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A Brief History of Distance Education

By Bizhan Nasseh
Ball State University

Reprinted with the permission from Adult Education in the News

Throughout the history of human communication, advances in technology have powered paradigmatic shifts in education (Frick, 1991). Communication between teacher and student is a vital element of successful distance education. Media has played an essential role in the establishment of teacher and student communication. For communication to take place, at a bare minimum, there must be a sender, a receiver, and a message. If this message is intended as an instruction, then besides student, teacher, and content, we must consider the environment in which this educational communication occurs (Berg & Collins, 1995). Moore (1990) sees the success of distance education to be based on the content of the dialog between teacher and student and the effectiveness of the communication system in an educational process.

There are some discussions about the frequencies and nature of dialogue. Hoffman (1995) referred to dialogue as the capacity for teacher and student to respond to one another.

During the nineteenth century, in the United States, several activities in adult education preceded the organization of university extension beyond campuses. In 1873, Anna Ticknor created the society to encourage studies at home for the purpose of educational opportunities for women of all classes in the society. This Boston-based, largely volunteer effort provided correspondence instruction to 10,000 members over a 24-year period despite its resolutely low profile (Ticknor, 1891). Printed materials sent through the mail were the main way of communication, teaching, and learning. In 1883 a Correspondence University headquartered at Cornell University was established, but never got off the ground (Gerrity, 1976). The first official recognition of education by correspondence came from 1883 to 1891 by Chautauqua College of Liberal Arts. This college was authorized by the state of New York to grant academic degrees to students who successfully completed work at the Summer institutes and by correspondence during the academic year (Watkins, 1991). Interest regarding the effectiveness of correspondence study verses traditional study was the subject of debates and discussions. Watkins (1991) wrote that William Rainy Harper, professor of Herbrew at Yale University, who was authorized from 1883 to 1891 to grant degrees to students who completed correspondence study, believed that correspondence study "would not, if it could, supplant oral instruction, or be regarded as its substitutes." Watkins (1991) in her book cited that Vincent (1885) wrote,

the day is coming when the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than that done in the classrooms of our academics and colleges; when the students who shall recite by correspondence will far outnumber those who make oral recitations.


Vincent’s vision brought a new way of thinking about the value and future of distance education for institutions. Watkins (1991) explained that leadership for the development of university-level extension throughout the nation was provided by Herbert Baxter Adams, the foremost historian of his day. His enthusiasm for the extension movement was a positive force for his students at John Hopkins University. Ultimately, his students would carry on his extension work across the country.

Correspondence study has grown in popularity, acceptance, and effectiveness. In 1915, creation of the National University Extension Association(NUEA) broadened the focus to other issues, such as necessity of new pedagogical models and new national level guidelines, such as university policies regarding acceptance of credit from correspondence courses, credit transferal, and standard quality for correspondence educators.

The University of Chicago faculty survey findings in 1933, suggested that correspondence study should be justified on an experimental basis, generating innovations and research data leading to improvements in teaching methodology (Gerrity, 1976). This research study was very important for the future knowledge base in this field. The medium of mail was a dominate delivery system for over forty years, but new delivery technologies started to provide additional options for correspondence study. Pittman (1986) wrote,

visual instruction, including lantern slides and motion pictures was added to the repertory of many extension units in the period of 1910-1920, but most promising new technology for correspondence instruction was instructional radio.

In the years between the World Wars (1918-1946), the federal government granted radio broadcasting licenses to 202 colleges, universities, and school boards. With all the demands and popularity of instructional radio, by the year 1940 there was only one college-level credit course offered by radio and that course failed to attract any enrollments (Atkins, 1991). Still, the concept of education by radio was a major reason for development of educational television by the mid 20th century. More and more association and social support developed for distance education around the country. Packing companies, railroads, the American Banking Association, Labor Unions, Army and Navy, and state and national welfare associations recognized the merits of correspondence instruction (Watkins, 1991). With the growth of popularity and needs for correspondence study, new questions such as learners’ characteristics, students’ needs, effectiveness of communication, and value of outcomes in comparison with face-to-face study became public interests. From the pursuit of answers to these questions emerged needed research initiatives such as Gale Childs’ (1949) dissertation studying the effectiveness and reliability of correspondence study as an educational method (Watkins, 1991). The interest in finding answers for these questions was the reason for many new research studies which have contributed to the growth of the knowledge base of distance education. Clark (1996) wrote, "the studies of improvement of teaching by using media have been part of educational research since Thorndike (1912) recommended pictures as a labor-saving device in instruction." In response to wartime needs, extension programs also provided a variety of technical and mechanical training opportunities, as well as short courses and refresher courses (Watkins, 1991). After World War II, television was considered as another delivery option in the correspondence study.

