AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

13. Distance Education

13.1 Introduction
13.2 History of Distance Education
13.3 Theory of Distance Education
13.4 Distance Learning Technologies
13.5 Future Directions and Emerging Technologies
13.6 Research Related to Media in Distance Education
13.7 International Issues
13.8 Summary and Recommendations
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Distance education is not a new concept. In the late 1800s, at the University of Chicago, the first major correspondence program in the United States was established in which the teacher and learner were at different locations. Before that time, particularly in preindustrial Europe, education had been available primarily to males in higher levels of society. The most effective form of instruction in those days was to bring students together in one place and one time to learn from one of the masters. That form of traditional educational remains the dominant model of learning today. The early efforts of educators like William Rainey Harper in 1890 to establish alternatives were laughed at. Correspondence study, which was designed to provide educational opportunities for those who were not among the elite and who could not afford full-time residence at an educational institution, was looked down on as inferior education. Many educators regarded correspondence courses as simply business operations. Correspondence education offended the elitist and extremely undemocratic educational system that characterized the early years in this country (Pittman, 1991). Indeed, many correspondence courses were viewed as simply poor excuses for the real thing. However, the need to provide equal access to educational opportunities has always been part of our democratic ideals, so correspondence study took a new turn.

As radio developed during the First World War and television in the 1950s (see 11.2.3), instruction outside of the traditional classroom had suddenly found new delivery systems. There are many examples of how early radio and television were used in schools to deliver instruction at a distance. Wisconsin's School of the Air was an early effort, in the 1920s, to affirm that the boundaries of the school were the boundaries of the state. More recently, audio and computer teleconferencing have influenced the delivery of instruction in public schools, higher education, the military, business, and industry. Following the establishment of the Open University in Britain in 1970, and Charles Wedemeyer's innovative uses of media in 1986 at the University of Wisconsin, correspondence study began to use developing technologies to provide more effective distance education.

13.2.1 Correspondence Study to Distance Education

In 1982, the International Council for Correspondence Education changed its name to the International Council for Distance Education to reflect the developments in the field. With the rapid growth of new technologies and the evolution of systems for delivering information, distance education, with its ideals of providing equality of access to education, became a reality. Today there are distance education courses offered by dozens of public and private organizations and institutions to school districts, universities, the military, and large corporations. Direct satellite broadcasts are produced by more than 20 of the country's major universities to provide over 500 courses in engineering delivered live by satellite as part of the National Technological University (NTU). In the corporate sector, more than $40 billion a year are spent by IBM, Kodak, and the Fortune 500 companies in distance education programs.

What, exactly, are the prospects and promises of distance education? Desmond Keegan (Keegan, 1980) identified six key elements of distance education:

  • Separation of teacher and learner
  • Influence of an educational organization
  • Use of media to link teacher and learner
  • Two-way exchange of communication
  • Learners as individuals rather than grouped
  • Educators as an industrialized form

Distance education has traditionally been defined as instruction through print or electronic communications media to persons engaged in planned learning in a place or time different from that of the instructor or instructors. The traditional definition of distance education is slowly being eroded as new technological developments challenge educators to reconceptualize the idea of schooling and lifelong learning. At the same time, interest in the unlimited possibilities of individualized distance learning is growing with the development of each new communication technology. Although educational technologists agree that it is the systematic design of instruction that should drive the development of distance learning, the rapid development of computer related technologies has captured the interest of the public and has been responsible for much of the limelight in which distance educators currently find themselves. Although the United States has seen rapid growth in the use of technology for distance education, much of the pioneering work has been done abroad.

13.2.2 Open Learning in the U.K.

The establishment of the British Open University in e United Kingdom in 1969 marked the beginning of the use of technology to supplement print-based instruction through well-designed courses. Learning materials were delivered on a large scale to students in three programs: undergraduates, postgraduates, and associate students. Although course materials were primarily print based, they were supported by a variety of technologies. No formal educational qualifications have been required to be admitted to the British Open University. Courses are closely monitored and have been successfully delivered to over 100,000 students. As a direct result of its success, the Open University model has been adopted by many countries in both the developed and developing world (Keegan, 1986). Researchers in the United Kingdom continue to be leaders in identifying problems and proposing solutions for practitioners in the field (Harry, Keegan & Magnus, 1993). The International Centre for Distance Learning, at the British Open University, maintains the most complete holdings of literature in both research and practice of international distance learning. Research studies, evaluation reports, course modules, books, journal articles, and ephemeral material concerning distance education around the world are all available through quarterly accessions lists or on line.

