions, talk with, or instant message the instructor and one another, all in real time. Pedagogically, synchronous learning and communication are preferred over asynchronous learning and communication.
Given the ubiquitous nature of distance learning in higher education, considerable interest has also evolved in the effectiveness of distance education over face-to-face instruction. Contemporary pedagogical approaches to distance education focus on links among student learning outcomes and the student-to-learning interface, student-to-student communication, and student-to-instructor communication. The student-to-learning interface focuses on how much time on task (asynchronous and synchronous) a student spends interfacing with the course learning material. Student-to-student communication focuses on how much time (asynchronous and synchronous) students spend communicating with one another (Phipps & Merisotis 1999).
Finally, the common disadvantage that is tied historically to distance education is student retention. Even with advancements in synchronous communication and learning, most distance education classes and programs suffer from alarmingly high dropout rates. Dropout rates for distance education courses at brick and mortar colleges are significantly higher than for courses taken on campus (Carr 2000; Pittinsky 2003). To date, the problem of student retention in distance education has not been sufficiently questioned, examined, or researched. Nonetheless, universities across the globe are moving from brick and mortar to brick and click, cementing the role of distance learning in the landscape of education and training.
- Carr, S. (2000). As distance education comes of age, the challenge is keeping the students. Chronicle of Higher Education, 46(23), A39 –A41.
- Moore, M. G., & Anderson, W. G. (2003). The handbook of distance education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Phipps, R. A., & Merisotis, J. P. (1999). What’s the difference? A review of contemporary research on the effectiveness of distance learning in higher education. Washington, DC: Institute for Higher Education Policy.
- Portway, P. S. (1992). A technical guide to teleconferencing and distance learning. Hayward, CA: Applied Business Telecommunications.
- Pittinsky, M. (2003). The wired tower: Perspectives on the impact of the Internet on higher education. New York: Financial Times/Prentice Hall.
- Roblyer, M. D., & Ekhaml, L. (2000). How interactive are your distance courses? A rubric for assessing interaction in distance learning. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 3(2). At https://www.researchgate.net/publication/251844835_How_Interactive_are_YOUR_Distance_Courses_A_Rubric_for_Assessing_Interaction_in_Distance_Learning.
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