Distance education, or distance learning, also called correspondence education, is a field of education that focuses on the pedagogy, technology, and instructional systems design that are effectively incorporated in delivering education to students who are not physically "on site" to receive their education. Instead, teachers and students may communicate asynchronously (at times of their own choosing) by exchanging printed or electronic media, or through technology that allows them to communicate in real time (synchronously). Distance education has developed as technology has advanced, from sending printed materials through the mail for students to study individually, to internet-based courses that allow students to interact with each other and the teacher in real-time. As distance education has developed, it provides the potential for quality education for all people, regardless of their location. As such, it is an important aspect of the establishment of a true human society.
Pitman mailed texts transcribed into shorthand on postcards and received transcriptions from his students in return for correction, a scheme made possible by the introduction of uniform postage rates across England from 1840. This element of feedback was crucial to Pitman's system, as he not only received their work but corrected it and returned it to them with comments.
The University of London was the first university to offer distance learning degrees. Referred to as "People's University" by Charles Dickens because it provided access to higher education to students from less affluent backgrounds, the External Programme was chartered by Queen Victoria in 1858.
Universities around the world used correspondence courses in the first half of the twentieth century, especially to reach rural students. The University of South Africa became the first public university in the world to teach exclusively by means of distance education in 1946. Today it is the largest open distance learning institution in Africa.
The largest distance education university in the United Kingdom is the Open University (OU). The OU was founded in 1969 with the mission and became "the world's first successful distance teaching university, founded on the belief that communications technology could bring high quality degree-level learning to people who had not had the opportunity to attend traditional campus universities." There are now many similar institutions around the world, often with the name Open University (in English or in the local language). In Germany the FernUniversität in Hagen (Distance University of Hagen) was founded in 1974 and quickly developed into a respected institution in the scientific community, offering academic studies to working people, the disabled, those caring for sick or elderly people, or educating children, and others who had no time for traditional university programs.
In the twentieth century, radio, television, and the Internet were all used to further distance education. Distance education has traversed four to five "generations" of technology in its history, including print, audio/video broadcasting, audio/video teleconferencing, computer assisted instruction, e-learning/online-learning, computer broadcasting/podcasting, and so forth. Yet the radio remains a very viable form, especially in the developing nations, because of its reach. In India, the FM Channel is very popular and used by universities to broadcast a variety of educational programs such as teacher education, rural development, programs in agriculture for farmers, science education, creative writing, mass communication, in addition to traditional courses in liberal arts, science, and business administration.
Distance education may use all forms of technology, from print to the computer. This range will include radio, television, audio video conferencing, computer assisted instruction, e-learning and so forth. Older models of distance education utilized postal mail to send written material, videos, audiotapes, and compact discs or other media storage formats to the student and to turn in the exercises. Today's distance education course makes use of e-mail, the internet, and video conferencing over broadband network connections for both wired physical locations and wireless mobile learning. The material is often supplemented by television and radio programming.
In distance education, students are generally not required to be present in a classroom. However, the use of electronic classrooms or "Virtual Learning Environments" is not necessarily a part of a distance education set up. Electronic classrooms can be both on campus, and off campus.
A distinction is also made between "open learning" and distance learning. "Open" education is the system in which the student is free to choose the time and place, but distance education is a teaching methodology used when the student and teacher are separated by time and place. Thus it follows that not all open-learning institutions use distance education, and not all organizations that use distance education are open learning institutions. Indeed there are many cases in which students are in traditional classrooms, connected via a video-conferencing link to a teacher in a distant classroom. This method is typical in geographically dispersed institutions. Conversely, the term "virtual university" is sometimes used to describe an open-learning institution that uses the internet to create a university "environment" in which the students, faculty, and staff can communicate and share information at any time, regardless of location.
Distance education programs are sometimes called "correspondence courses," an older term that originated in nineteenth-century vocational education programs that were conducted through postal mail. This term has been largely replaced by "distance education," and expanded to encompass more sophisticated technologies and delivery methods. The first subject taught by correspondence was Pitman Shorthand, a tool of stenography.
Full time or part-time study is possible, but most students choose part-time study. Research study is possible as well. Distance education is offered at all levels, but is most frequently an option for college-level studies. Primary and secondary educational programs are also widely available through distance learning, usually for homeschoolers or children living in remote areas.
E-learning is an all-encompassing term generally used to refer to computer-enhanced learning, although it is often extended to include the use of mobile technologies. It may include the use of internet-based teaching materials, multimedia CD-ROMs or web sites, discussion boards, collaborative software, e-mail and more, with possibly a combination of different methods being used.
Along with the terms "learning technology" and "educational technology," the term "E-learning" is generally used to refer to the use of technology in learning in a much broader sense than the "computer-based training" or Computer assisted instruction of the 1980s. It is also broader than the terms "online learning" or "online education" which generally refer to purely web-based learning.