13.2.3 Distance Education in the United States

The United States was slow to enter the distance education marketplace, and when it did, a form of distance education unique to its needs evolved. Not having the economic problems of some countries or the massive illiteracy problems of developing nations, the United States nevertheless had problems of economy of delivery. Teacher shortages in areas of science, math, and foreign language combined with state mandates to rural schools produced a climate, in the late 80s, conducive to the rapid growth of commercial courses such as those offered via satellite by the TI-IN network in Texas and at Oklahoma State University. In the United States, fewer than 10 states were promoting distance education in 1987. A year later, that number had grown to two-thirds of the states, and by 1989 virtually all states were involved in distance learning programs. Perhaps the most important political document describing the state of

distance education has been the report done for Congress by the Office of Technology Assessment in 1989 called Linking for Learning (Office of Technology Assessment, 1989). The report gives an overview of distance learning, the role of teachers, and reports of local, state, and federal projects. It describes the state of distance education programs throughout the United States in 1989 and highlights how technology was being used in the schools. Model state networks and telecommunication delivery systems are outlined with recommendations given for setting up local and wide-area networks to link schools. Some projects, such as the Panhandle Shared Video Network and the Iowa Educational Telecommunications Network, serve as examples of operating video networks that are both ,efficient and cost effective.

13.2.4 Distance Education as a Global Movement

In Europe and other Western countries, a global concern was beginning to emerge. In a recent report, the 12 members of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities proposed a European Open University to begin in 1992. This is in direct response to the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, and the European Community (Bates, 1990). In this report, articles from authors in nine European countries describe the use of media and technology in higher education in Europe and reflect upon the need for providing unified educational access in the form of a European Open University to a culturally diverse population.

Telecommunication networks now circle the globe, linking people from many nations together in novel and exciting ways. As the borders of our global community continue to shrink, we search for new ways to improve communication by providing greater access to information on an international scale. Emerging communication technologies, and telecommunications in particular, provide highly cost-effective solutions to the problems of sharing information and promoting global understanding between people. In today's electronic age, it is predicted that the amount of information produced will increase exponentially every year. Since economic and political power is directly related to access to information, many educators like Takeshi Utsurni, president of GLOSAS (Global Systems Analysis and Simulation) have worked to develop models of the "Global University" and the "Global Lecture Hall" which provide resources allowing less-affluent countries to keep up with advances in global research and education (Utsumi, Rossman & Rosen, 1990).

In the developing world, since the 1950s, the population has doubled to over 5 billion people, most of whom want to be literate and want greater educational opportunities for themselves and their children. The majority of this expanding population is in Asia, where there are massive problems of poverty, illiteracy, and disease. In most developing countries, such as Bangladesh, distance education offers the promise of a system of information distribution through which new ideas, attitudes, and understanding might begin to ooze through the layers of the disadvantaged environments (Shah, 1989). Drawing upon the well-known model of the British Open University, countries such as Pakistan, India, and China have combined modem methods of teaching with emerging technologies in order to provide low-cost instruction for basic literacy and job training. Turkey has recently joined those nations involved in large-scale distance learning. Only 12 years old, their distance education program has enrolled almost I million students and is the sixth largest distance education program in the world (Demiray & Mclsaac, 1993).

Because of the economies of size and distribution, both industrialized and developing countries have embarked on distance education programs. In the early 1980s, record numbers of students in developing countries have gained access to higher education through distance education programs (Rumble & Harry, 1982). In many cases, local experts are not available to develop original programs in the language and culture of the people. For this reason, the majority of educational programs are either used intact from the host country or are superficially translated with very few adaptations to the local culture. When this is done, the results are often unsuccessful. The cultural values of the program designer become dominant, desirable, and used as the standard. There are many examples of programs from North America, Australia, Great Britain, and Europe that were purchased but never used in Africa and Asia because the material was not relevant in those countries. Because the appropriate design of instructional material is a critical element in its effectiveness, the issue of "who designs what and for whom" is central to any discussion of the economic, political, and cultural dangers that face distance educators using information technologies (Mclsaac, 1993). There have been a variety of efforts to identify theoretical foundations for the study of distance education. Thus far, there has been little agreement about which theoretical principles are common to the field and even less agreement on how to proceed in conducting programmatic research.

Updated August 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001
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