In the last thirty years, distance education has moved from the margins to the mainstream of higher education policy and practice in many countries, accompanied by a spectacular growth in programmes, institutions and enrolments. Governments, in particular, increasingly see distance education as a valuable economic and social tool in meeting the demands of an information society. The methods and technologies surrounding distance teaching and learning have been systematised, so that those involved now take for granted the way things are done, just as educators in more conventional environments take for granted the way face-to-face, classroom teaching should occur. However, such is the speed of change nowadays that this status quo cannot last.
Throughout this expansion phase there has been an assumption that distance education and face-to-face teaching are different forms of education, each with its own value systems, organisational arrangements and teaching/ learning systems. Although hard to sustain in practice, this has been largely due to distance educators’ search for legitimacy and status. The separateness has been reinforced by the organisational structures of distance education: on the one hand, open universities entirely dedicated to distance teaching; on the other, distinctive distance education department/centres within dual-mode universities. The quest for legitimacy also sprang from the desire to distinguish distance education from its predecessor, correspondence study. We argue here that what is now occurring is far more than simply evolution of distance education into a third stage, as Nipper argued in 1989.
We suspect that the days of distance education, as such, are numbered. An unsteady, problematic, profound process of change is under way. Distance education methods and systems are converging with those of face-to-face teaching, strongly influenced by new electronic technologies. This process, we believe, will transform university teaching and learning as a whole, not merely add some distance teaching here, and some on-line technologies there. The watchwords today are flexibility, student-centredness (or client-centredness), networked learning, quality and efficiency. What might such a transformed learning environment look like? We outline a concept of