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Distance education or distance learning refers to the practice of delivering education and instruction to students not physically present but interacting with the instructor and the educational process remotely (usually by computers and the Internet these days.) Although often thought to be new development dependent on modern information processing technology, the idea of distance education is possibly centuries old. This research paper reviews the history, definition, current configuration, and effects of distance education.
- History of Distance Education
- Who Participates in Distance Education?
- What Is Distance Education?
- Where Does Distance Education Occur?
- When Does Distance Education Occur?
- How Does Distance Education Occur?
- Why Does Distance Education Occur?
- Distance Education in Higher Education
- Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
- Who Is Offering MOOCs?
- Distance Education in P-12 Schools
History of Distance Education
Distance education has a long history possibly even dating back more than 285 years as evidenced in a Boston Gazette (published in the United States) advertisement by shorthand teacher Caleb Phillips. In the advertisement, he solicited “Persons in the Country desirous to Learn this Art, may by having the several Lessons sent weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston” (Battenberg, 1721 as cited in Holmberg, 1995: Paragraph 6). Years later in 1840, Sir Isaac Pitman, an English educator who invented shorthand, began mailing texts written in shorthand to students, which they would transcribe and mail back to him for correction (Schlosser and Simonson, 2009). These examples represent the first of the three documented phases of distance education, which are: (1) correspondence study (e.g., delivered via mail), (2) higher education institutions and analog mass media (e.g., delivered via television and cable), and (3) proliferation of distance education into most educational arenas via digital technologies, delivered primarily via the Internet (Simonson et al., 2011).
Over the years, definitions of distance education have changed, most frequently reflecting the transmission medium via which educational content was delivered to learners. In some cases, as Barbour et al. (2012) found in their K-12 Survey involving several countries, “there is wide interpretation of what online learning means, and what it looks like” (p. 7). However, it can be defined by several distinguishing characteristics. To understand these characteristics, it is important to examine the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘where,’ ‘when,’ and ‘how’ of distance education, while also recognizing that, as Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt (2006) contend about online education, “there are social, political, economic, and ethical assumptions and implications in what appear to be simple actions of design and instruction” (Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt, 2006: p. 567) associated with these terms. It is important to note that the terms ‘distance education,’ ‘online education,’ ‘e-learning,’ and ‘virtual education’ are often used interchangeably to mean the same thing.
Therefore, it seems logical that the definition and its meaning will likely evolve over time.
Who Participates in Distance Education?
Logically, distance education involves both instructors and students; however, a defining characteristic is that traditional institutions (such as institutions of higher education), nontraditional institutions (e.g., businesses, corporations), organizations/societies (e.g., International Society for Performance Improvement) (Schlosser and Simonson, 2009), and governments offer distance education. More recently, with the emergence of massive open online courses (MOOCs), other organizations have become involved in distance education offerings, although the majority of those who participate in distance education affiliate in some way with higher education institutions. Additionally, distance education, often referred to as ‘virtual schooling,’ has been growing in P-12 schools, although most distance education at this educational level involves blended learning (Barbour et al., 2012).
The US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), several researchers (e.g., Allen and Seaman, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014) and organizations (e.g., International Association for K-12 Online Learning) have tracked participation in distance education in institutions of higher education and in public K-12 schools. Surveys of distance education participation in the United States illustrate that although it has grown exponentially over the past decade, the unfettered growth has slowed down. For example, according to Allen and Seaman (2014), “the online enrollment growth rate of 6.1 percent is the lowest recorded in this report series” in institutions of higher education (p. 4).
What Is Distance Education?
In the twenty-first century, distance education involves students learning in a location(s) other than where the instructor is via digital technologies, synchronously and/or asynchronously. Allen and Seaman (2013) provide several different types of distance education courses, as Table 1 outlines.
Table 1. Prototypical course classifications for online learning
Allen, I.E., Seaman, J., 2013. Changing the Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, p. 7.
Distance education can be equated by the ‘Online’ category in Table 1; however, others may contend that even ‘blended/ hybrid’ courses are a form of distance education, too.
Where Does Distance Education Occur?
Another unique characteristic of distance education is its ‘location.’ Historically, distance education involved some kind of ‘geographic separation’ (Simonson, 2009; as cited in Simonson et al., 2011: p. 126) between the instructor and his/ her students and students themselves. However, with the advent of the Internet, it is possible for there to be little or even no geographic separation between the instructor and students and/or between students because two individuals can participate in distance education sitting right next to each other in the same location, but on two different computers. Twenty-first century distance education happens anywhere – anywhere an individual can access the course/distance education experience materials – which is usually online (via a computer connected to the Internet). Moreover, in distance education an instructor may incorporate some face-to-face (F2F) instruction along with distance education. This ‘blending’ of distance and F2F instruction is often referred to as blended or hybrid education or learning.
When Does Distance Education Occur?
Distance education consists of instruction that occurs synchronously, asynchronously, or both synchronously and asynchronously. Synchronous courses require the learners and instructor(s) to ‘meet’ online at the same time for exchanges of information via audio or web conferences, screencasts, online chats, interactive whiteboards, sharing of applications, instant messaging, and even texting. Asynchronous interactions can occur using all of these methods, in addition to others such as discussion boards, blogs, wikis, and many other tools. A differentiating characteristic is that learners are not required to meet ‘live’ with their instructor or peers. Moreover, it is feasible for the learning materials to be disseminated 24/7 via the Internet and across any time zone in the world – the distance education classroom is always ‘open’ with materials available to students any time of the day, anywhere, as long as there are no restrictions on accessing materials.
