The purpose of this article is to answer the question "What is distance education?" and to ascertain the use of distance education in higher education in the United States. The origins, growth, media used, type of student utilizing distance education, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of using distance education are examined. These topics define distance education.
In 1840, Sir Issac Pitman, the English inventor of shorthand, came up with an ingenious idea for delivering instruction to a potentially limitless audience: correspondence courses by mail. Pitman's concept was so hot that within a few years he was corresponding with a legion of far-flung learners (Phillips 1998). Within a few decades, regular, and in some cases, extensive programs were available in the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States and Japan (Curran 1997). By the 1900s, the first department of correspondence teaching was established at the University of Chicago. In Australia, the University of Queensland established a Department of External Studies in 1911. Before 1969, distance teaching had developed into an important sector of higher education in quite a few countries.
The founding of United Kingdom's Open University (OU) in 1969 marked a significant development of the second phase of distance learning, with its mixed-media approach to teaching (ibid.). The OU sent learning materials to students by mail. Materials included carefully constructed texts and audio and video materials. These were supplemented with conventional broadcast radio and television. Each student was assigned a tutor who tutored over the telephone and in group sessions in the evenings or on weekends. The British Open University pioneered distance education on a massive scale (D.N. 1997). The OU and other open universities were important in raising the profile of distance education, effectively bringing distance teaching from the margins closer to the center stage of higher education (Curran 1997).
At roughly the same time as the founding of the OU, satellites were moving into commercial use. PEACENET in the Pacific Basin was founded in 1971 and used in the first ever application of satellites in distance education (Hall, P. 1996).
Distance education is first and foremost a movement that sought not so much to challenge or change the structure of higher learning, but to extend the traditional university and to overcome its inherent problems of scarcity and exclusivity. Second, distance education developed as a creative political response to the increasing inability of the traditional university structure to grow larger (Hall, J. 1995). Distance education dealt with the problem of too many students in a single physical space. The university could, in effect, reach out, offering not seats, but the opportunity to learn.
In the two decades following the opening of the British Open University in 1969, four open universities were established in Europe, and more than 20 were established in countries around the world.
There was considerable growth over the ensuing decades. In the United States, by the mid-1980s, more than 300,000 students were enrolled in university-taught distance education courses. In Canada, some 19 conventional universities were active in distance teaching. In Australia, the University of Queensland initiative had grown to some 3,000 students by the late 1960s. By the mid-1980s, some 40 institutions had an enrollment of external students equivalent to approximately 12% of higher education students. In the Soviet Union, where distance teaching was adopted in the late 1920s, all 61 universities eventually offered education by correspondence, and it is reported in the former German Democratic Republic that approximately one quarter of the university and technical college graduates attained their qualification by means of distance education. It is clear that distance education had developed into a substantive sector of higher education in quite a few countries (Curran 1997). …