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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." Distance education courses that require a physical on-site presence for any reason (including taking examinations) have been referred to as hybrid or blended courses of study.
Distance education dates back to at least as early as 1728, when "an advertisement in the Boston Gazette... [named] 'Caleb Phillips, Teacher of the new method of Short Hand" was seeking students for lessons to be sent weekly.
Modern distance education initially relied on main service and has been practised at least since Isaac Pitman taught shorthand in Great Britain via correspondence in the 1840s. The University of London was the first university to offer distance learning degrees, establishing its External Programme in 1858. This program is now known as the University of London International Programmes and includes Postgraduate, Undergraduate and Diploma degrees created by colleges such as the London School of Economics, Royal Holloway and Goldsmiths.
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, and 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.
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 eager to qualify as state mine inspectors or foremen, it enrolled 2500 new students in 1894, leaping to 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. By 1916 it was spending $2 million a year on magazine advertising. The dropout rates were high; only one in six made it past the first third of the material in a course. Only 2.6% of students who began a course finished it. The students dropped out because they overestimated the difficulty, had little encouragement, and had poor study habits. There was a stark contrast in pedagogy:
Education was a high priority in the Progressive Era, as American high schools and colleges expanded greatly. For men too old or too tied down 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.
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. The International Conference for Correspondence Education held its first meeting in 1938. The goal was to provide individualized education for students, at low cost, by using a pedagogy of testing, recording, classification, and differentiation.
In 1948 John Wilkinson Taylor, president of the University of Louisville, in Kentucky, 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. 
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. According to Moore's recounting, AIM impressed the UK which imported these ideas when establishing in 1969 The Open University, which initially relied on radio and television broadcasts for much of its delivery. Athabasca University, Canada's Open University, was created in 1970 and followed a similar, though independently developed, pattern. The Open University inspired the creation of Spain's National University of Distance Education (1972) and Germany's FernUniversität in Hagen (1974). 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', 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 proceed 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 technoloty for learning.
The widespread use of computer and the internet made distance learning distribution easier and faster and have given rise to the 'virtual university, the entire educational offerings of which are conducted online. In 1996 Jones International University was launched and claims to be the first fully online university accredited by a regional accrediting association in the US.
A study published in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Education found that "From 2000 to 2008, the percentage of undergraduates enrolled 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."
Today, there are many private, public, non-profit and for-profit institutions worldwide offering distance education courses from the most basic instruction through to the highest levels of degree and doctoral programs. Levels of accreditation vary: some of the institutions receive little outside oversight, and some may be fraudulent diploma mills, although in many jurisdictions, an institution may not use terms such as "university" without accreditation and authorisation, often overseen by the national government – for example, the Quality Assurance Agency in the UK. In the US, the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) specializes in the accreditation of distance education institutions.
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.
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.
The two methods can be combined. Many courses offered by The Open University use periodic sessions of residential or day teaching to supplement the remote teaching. 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 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. Devolving some activities off-site alleviates institutional capacity constraints arising from the traditional demand on institutional buildings and infrastructure. 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. Distance education programs can act as a catalyst for institutional innovation.
Distance learning may enable students who are unable to attend a traditional school setting due to disabilities, handicaps, or sicknesses such as decreased mobility and immune system suppression to get a good education, and may provide equal access regardless of socioeconomic status or income, area of residence, gender, race, age, or cost per student. Distance education graduates, who would have never have been associated with the school under a traditional system, may donate money to the school.
Barriers to effective distance education include obstacles such as domestic distractions and unreliable technology as well as students' program costs, adequate contact with teachers and support services, and a need for more experience.
Some students attempt 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.
Because online courses may have no upper size limit, there is a theoretical problem about the application of traditional teaching methods to online courses. Some see Daniel Barwick's work as an influence on the development of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. He noted that higher education has not established a negative link between large class size, generically understood, and reduced learning outcomes. Barwick argued that although a negative link has been established between certain types of instruction in large classes and learning outcomes, higher education has not made a sufficient effort to experiment with various instructional methods to determine whether large class size is always negatively correlated with a reduction in learning outcomes. Further, he argued that there is no testable evidence to suggest that large class size is always worse than there is to suggest that small class size is always better. Early proponents of MOOCs 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.
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