December 3, 2023

A Brief History of Distance Education


By Bizhan Nasseh
Ball State University

Reprinted with the permission from Adult Education in the News

Throughout the history of human communication, advances in technology have powered
paradigmatic shifts in education (Frick, 1991). Communication between teacher and student
is a vital element of successful distance education. Media has played an essential role in
the establishment of teacher and student communication. For communication to take place,
at a bare minimum, there must be a sender, a receiver, and a message. If this message is
intended as an instruction, then besides student, teacher, and content, we must consider
the environment in which this educational communication occurs (Berg & Collins, 1995).
Moore (1990) sees the success of distance education to be based on the content of the
dialog between teacher and student and the effectiveness of the communication system in an
educational process.

There are some discussions about the frequencies and nature of dialogue. Hoffman (1995)
referred to dialogue as the capacity for teacher and student to respond to one another.

During the nineteenth century, in the United States, several activities in adult
education preceded the organization of university extension beyond campuses. In 1873, Anna
Ticknor created the society to encourage studies at home for the purpose of educational
opportunities for women of all classes in the society. This Boston-based, largely
volunteer effort provided correspondence instruction to 10,000 members over a 24-year
period despite its resolutely low profile (Ticknor, 1891). Printed materials sent through
the mail were the main way of communication, teaching, and learning. In 1883 a
Correspondence University headquartered at Cornell University was established, but never
got off the ground (Gerrity, 1976). The first official recognition of education by
correspondence came from 1883 to 1891 by Chautauqua College of Liberal Arts. This college
was authorized by the state of New York to grant academic degrees to students who
successfully completed work at the Summer institutes and by correspondence during the
academic year (Watkins, 1991). Interest regarding the effectiveness of correspondence
study verses traditional study was the subject of debates and discussions. Watkins (1991)
wrote that William Rainy Harper, professor of Herbrew at Yale University, who was
authorized from 1883 to 1891 to grant degrees to students who completed correspondence
study, believed that correspondence study “would not, if it could, supplant oral
instruction, or be regarded as its substitutes.” Watkins (1991) in her book cited
that Vincent (1885) wrote,

the day is coming when the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than
that done in the classrooms of our academics and colleges; when the students who shall
recite by correspondence will far outnumber those who make oral recitations.

Vincent’s vision brought a new way of thinking about the value and future of
distance education for institutions. Watkins (1991) explained that leadership for the
development of university-level extension throughout the nation was provided by Herbert
Baxter Adams, the foremost historian of his day. His enthusiasm for the extension movement
was a positive force for his students at John Hopkins University. Ultimately, his students
would carry on his extension work across the country.

Correspondence study has grown in popularity, acceptance, and effectiveness. In 1915,
creation of the National University Extension Association(NUEA) broadened the focus to
other issues, such as necessity of new pedagogical models and new national level
guidelines, such as university policies regarding acceptance of credit from correspondence
courses, credit transferal, and standard quality for correspondence educators.

The University of Chicago faculty survey findings in 1933, suggested that
correspondence study should be justified on an experimental basis, generating innovations
and research data leading to improvements in teaching methodology (Gerrity, 1976). This
research study was very important for the future knowledge base in this field. The medium
of mail was a dominate delivery system for over forty years, but new delivery technologies
started to provide additional options for correspondence study. Pittman (1986) wrote,

visual instruction, including lantern slides and motion pictures was added to the
repertory of many extension units in the period of 1910-1920, but most promising new
technology for correspondence instruction was instructional radio.

In the years between the World Wars (1918-1946), the federal government granted radio
broadcasting licenses to 202 colleges, universities, and school boards. With all the
demands and popularity of instructional radio, by the year 1940 there was only one
college-level credit course offered by radio and that course failed to attract any
enrollments (Atkins, 1991). Still, the concept of education by radio was a major reason
for development of educational television by the mid 20th century. More and more
association and social support developed for distance education around the country.
Packing companies, railroads, the American Banking Association, Labor Unions, Army and
Navy, and state and national welfare associations recognized the merits of correspondence
instruction (Watkins, 1991). With the growth of popularity and needs for correspondence
study, new questions such as learners’ characteristics, students’ needs,
effectiveness of communication, and value of outcomes in comparison with face-to-face
study became public interests. From the pursuit of answers to these questions emerged
needed research initiatives such as Gale Childs’ (1949) dissertation studying the
effectiveness and reliability of correspondence study as an educational method (Watkins,
1991). The interest in finding answers for these questions was the reason for many new
research studies which have contributed to the growth of the knowledge base of distance
education. Clark (1996) wrote, “the studies of improvement of teaching by using media
have been part of educational research since Thorndike (1912) recommended pictures as a
labor-saving device in instruction.” In response to wartime needs, extension programs
also provided a variety of technical and mechanical training opportunities, as well as
short courses and refresher courses (Watkins, 1991). After World War II, television was
considered as another delivery option in the correspondence study.

