Distance education or distance learning is the education of students who may not always be physically present at a school. Courses that are conducted (51 percent or more) are either hybrid, blended or 100% whole instruction. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), offering large-scale interactive participation and open access through the World Wide Web or other network technologies, are recent developments in distance education. A number of other terms (distributed learning, e-learning, online learning, etc.) are used roughly synonymously with distance education.
One of the earliest attempts was advertised in 1728 in the Boston Gazette for “Caleb Philipps, Teacher of the new method of Short Hand,” who sought students who wanted to learn through weekly mailed lessons.
The first distance education course in the modern sense was provided by Sir Isaac Pitman in the 1840s, who taught a system of shorthand by mailing texts transcribed into shorthand on postcards and receiving transcriptions from his students in return for correction. The element of student feedback was a crucial innovation of Pitman’s system. This scheme was made possible by the introduction of uniform postage rates across England in 1840.
This early beginning proved extremely successful, and the Phonographic Correspondence Society was founded three years later to establish these courses on a more formal basis. The Society paved the way for the later formation of Sir Isaac Pitman Colleges across the country.
The first correspondence school in the United States was the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, founded in 1873.
The University of London was the first university to offer distance learning degrees, establishing its External Programme in 1828. The background to this innovation lay in the fact that the institution (later known as University College London) was non-denominational and, given the intense religious rivalries at the time, there was an outcry against the “godless” university. The issue soon boiled down to which institutions had degree-granting powers and which institutions did not.
The Open University in the United Kingdom was founded by the then serving Labour Party government under the prime minister, Harold Wilson, based on the vision of Michael Young. Planning commenced in 1965 under the Minister of State for Education, Jennie Lee, who established a model for the OU as one of widening access to the highest standards of scholarship in higher education, and set up a planning committee consisting of university vice-chancellors, educationalists and television broadcasters, chaired by Sir Peter Venables. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Assistant Director of Engineering at the time, James Redmond, had obtained most of his qualifications at night school, and his natural enthusiasm for the project did much to overcome the technical difficulties of using television to broadcast teaching programmes.
The Open University revolutionized the scope of the correspondence program and helped to create a respectable learning alternative to the traditional form of education. It has been at the forefront of developing new technologies to improve the distance learning service as well as undertaking research in other disciplines. Walter Perry was appointed the OU’s first vice-chancellor in January 1969, and its foundation secretary was Anastasios Christodoulou. The election of the new Conservative Party government under the prime minister, Edward Heath, in 1970 led to budget cuts under Chancellor of the Exchequer Iain Macleod (who had earlier called the idea of an Open University “blithering nonsense”). However, the OU accepted its first 25,000 students in 1971, adopting a radical open admissions policy. At the time, the total student population of conventional universities in the United Kingdom was around 130,000.
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