How Does Distance Education Occur?
Two defining aspects of how distance education occurs involve technology and interaction. Often there is overlap between these two because technology fosters student-to-student, student-to-content, and student-to-instructor interaction. Technology is critical because it is through technology that instructors and students can access, engage, and participate in distance education. Moreover, various technologies can serve as both the medium (e.g., Internet-based course available in a course management system) and/or mechanism or tool (e.g., use of screencasting software to develop screencasts) for developing distance education. For example, a course management system or learning management system may be utilized by an instructor to house and deliver the instruction to students. They might also use web conferencing tools embedded within this system or an outside vendor to offer synchronous sessions with students and/or record a presentation explaining content.
Interaction, “commonly understood as actions among individuals” (Abrami et al., 2011: p. 86), is another important characteristic of distance education because students learn through student–student, student–instructor, and student– content interaction (Abrami et al., 2011; Bernard et al., 2009; Moore, 1989). Bernard et al. (2009) found that interaction positively affects student learning. However, they caution that instructors should not focus on increasing the quantity of interactions, but rather focus on increasing the quality of interactions.
Why Does Distance Education Occur?
There are many reasons why institutions, organizations, instructors, and students participate in distance education. These may range from the potential to reduce costs (e.g., learners do not need to travel to one location to learn – note that some argue quality distance education requires an investment, so the reduction in cost may not be realized for several years), the ability to increase flexibility of when learners learn (e.g., students can determine their own learning schedules – they do not have to learn only on the instructor’s schedule), the potential to involve expert instructors from a variety of locations (i.e., instructors do not have to be from one’s institution/ organization nor do they have to be physically present), and the possibility to make education accessible to those who cannot participate (e.g., because they cannot move to the institution).
Distance Education in Higher Education
Distance education in higher education institutions started in the nineteenth century. One of the first documented instances was the University of Chicago’s correspondence courses offered by William Rainey Harper in 1883 (Distance Learning, n.d.). Since then, distance education in higher education institutions has evolved and as noted previously, can be categorized by three major periods. However, Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt (2006) view distance education through three different historical lenses – via the promise of democratization, the tension between professional education and liberal arts education, and the issue of instructional quality. Their work provides a different lens for understanding distance education.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
MOOCs are non-credit-bearing courses typically offered for free by numerous universities and organizations to anyone interested in enrolling in these courses. Distinct features of MOOCs are that they are designed for ‘massive’ participation – thousands, even hundreds of thousands can participate in a MOOC – and students do not need to be enrolled in or even affiliated with the sponsoring organization offering the MOOC to register. Some MOOCs offer certificates upon successful course completion for a fee, whereas others do not. Often MOOCs are taught in F2F settings as credit-bearing courses at an institution with students enrolled in degree programs. The F2F lectures are then recorded and disseminated online to the MOOC students. These lectures typically involve a professor offering a weekly lecture, offered for a varying number of weeks depending on the course, accompanied by a multimedia presentation with visuals and questioning from students in the audience (the F2F, paying students). The lectures are recorded and made available by a MOOC provider. Therefore, in a MOOC, it is not unusual to find students who have paid to take a course for credit and in a degree program studying parallel (with no interaction at all) or alongside (with some interaction, for instance in online discussions) students enrolled for free. However, many MOOCs are designed only as a MOOC and not also as a F2F course. Currently there are no standards as to how MOOCs are offered – it is unclear if there ever will be.
Who Is Offering MOOCs?
MOOCs are being offered by organizations such as Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/), edX (https://www.edx.org/), 2u (https://2u.com/), and Udacity (https://www.udacity.com/). These organizations consist of consortia of different universities who support the provider in some way. However, in the future, it will not be surprising if corporate and government organizations consider offering their own MOOCs, too, for many of the same reasons universities are exploring the possibilities of MOOCs.
Interest and enrollments in MOOCs are quite high (e.g., over 100 000 students enrolled in a MOOC offered at Stanford University) and will likely grow; however, persistence in MOOCs shows that it is quite low (Rosen, 2012), with small percentages of the nonpaying students actually completing courses. It is too soon to tell why and whether or not this will continue to be the case with MOOCs.
Distance Education in P-12 Schools
The iNACOL is one of the most active advocates for distance education in P-12 schools. Its mission is “to ensure all students have access to a world-class, education and quality blended and online learning opportunities that prepare them for a lifetime of success” (iNACOL, 2013: p. 1). As a result of its mission, iNACOL has sponsored numerous reports on distance learning in P-12 settings. For instance, in 2011, it sponsored a survey of several countries around the world to gain a better understanding of distance education in P-12 schools (see Barbour et al., 2012). The researchers found four trends:
- Blended and online choices are most available to students in urban areas from developed countries (p. 10).
- Growth in digital learning stems from shared authority between local schools and national governments (p. 10).
- Specialized teacher training is not required, but is encouraged and available (p. 12).
- Blended learning is occurring with much greater frequency than online learning (p. 13).
In the United States, distance education in P-12 schools is growing as iNACOL (2013) has found. For example, during the 2013-2014 academic year, “25 states had state virtual schools operating … and 29 states and Washington, DC had statewide full-time online schools operating” (p. 1). Additionally, several states such as Michigan, Florida, and Virginia require high school students to complete one online course to graduate (Sheehy, 2012).
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- Allen, I.E., Seaman, J., 2014. Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group.
- Allen, I.E., Seaman, J., 2013. Changing the Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group.
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