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Distance Learning and Its Evolution Research Paper


Distance education is the program where the student and instructor are separated by space and often time, is one of the formats of the fastest-growing instruction in the United States of America and globally (Tracey & Richey, 2005). Definitions of distance education are varied and diverse, but the main concept of distance learning can be summarized from the situation wherein the student and the educator are separated by distance and time and the lessons are delivered to the students through some form of information transference media such as the postal system, television, radio, or the Internet.

Unlike many modern definitions of distance learning that encompass only electronic media as the means of transfer of lessons, this definition amalgamates all forms of delivery methods throughout the evolution process of distance learning.

This paper presents a discussion of the evolution of distance learning, which started as correspondence courses to the present lesson plans over the Internet. Further, the paper discusses how the changes in technology and its adaptation have altered the delivery method of distance learning over the ages.

Evolution of Distance Education

The beginning of distance education traces back to the early days of correspondence course to the present cyberspace based teaching. This section discusses the evolution of the distance learning experience. The history is divided into three phases – first, the print-based correspondence courses, second, television and radio-based era of educating, and third, is the Internet-based distance learning method.

First Phase

Distance education began in the eighteenth century as a form of correspondence learning wherein the printed course material was mailed to the students. In such cases, printed course material became the primary delivery method. Correspondence courses began to provide education to women, deprived of school or university education in the pre-Industrial Europe and America in the 1800s (Tracey & Richey, 2005). The earliest evidence of correspondence education was found in Boston Gazette on 20th March 1728, where a shorthand teacher named Celeb Phillips offered weekly lessons to those who lived in remote locations (Bower & Hardy, 2004).

In 1833, a Swedish university posted an advertisement to teach composition via post. An Englishman named Isaac Pitman invented a system of shorthand to fit a postcard and sent them to the students (Tracey & Richey, 2005; Bower & Hardy, 2004). Throughout the nineteenth century, correspondence courses flourished due to the efforts of noted educators like Anna Eliot Ticknor in 1873, Cary Agassiz, founder of Radcliff College, Elizabeth Cleveland of Boston Museum of Fine Arts, William Rainey Harper of University of Chicago, Wesleyan College in 1874, Correspondence University of Ithaca, New York in 1883, etc. (Bower & Hardy, 2004).

Second Phase

Even though there was a rapid expansion in correspondence learning in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the postal mails were often an unreliable medium of lesson delivery due to the postal system’s limitations. With the invention of the radio in the beginning of the twentieth century, distance education became a mass phenomenon. In the 1920s, there were almost two hundred American radio stations delivering distance education (Bower & Hardy, 2004). Then with the advent of the television, distance learning became a phenomenon with televised courses in the 1950s when Westerns Reserve University became the first university to provide regular televised courses (Bower & Hardy, 2004).

Satellite technology in the 1960s and the fiber-optic system in the 1980s helped expand distance learning phenomenally (Bower & Hardy, 2004). However, these new technologies were costly due to high investment in infrastructure building, but the interactive learning allowed by this media compensated for the high cost (Bower & Hardy, 2004).

Third Phase

With the development of the Internet, there has been a boom in credit and non-credit distance education. The main advantage of the medium is that it allows two-way communication “involving a time delay between transmission and receipt” as well as lesson plays without “extended time delay” (Bower & Hardy, 2004, p. 8). The Internet has made distance learning highly interactive, allowing real-time transmission of lectures and interactive sessions that have increased learners’ engagement. Further, increased interaction between students as well as students and instructors facilitates the learning process. The Internet provides varied opportunities in doing research and following previous academic classes without physically being present in the classrooms. In other words, the Internet has allowed the whole university campus to the virtually shifted to the cyberspace.

Technology and the Mode of Delivery

The debate that arose with the statement made by Clarke that if technology is a “mere vehicle” for imparting distance learning then there is no need to discuss the various ways the Internet can be used to expand the learning experience of students points out. Hill (2012) points out that delivery methods of distance learning differ widely and have evolved even after the adoption of the Internet. Online courses established initially as ad hoc courses by the faculty members were useful by the instructors, but the institution did not accredit the courses. Then there came the courses that were specifically designed for online education and were dedicated to distance learning.