E-learning is naturally suited to distance learning and flexible learning, but can also be used in conjunction with face-to-face teaching, in which case the term "blended learning" is commonly used.
In higher education especially, the increasing tendency is to create a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) (which is sometimes combined with a Managed Information System (MIS) to create a "managed learning environment") in which all aspects of a course are handled through a consistent user interface standard throughout the institution. A growing number of physical universities, as well as newer online-only colleges, have begun to offer a select set of academic degree and certificate programs via the Internet at a wide range of levels and in a wide range of disciplines. While some programs require students to attend some campus classes or orientations, many are delivered completely online. In addition, several universities offer online student support services, such as online advising and registration, e-counseling, online textbook purchase, student governments, and student newspapers.
E-learning can also refer to educational web sites such as those offering worksheets and interactive exercises for children. The term is also used extensively in the business sector where it generally refers to cost-effective online training.
M-learning is the follow up of E-learning, and is the delivery of learning to students who are not in a fixed location through the use of mobile or portable technology. The rapid growth of information and communication technologies makes it possible to develop new forms of this education.
M-learners seek lessons in small, manageable formats that they can undertake when it suits them. If E-learning took learning away from the classroom or campus, then M-learning takes learning away from a fixed point. Where E-learning is an alternative to classroom learning, M-learning is a complementary activity to both E-learning and traditional learning. M-learning respects that a user would like to interact with educational resources while away from their normal place of learning such as in the classroom or on the computer.
In one sense, M-learning has been around for longer than E-learning, since books and other educational materials are portable, but technology has shaped what is known as M-learning. Technology allows people to carry vast resources with them and access these wherever they find convenient. Technology also allows people to interact with their peers instantaneously and work together remotely in ways never before possible.
M-Learning has gained appeal among generations who have grown up using portable video game devices and wireless technology. In this sense, M-learning appeals not only to those who need portable education, but also to those who have grown up with a cognitive disposition towards using mobile devices, whether or not they have the need for true portability in their learning.
Since its inception distance education has had problems with assessment. The delivery of material is fairly straightforward, ensuring that it is available to the students and that they can read it at their leisure. The problem arises when the student is required to complete assignments and fulfill testing requirements. Whether quizzes, tests, or examinations, online courses have had difficulty controlling cheating because of the lack of teacher control. In a classroom situation the teacher can monitor students and visually uphold a level of integrity consistent with the institution's reputation. With distance education the student can be removed from supervision completely.
Assignments have adapted by becoming larger, longer, and more thorough so as to test for knowledge by forcing the student to research the subject and prove they have done the work. Quizzes remain a popular form of testing knowledge and for distance education an enforced time limit is often used to control for cheating, since it takes significantly longer to find answers in the textbook or online if the material has not been learned.
Invigilators, pre-arranged supervisors trusted with overseeing tests and examinations, may be used to closely proctor the exams in order to prevent cheating. Many final examinations are held at a common location so that teachers can supervise directly. Examinations may be conducted using the computer, in which case program blocking software can be used to prevent other programs from running on the computer, thus eliminating the possibility of help from the Internet.
Distance education has been criticized because the face-to-face human interaction with a teacher has been removed from the process, and thus, some argue, the process is no longer "educational" in the highest philosophical sense. However, these human interactions can be encouraged through audio or video-based web-conferencing programs.
The cost-effectiveness of distance learning is a subject of much debate as there is usually much upfront investment that can only be recouped through economies of scale. Web and software development in particular can be expensive, as can systems specifically geared for E-learning. The development of adaptive materials is also much more time-consuming than that of non-adaptive ones. Consequently, some of the cost may be forwarded to students taking online college courses at a higher price than traditional courses.
The feeling of isolation experienced by distance learning students is also often cited. However, discussion forums and other computer-based communication can ameliorate this, and can often encourage students to meet face-to-face and form self-help groups. For example, the Open University encourages students to interact with other students and their tutors both online and in person.
There are many private and public, non-profit and for-profit institutions offering courses and degree programs through distance education. Levels of accreditation vary. Some institutions offering distance education in the United States have received little outside oversight, and some may be fraudulent "diploma mills." In many other jurisdictions, an institution may not use the term "university" without accreditation and authorization, normally by the national government.
Despite such criticisms, distance education has a number of important advantages. These often include flexibility and convenience for the learner, especially if they have other commitments, facilitation of communication among learners, greater adaptability to a learner's needs, more variety in learning experience with the use of multimedia and the non-verbal presentation of teaching material. Video instruction provides visual and audio learning that can be paused and watched over again. For organizations with distributed and constantly changing learners, such as restaurant staff, E-learning has great benefits when compared with on-site classroom training.
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