In the early 1950s, despite the efforts of leaders in the field, correspondence study struggled to gain acceptance, and it was still seen as suspect by academics (Wright, 1991). During this period, research helped to further the acceptance and extension of correspondence study. As Childs (1973) indicated, little research existed to support the apparent and perceived strengths of the methodology, and there was little or no sense of professionalism. During the fifth International Conference on Correspondence Education (ICCE), in Alberta, Canada, delegates from universities, governments, and proprietary institutions reflected a growing interest in the research of correspondence study (National University Education Association (NUEA), 1957). Over the past half century, the Ford Foundation has played an important role in the development and support of area and international studies within American higher education. With a Ford Foundation grant, Childs initiated a project, in 1956, to study the application of television instruction in combination with correspondence study. From this important and needed study, Childs concluded "television instruction is not a method. Television is an instrument by means of which instruction can be transmitted from one place to another" (Almenda, 1988). Childs also found no appreciable differences in regular classrooms by means of television, or by a combination of correspondence study and television (Almenda, 1988).

During the 1960s and 1970s, a number of alternatives to traditional higher education developed in the United States. The major reasons were broad national trends that included rapidly escalating costs of traditional resident education, interest in informal and nontraditional education, an increasingly mobile American population, the growth of career-oriented activities, necessity of learning new competencies, public dissatisfaction with educational institutions in general and the early success of Britain’s Open University (Gerrity, 1976).

Britain’s Open University brought a new vision of independence for distance education as distinct from traditional education. Britain’s Open University played a major role in the development of much of the important research in distance learning (Zigerell, 1984). Britain’s Open University is the largest and most innovative educational organization in the world. It is a leader in the large-scale application of technology to facilitate distance learning. Open University brought the needed respect and confidence to the correspondence program around the world. The success of Britain’s Open University was the major reason for the development of open universities in other countries, such as America and Japan. Open University not only overcomes the restrictive concept of place and time, but also eliminates the boundary of nations and nationalities. There are more than 218,000 people currently studying with the Open University, and the principal qualifications awarded by this university are BA, and Bsc degrees, Masters, an MBA, and research degrees including Bphil, Mphil, and PhD (Open University, 1996).

The first United States open university was New York State’s Empire State College (NYSES), which commenced operation in 1971 (Gerrity, 1976). One of the main purposes of the NYSES was to make higher education degrees more accessible to learners unable to attend traditional programs, campus-based courses. The program in NYSES modified the concept of academic credits and provided a greater flexibility regarding degree requirements and time limitations than was characteristic of tradition-based degree programs (Gerrity, 1976). Providing a direction for advancement of research activities in distance education was a major concern of leaders in this field. Two individuals who played major roles in the advancement of the state of scholarly research in the field are Charles Wedemeyer of the University of Wisconsin and Gayle Childs of the University of Nebraska (Wright, 1991). Wedemeyer and Childs made major contributions in the transformation of correspondence study into a profession. Both played major roles in the advancement of distance education research. They were recognized as leaders of the movement throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (Wright, 1991). Wedemeyer and Childs not only provided needed leadership to their universities correspondence programs, but also provided direction for the national and international growth of this method of teaching and learning. Both men made major contributions in the Correspondence Study Division of the NUEA and Internal Conferences on Correspondence Education. Wedmeyer and Childs publications, books, and films on correspondence study have provided teachers and students with an invaluable source of process design, teaching, and learning.

In mid 1960, the development of the Correspondence Education Research Project was a major hope for more research activities and definition of the status of the correspondence study in American higher education. In 1968, the division of Correspondence Study changed its name to the Division of Independent Study; this new division provided more options for delivery of education in the form of videotape, programmed instruction, television, telephone, and other multimedia teaching and learning (National University Extension Association (NUEA), 1969).

In the last 20 years, with the advancement in technology, independent study has become more accessible for distance education students. Zigerell (1984) wrote, "the ease with which modern communications technologies can link educational institutions to homes, work-sites, and community centers has made adult education and lifelong learning matters of national policy" (P. 53). At the same time, the loads and responsibilities of adults have become of interest to experts and educators in distance learning. Feasley (1983) stated that individuals who must learn at a distance have ongoing obligations such as employment, family responsibilities, handicaps, or live in geographically isolated area. The 1970s and 1980s introduced the related concept "distance education" which posed new challenges to traditional independent study, forcing a reexamination and redefinition of the place of independent study in this new international movement (Wright, 1991).