In the early 1950s, despite the efforts of leaders in the field, correspondence study
struggled to gain acceptance, and it was still seen as suspect by academics (Wright,
1991). During this period, research helped to further the acceptance and extension of
correspondence study. As Childs (1973) indicated, little research existed to support the
apparent and perceived strengths of the methodology, and there was little or no sense of
professionalism. During the fifth International Conference on Correspondence Education
(ICCE), in Alberta, Canada, delegates from universities, governments, and proprietary
institutions reflected a growing interest in the research of correspondence study
(National University Education Association (NUEA), 1957). Over the past half century, the
Ford Foundation has played an important role in the development and support of area and
international studies within American higher education. With a Ford Foundation grant,
Childs initiated a project, in 1956, to study the application of television instruction in
combination with correspondence study. From this important and needed study, Childs
concluded “television instruction is not a method. Television is an instrument by
means of which instruction can be transmitted from one place to another” (Almenda,
1988). Childs also found no appreciable differences in regular classrooms by means of
television, or by a combination of correspondence study and television (Almenda, 1988).

During the 1960s and 1970s, a number of alternatives to traditional higher education
developed in the United States. The major reasons were broad national trends that included
rapidly escalating costs of traditional resident education, interest in informal and
nontraditional education, an increasingly mobile American population, the growth of
career-oriented activities, necessity of learning new competencies, public dissatisfaction
with educational institutions in general and the early success of Britain’s Open
University (Gerrity, 1976).

Britain’s Open University brought a new vision of independence for distance
education as distinct from traditional education. Britain’s Open University played a
major role in the development of much of the important research in distance learning
(Zigerell, 1984). Britain’s Open University is the largest and most innovative
educational organization in the world. It is a leader in the large-scale application of
technology to facilitate distance learning. Open University brought the needed respect and
confidence to the correspondence program around the world. The success of Britain’s
Open University was the major reason for the development of open universities in other
countries, such as America and Japan. Open University not only overcomes the restrictive
concept of place and time, but also eliminates the boundary of nations and nationalities.
There are more than 218,000 people currently studying with the Open University, and the
principal qualifications awarded by this university are BA, and Bsc degrees, Masters, an
MBA, and research degrees including Bphil, Mphil, and PhD (Open University, 1996).

The first United States open university was New York State’s Empire State College
(NYSES), which commenced operation in 1971 (Gerrity, 1976). One of the main purposes of
the NYSES was to make higher education degrees more accessible to learners unable to
attend traditional programs, campus-based courses. The program in NYSES modified the
concept of academic credits and provided a greater flexibility regarding degree
requirements and time limitations than was characteristic of tradition-based degree
programs (Gerrity, 1976). Providing a direction for advancement of research activities in
distance education was a major concern of leaders in this field. Two individuals who
played major roles in the advancement of the state of scholarly research in the field are
Charles Wedemeyer of the University of Wisconsin and Gayle Childs of the University of
Nebraska (Wright, 1991). Wedemeyer and Childs made major contributions in the
transformation of correspondence study into a profession. Both played major roles in the
advancement of distance education research. They were recognized as leaders of the
movement throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (Wright, 1991). Wedemeyer and Childs not
only provided needed leadership to their universities correspondence programs, but also
provided direction for the national and international growth of this method of teaching
and learning. Both men made major contributions in the Correspondence Study Division of
the NUEA and Internal Conferences on Correspondence Education. Wedmeyer and Childs
publications, books, and films on correspondence study have provided teachers and students
with an invaluable source of process design, teaching, and learning.

In mid 1960, the development of the Correspondence Education Research Project was a
major hope for more research activities and definition of the status of the correspondence
study in American higher education. In 1968, the division of Correspondence Study changed
its name to the Division of Independent Study; this new division provided more options for
delivery of education in the form of videotape, programmed instruction, television,
telephone, and other multimedia teaching and learning (National University Extension
Association (NUEA), 1969).

