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What is the History of Distance Education?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 02 November 2016
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Distance education needs a reliable means of communicating between student and teacher. Therefore, the history of distance education begins at the point where a reliable communication method is established. Most historians date distance education to the 18th century, when a few teachers began to offer what were called correspondence courses. For the next two centuries, that remained the principal means by which distance education was offered, though in the late 20th century and in the early 21st century, considerable diversity in the means by which students and teachers can communicate has led to tremendous expansion.

In the 18th century, there are records in Europe and the US of the first correspondence courses which were generally informal or not necessarily sponsored by any accredited school. The introduction of film in the early 20th century led to hopes of film being used to create a wide variety of distance education programs. Even radio was used as a communication medium.

Neither film nor radio could function as a point of communication between teacher and student, and their initial role in the history of distance education was limited. While both could instruct, they could not accept feedback. Nevertheless, especially film was useful in a variety of settings as part of teachers’ curricula, and numerous educational films were made.

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The development of television was more promising in the history of distance education. More people had access to a home television and some schools broadcast educational programs. Another development some years later was the videotape machine. Using a tape circumvented the difficulties associated with broadcasting material, and also gave students the opportunity to study around their schedules. By the 1980s and 1990s, many students watched instructional materials at home, read class materials, and then took exams at local proctored locations or through the mail.

What remained similar in the history of distance education was that students still needed to use the mail system or go to a physical campus from time to time to interact with teachers. As the Internet developed, the ability to communicate became markedly different. By the late 1990s, there were many college campuses and other educational programs that were taking advantage of meeting sites like MOOs (multi-object oriented) and MUDs (multi-user domains), to conduct full classes that could be attended from the student’s computer, and offered complete interaction between student and professor. With the growth of the web, other interfaces became possible.

The history of distance education began with letter writing, and still may include that today in the form of emails. Yet, the expansion of technology has created so many more possible options for how distance education can be conducted. People may take online classes that are either completely or partially interactive. Another popular type of distance education is the use of interactive television (ITV), where students can converse with an instructor who is in a different location.

The early form of correspondence classes has been largely subsumed by these more advanced technologies. Also the early opinion that correspondence courses were somehow less rigorous than bricks and mortar classes has begun to change dramatically. Studies suggest that most students will take at least one online class, and often take at least one per semester. A number of highly reputed schools are now offering full distance programs. Trends suggests that distance education will continue to expand and might become the preferred method of education for many people.

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