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, cable and satellite television came into use as a delivery medium for distance education courses (Wright, 1991). During the 1980s, many quality telecourse offerings were available by using cable and satellite delivery. But as Munshi (1980) said, "unfortunately, systematic efforts to evaluate telecourses have been the exception rather than the rule." In the Fall of 1991, eighteen institutions, including the University of California, the University of Oklahoma, Penn State, and Washington State, used the Mind Extension University (MEU), Educational Network to deliver video course materials for independent study courses (MEU catalog, 1991). Women’s desire and participation in distance education helped the growth of distance education in the 1980s and 1990s. The report of the survey of telecourse enrollments in five states showed 67% of the participants in the distance education were women(Instructional Telecommunication Consortium, 1984). Participation of women in distance learning was directly related to political and social changes in women’s position within the family and society, technological changes in the work place, and the economic necessity of participation, and the job market and new job opportunities.

The research activities of Britain’s Open University provided new directions and emphasis for more research in this field. Publication of Research in Distance Education in 1989 provided great opportunity to collect information about ongoing research projects and the results of current research in the field of distance education. Until the arrival of this new periodical, most research institute descriptions were found in sources difficult to access in the United States (Moore, 1985; Rumble & Harry, 1982).

Coldeway (1982) identified the following reasons for the limitation of research activities in distance education.

1. Educational researchers are rarely present during the design of distance learning systems.

2. There is no clear paradigm for research in distance learning, and it is difficult to attract funds to develop one.

3. Some institutions are averse to defining boundaries and variables clearly.

4. Educational researchers often ask questions of no practical or even theoretical relevance.

5. Researchers in the distance learning test variables that are really classes of variables (such as comparisons of distance and classroom learning).

Advancement in telecommunications and computer technologies will speed up national and international cooperation in both research and documentation (Feasley, 1991). Technology makes the process of research, collection of data, analysis of data, and generation of reports easier and faster. Calvert (1986) provided a helpful conceptual framework for distance education research by identifying three principal kinds of variables: input, process, and outcome. The input and outcome variables can be divided into student or system variables, and process variables are divided as either development or delivery variables.

With the increase in demand for distance education, the growing concerns were knowledge about effectiveness of distance education and changes in pedagogy enabled and required by the advancement of technology.

A recent American Federation of Teachers (AFT) task force report states that too little is known about the effectiveness of distance learning and that more independent research is needed (Twigg, 1996). At the same time, Clark (1996), in his paper mentioned that media forms are mere vehicles that deliver instruction, but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition. Clark believes that it is not media, but variables such as instructional method that foster distance learning.

Even with the growth in the amounts of distance education in our higher educational institutions, few studies examined students learning experiences, effectiveness of instructional methods, and strengths and limitation of this model of teaching and learning. Russell (1996), Office of Instructional Telecommunications at North Carolina State University, provided brief quotations from 218 research reports, summaries, and papers, from 1945 to the present that compare technology-driven education methods with traditional classroom instruction. The compiled citations and quotations indicate that students learn equally well from education delivered by technology as measured by these 218 reports at a distance and face-to-face. In addition to the effectiveness of learning experiences, the reasons for learners’ participation in distance education are another attractive topic of systematic investigation by researchers.

Wallace (1991) in her dissertation, Faculty and Student Perceptions of Distance Education Using Television(TV), provided rich information about the reasons adults participate in the TV education. Her conclusion of study revealed the reasons for participation were opportunity to earn an MBA (90.9%), opportunity to upgrade work skills (75.1%), and the opportunity to learn more about business concepts (83.2%). Her finding was a strong display of the objectives of participants in the adult continuing education. Most students participating in TV programs found their courses to be challenging and had favorable experiences with technology. Wallace’s recommendation for additional investigation includes: further research in educational resources and training needs of both students and teachers, attitudes of faculty toward distance learners, evaluation of educational experiences with regards to lack of personal interaction in the group, and follow-up study for comparison of performance of this group with face-to-face class students. Wallace also recommended that incorporating the electronic mail system with TV education can facilitate better communication between students and teacher. The main finding of the Wallace study is that continuing education is necessary for better job performance and advancement in the job market. Her recommendation for combining asynchronous technology(e-mail) with synchronous technology(TV), and training needs of distance education students and teachers are major issues in the distance education program.

Copyright Bizhan Nasseh, 1997