In the last 20 years, with the advancement in technology, independent study has become
more accessible for distance education students. Zigerell (1984) wrote, “the ease
with which modern communications technologies can link educational institutions to homes,
work-sites, and community centers has made adult education and lifelong learning matters
of national policy” (P. 53). At the same time, the loads and responsibilities of
adults have become of interest to experts and educators in distance learning. Feasley
(1983) stated that individuals who must learn at a distance have ongoing obligations such
as employment, family responsibilities, handicaps, or live in geographically isolated
area. The 1970s and 1980s introduced the related concept “distance education”
which posed new challenges to traditional independent study, forcing a reexamination and
redefinition of the place of independent study in this new international movement (Wright,

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, cable and satellite television came into use as a
delivery medium for distance education courses (Wright, 1991). During the 1980s, many
quality telecourse offerings were available by using cable and satellite delivery. But as
Munshi (1980) said, “unfortunately, systematic efforts to evaluate telecourses have
been the exception rather than the rule.” In the Fall of 1991, eighteen institutions,
including the University of California, the University of Oklahoma, Penn State, and
Washington State, used the Mind Extension University (MEU), Educational Network to deliver
video course materials for independent study courses (MEU catalog, 1991). Women’s
desire and participation in distance education helped the growth of distance education in
the 1980s and 1990s. The report of the survey of telecourse enrollments in five states
showed 67% of the participants in the distance education were women(Instructional
Telecommunication Consortium, 1984). Participation of women in distance learning was
directly related to political and social changes in women’s position within the
family and society, technological changes in the work place, and the economic necessity of
participation, and the job market and new job opportunities.

The research activities of Britain’s Open University provided new directions and
emphasis for more research in this field. Publication of Research in Distance Education in
1989 provided great opportunity to collect information about ongoing research projects and
the results of current research in the field of distance education. Until the arrival of
this new periodical, most research institute descriptions were found in sources difficult
to access in the United States (Moore, 1985; Rumble & Harry, 1982).

Coldeway (1982) identified the following reasons for the limitation of research
activities in distance education.

1. Educational researchers are rarely present during the design of distance learning

2. There is no clear paradigm for research in distance learning, and it is difficult to
attract funds to develop one.

3. Some institutions are averse to defining boundaries and variables clearly.

4. Educational researchers often ask questions of no practical or even theoretical

5. Researchers in the distance learning test variables that are really classes of
variables (such as comparisons of distance and classroom learning).

Advancement in telecommunications and computer technologies will speed up national and
international cooperation in both research and documentation (Feasley, 1991). Technology
makes the process of research, collection of data, analysis of data, and generation of
reports easier and faster. Calvert (1986) provided a helpful conceptual framework for
distance education research by identifying three principal kinds of variables: input,
process, and outcome. The input and outcome variables can be divided into student or
system variables, and process variables are divided as either development or delivery

With the increase in demand for distance education, the growing concerns were knowledge
about effectiveness of distance education and changes in pedagogy enabled and required by
the advancement of technology.

A recent American Federation of Teachers (AFT) task force report states that too little
is known about the effectiveness of distance learning and that more independent research
is needed (Twigg, 1996). At the same time, Clark (1996), in his paper mentioned that media
forms are mere vehicles that deliver instruction, but do not influence student achievement
any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition. Clark
believes that it is not media, but variables such as instructional method that foster
distance learning.

Even with the growth in the amounts of distance education in our higher educational
institutions, few studies examined students learning experiences, effectiveness of
instructional methods, and strengths and limitation of this model of teaching and
learning. Russell (1996), Office of Instructional Telecommunications at North Carolina
State University, provided brief quotations from 218 research reports, summaries, and
papers, from 1945 to the present that compare technology-driven education methods with
traditional classroom instruction. The compiled citations and quotations indicate that
students learn equally well from education delivered by technology as measured by these
218 reports at a distance and face-to-face. In addition to the effectiveness of learning
experiences, the reasons for learners’ participation in distance education are
another attractive topic of systematic investigation by researchers.

Wallace (1991) in her dissertation, Faculty and Student Perceptions of Distance
Education Using Television(TV), provided rich information about the reasons adults
participate in the TV education. Her conclusion of study revealed the reasons for
participation were opportunity to earn an MBA (90.9%), opportunity to upgrade work skills
(75.1%), and the opportunity to learn more about business concepts (83.2%). Her finding
was a strong display of the objectives of participants in the adult continuing education.
Most students participating in TV programs found their courses to be challenging and had
favorable experiences with technology. Wallace’s recommendation for additional
investigation includes: further research in educational resources and training needs of
both students and teachers, attitudes of faculty toward distance learners, evaluation of
educational experiences with regards to lack of personal interaction in the group, and
follow-up study for comparison of performance of this group with face-to-face class
students. Wallace also recommended that incorporating the electronic mail system with TV
education can facilitate better communication between students and teacher. The main
finding of the Wallace study is that continuing education is necessary for better job
performance and advancement in the job market. Her recommendation for combining
asynchronous technology(e-mail) with synchronous technology(TV), and training needs of
distance education students and teachers are major issues in the distance education