For instance, under this model, a master’s course replicated to impart an online course. The other approach to online learning pointed out by Hill, removes the barriers between a large-scale online course and traditional learning method with the aid of an external partner to develop online content. These companies help in developing curriculum and content for online courses. For instance, Pearson is one such company that aids Arizona State University and California State University to develop the curriculum and content of online courses (Hill, 2012).

There are blended or hybrid education that allows face-to-face real-time online classroom that replicates a physical classroom. In these forms of online courses, lesson dissemination is modeled on traditional classroom teaching but the mode of delivery is online. The latest development in online education is Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In this, the faculty members lead and design the course and an unlimited number of students can enroll in the course (Hill, 2012). The MOOCs have been formed in the 2007-08s as open online courses designed by David Wiley at Utah State University and Alec Couros at the University of Regina (Hill, 2012). However, it was with the advent of the Stanford’s MOOC, this form of delivery mode received maximum attention.

Factors that Changed Distance Learning

Distance learning has transformed with changes in technology and social factors. Technological change has completely altered the mode of delivery of the lessons over time and social factors have raised the need to start such distance educations. In the early phase, distance learning changed with the mass popularity of radio and television. Radio provided a voice that imparted education over a distance while television provided audio-visual experience to the students. The invention of satellite facilitated an interactive distance learning process. However, the invention of the Internet revolutionized the delivery of education over a distance.

Most Important Technology Change to the Advance Distance Education

Online education is the most important technological change that has altered the face of distance learning. What was impossible for the first generation distance educators, the Internet has made it possible. Real-time lecture delivery, interaction between students as well as with instructors makes the learning process more engaging. Further, online education has not only changed the distance education but has affected higher education as a whole across the globe (Kentnor, 2015). The impact of cyberspace on online education is not only in delivering the courses but also in changing how the courses are delivered. So it is no longer a mere mode that provided “access” rather it has become a method of improving the “quality of education” (Kentnor, 2015, p. 30). Undoubtedly, online education has altered the face of distance learning.

Technology as a “Mere Vehicle”

Richard Clarke states, “media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement” (2012a, p. 2). In other words, Clarke believes students require an instruction that gives them learning goals and information to learn. The word, “media” used by Clarke implies technology as a mode of transferring information or lessons or a medium that provides access to the course material.

In this limited definition provided by Clarke, “media” is definitely a mere “vehicle” to transfer curricula. It is a mere access point. However, if the meaning of the word “media” is broadened then media cannot be considered as a mere vehicle. If a technology shapes both the process of transferring of lessons as well as transforms the education design then it cannot be considered a mere vehicle. Information technology steers both the delivery method and the information given to the students to provide effective support to the learning process (2012b). In other words, technology can change distance learning in two different ways – first, technology can alter delivery method and second, technology can shape the instructions and methods of teaching. Internet has not only made access to instruction easy but has also altered the method of teaching. This is because, the Internet provides varied avenues and possibilities to make the courses interactive, and real that reduces the difference between a brick-and-mortar classroom and a virtual classroom.

Works Cited

Bower, B. L., & Hardy, K. P. (2004). From correspondence to cyberspace: Changes and challenges in distance education. New Directions for Community Colleges 2004(128) , 5-12. Print.

Clarke, R. E. (2012a). Media are the “Mere Vehicles”: The Opening Argument. In R. E. Clarke (Eds.), Learning from Media: Arguments, Analysis, and Evidence (pp. 1-12). Charlotte, North Carolina: IAP. Print.

Clarke, R. E. (2012b). A Summary of the Disagreements with the “Mere Vehicles” Argument. In R. E. Clarke (Eds.), Learning from Media: Arguments, Analysis, and Evidence (pp. 91-102). Charlotte, North Carolina: IAP. Print.

Hill, P. (2012). Online Educational Delivery Models: A Descriptive View. Educause Review 47(6) , 84-97. Print.

Kentnor, H. (2015). Distance Education and the Evolution of Online Learning In the United States. Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue 17(1) , 15-41. Print.

Tracey, M. W., & Richey, R. C. (2005). The evolution of distance education. Distance Learning 2(6) , 17-21. Print.

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