The Evolution of Distance Education

By Tracey, Monica W.; Richey, Rita C. | Distance Learning, November 1, 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Evolution of Distance Education

Tracey, Monica W., Richey, Rita C., Distance Learning

Educational programs in which students and the instructor are separated by place and often time are currently the fastest growing form of instruction both in the United States and throughout the world (Gunawardena & McIsaac, 2004). This is commonly known as distance education, and even though it may currently be viewed as innovative, distance education dates back to the early 1800s (Verduin & Clark, 1991). To a great extent, the evolution of distance education has paralleled advancements in technology, but its development is also a reflection of changing educational values and philosophies. This article has three purposes: to describe the growth of distance education over the past 2 centuries; to identify factors which have facilitated this growth; and to identify emerging conceptual orientations in distance education thinking.

Over the years, many terms have been used to describe distance education. These include distance learning, open learning, networked learning, flexible learning, distributed learning, independent study, learning in connected space and, today, on-line learning is common. However, distance education (by any name) is generally recognized as a structured learning experience that can be engaged in away from an academic institution, at home or at a workplace, and can lead to degrees or credentials (Gunawardena & McIsaac, 2004; Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2000).



The first generation of distance education was print-based correspondence study, and print continued to be the predominant delivery medium for distance education until the beginning of the 1970s (Garrison & Shale, 1987). In preindustrial Europe, education had been available primarily to males in higher levels of society but, in the 1800s, with the event of the first correspondence program, the doors of education slowly opened to the rest of the population. For example, an advertisement in an 1833 Swedish newspaper touted the opportunity to study "Composition through the medium of the Post" (Bratt, as cited in Verduin & Clark, 1991, p. 15). In 1840, England's newly established Penny Post allowed Isaac Pitman to offer shorthand instruction via correspondence. Three years later, instruction was formalized with the founding of the Phonographic Correspondence Society, the precursor of Sir Isaac Pitman's Correspondence Colleges (Dinsdale, as cited in Verduin & Clark, 1991). In 1886, H.S. Hermod, of Sweden, began teaching English by correspondence, which led to the founding of Hermod's in 1898, one of the worlds largest and most influential distance teaching organizations. Distance education flourished in Britain in the late 1800s with the founding of a number of correspondence institutions, including Skerry's College in Edinburgh in 1878, and the University Correspondence College in London in 1887 (Curzon, 1977).

This movement ultimately made its way across the ocean to the United States. Correspondence study was integral to the University of Chicago which, in 1890, created a university extension as one of five divisions, the first such division in an American university. The extension division was divided into five departments: lecture study, class study, correspondence teaching, library, and training. The correspondence study department was successful in terms of student enrollment; each year 125 instructors taught 3,000 students enrolled in 350 courses (Rumble, 1986).

In 1891, Thomas J. Foster, editor of the Morning Herald, a daily newspaper in eastern Pennsylvania, began offering a correspondence course in mining and the prevention of mine accidents. His business developed into the International Correspondence Schools, a commercial school whose enrollment exploded from 225,000 in 1900 to more than 2 million in 1920 (Simonson et al., 2000).

In the late 1800s, Anna Eliot Ticknor founded a Boston-based society to encourage study at home, which attracted more than 10,000 students in 24 years.

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