Thirty Years Ago, A Watershed Moment for Higher Education and Distance Learning

Article excerpt

The growing use of the Internet in both K-12 and higher education might lead current online students think that "learning at distance" equals "web-based schooling." Over 25% of undergraduate students (nearly 5 million) took at least one online course in 2008, up from 10% (1.6 million students) in 2002 (Allen & Seaman, 2010). Some students under the age of 30 might be aware that distance education a century and more ago meant sending homework through the post. But they might not know how satellite transmissions, telephones, and air flights laid the foundation for today's environment of distance education. This article describes how one of the important impediments to the spread of online distance education was removed.

Before the Internet allowed us to learn online, there was a time when universities fought over students in court. The legal conflict emerged because out-of-state, "multicampus" institutions like Nova University changed the paradigm for higher education (Alger, 2001). Brick-and-mortar universities offered graduate level degree programs for educators in the traditional face-to-face classroom on a university campus. For some potential students in larger states (Texas, North Carolina, Nevada), long commutes to get to the nearest campus often meant not enrolling.


Innovative institutions like Nova University met the growing need for graduatelevel courses for teachers and principals by adjusting the time and place for the classes. First, coursework that traditional universities offered 1 night a week over 16 weeks could be concentrated into a weekend once a month for three or four meetings. Second, the classroom could be moved closer to the students being served. If the campus was too far from you (the graduate student), the professor could come to a rented space (a meeting room in a local hotel) near you, either by flying to your city or via satellite transmission. As today, consultations at distance between teacher and students took place by telephone.

Looked at through the lens of the twenty-first century, those courses in the 1980s were similar to distance education as we know it today. Four components make up a widely accepted definition of distance education: (a) the program is based in an institution; (b) the teacher and student are separated by distance; (c) technologies are used to connect students and teacher; and (d) resources are shared to create learning experiences (Smaldino, S., Albright, M. & Zvacek, 2012). Certainly the core class meetings 30 years ago involved face-toface interaction between teacher and student, but the classes met away from the sponsoring institution. The elements of distance education were in place in the 1980s for instruction to occur in part at distance.


A cluster of inventions is often needed before an innovation can take hold and diffuse widely (Rogers, 2003, p. 162). When we think about the changes that took place in distance education between the 1980s and today, we can list a number of necessary technologies that are now in place: modems, cheaper and faster computers, sophisticated classroom management software, video compression and transmission, widespread fiber optic networks, and broadband speed. But these technologies were not sufficient to create the open environment that embodies distance education today. One final piece was needed: the legal standing for "borderless" universities to offer courses in locations where they had no physical campus (Farrington, 2001).

In 1979 Nova University applied for a license to offer its graduate programs in North Carolina, like any other in-state university. The Board of Governors for the University of North Carolina denied the license. Nova sought relief in the court system and the issue was argued before the state Supreme Court in the spring term of 1981. The key issue: Could an out-of-state university be regulated through the licensing procedure? …