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An Introduction to Distance Learning

You might be forgiven for thinking that distance learning is a new phenomenon. Far from it – it is actually well over one hundred years old and draws on the extension models of the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Since that time, institutions have been giving men and women all over the world the opportunity to earn a degree without setting foot on campus. Your university may be separated from you by a town, a country or even a continent; nevertheless your degree is awarded in recognition of the meeting of equivalent standards to those who pay their dues on campus.

Anna Ticknor is one of the pioneers of distance education in the U.S.A. In 1873, she created a society to encourage studies for women at home so as to increase educational opportunities for them. In its twenty-four year history, Ticknor’s Boston-based organisation served over 10,000 students, and set the pace for other home-based correspondence study courses. One of the early institutions that allowed a university degree at bachelor, master or doctoral level to be earned entirely through correspondence was Indiana’s Central University, founded in 1896 and still in existence in much the same form today.

It was not long before mainstream universities realized the value in distance learning programmes. Chautauqua College of Liberal Arts, N.Y., offered degree programmes through summer courses and correspondence between 1883 and 1891. Herbert Baxter Adams of John Hopkins University was a driving force behind the university extension principle. In 1915, the National University Extension Association (NUEA) was formed.

A 1933 faculty survey of the University of Chicago faculty, suggested that the justification of correspondence study should be rooted in its experimental nature, and that it should generate innovations and research data that would lead to improvements in teaching methodologies. Henry Ford wrote to the President advocating the formation of a University Without Walls.

The inter-war years were to see the development of education by radio, with many universities and colleges granted licences. Although educational radio was seen as popular, in fact the only college credit course offered by radio by 1940 failed to attract any enrolments. Educational television, however, was to prove more effective. Chicago’s ‘Sunrise Semester’ was on the air from 1959, offering filmed classes, and by the 1970s Coastline Community College and Dallas Community College were making serious use of television. Coastline was one of the very first “virtual colleges”, serving 18,500 students in California by 1976. Dallas took the important step of putting their courses on video tape so that they could be sent to other colleges.

The 1960s had seen some important and highly radical changes and experiments in college provision. Into the 1970s, pioneering efforts such as the University Without Walls project at Sierra University promoted methodologies of student-centered learning and the use of community resources as the student’s ‘campus’. In Britain the Open University offered courses by correspondence, television and radio that made degree study a reality for working adults. Programmes such as those at Columbia Pacific University attained worldwide popularity and acclaim, with leading universities such as Harvard and Yale stating that they would be happy to consider graduates of such programs for admission to further degrees.

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) had previously produced such educational delights as the children’s programme “ Sesame Street”. In the 1980s they started to produce full telecourses, but faced with falling revenues came to franchise out their courses to local PBS stations.

Many universities and colleges now offer college credit through telecourses. However, the growth of distance learning has increased exponentially with the advent of the Internet. Online courses are offered in many disciplines and it is now even possible to complete the initial stages of medical training through distance learning. Some providers have brought a stripped-down, highly business-focused approach to the field, aimed squarely at the busy professional. Specialist business institutes are also proving popular with the international market. Accelerated distance programs offer the opportunity to earn an associates or bachelors degree in a fraction of the time usually taken by campus-based students when prior learning is taken into account.

One of the last major barriers to be overcome in distance learning was the online doctorate. Several universities now offer non-residential doctorates in professional subject disciplines, and other institutions offer doctorates with short residency. In time, the non-residential doctorate can be expected to expand further.

During the past ten years, the perception of distance learning has improved dramatically. From being seen as an inferior alternative to campus-based degrees, distance learning has now achieved parity and indeed preference for many decision-makers who recognize its considerable benefits. In her article “Virtual Learning vs. the Classroom”, Emily Wengert reports that the study by the Sloan Consortium shows that “a majority of academic leaders (57 per cent) believe learning outcomes for online education are equal or superior to those of face to face instruction.”

The strong involvement of the self-regulating private sector in distance learning during this period proves that the anti-competitive argument that diploma mills and low-quality private sector institutions have somehow tarnished the perception of distance learning as a whole is false. By contrast, a spectrum of choice has contributed to the growth and popularity of distance learning, and the presence of a spectrum of quality has been effective both in encouraging providers to specialize in niche markets where they perform best and to encourage competition and the drive to excellence for the market as a whole.

Distance learning does not have to mean online learning. However, the development of the Internet has changed the distance learning landscape so dramatically that the majority of institutions offering it now have an online presence, even when their programmes are still correspondence-based. Recently, there has been a move in some institutions to full online delivery of course content and a fully virtual model of education. This understandably appeals to the computer-savvy, but remains a model of education with some disadvantages. One of these is that those living in developing countries, or where a fast and reliable internet connection is not available, are likely to have difficulty in accessing such programmes. The correspondence-based model of education, by contrast, is more traditional in its appeal. Progressive institutions are likely to offer a blend of instructional methods allowing the choice to be made by the student as is appropriate for their particular situation.

Advantages of Distance Learning (and of distance learning in the self-regulating private sector)

You can learn at your own time and pace
However, self-paced programmes are becoming rarer in the public sector, and some large public sector university programmes insist that students are online at particular times and for particular durations, making cohort participation part of their requirements. This is not always the case in self-regulating private sector programmes. At some schools you can enrol and start the programme at any time of the year, while others will make you wait until a set entry point.

You can continue study without having to give up your job or disrupt your home life
You don’t have to move to live on or visit campus, and save money as a result. Note that some apparently “distance learning” programmes and the majority of doctoral programmes at public sector universities in the United States require at least some residency or attendance at seminars/local group meetings/summer schools etc. There are numerous self-regulating private sector programmes, including doctorates, that do not require any residency. Note also that some public sector universities in South Africa have offered doctoral programmes that some people have managed to complete without residency, but that these programmes require the candidate to commit to travel to South Africa if the university deems this necessary.

You are in charge of the programme
You can decide which study methods, approaches and theories suit you best. In some programmes, your learning will be assessed by its results, not the process by which they have been reached, giving you greater freedom. You can often also exercise greater choice in terms of options and methods to earn college credit than is possible for campus-based programmes. At some self-regulating private sector universities, you and your employer can have a very significant input into the programme design itself, ensuring that it is fully individualized to your needs. You are more likely to find such a programme directly applicable to your real-life work situation than a graduate of a traditional programme.

You can save money
Except at the most prestigious universities, tuition fees will cost you less than in a comparable on-campus programme. Self-regulating private sector programmes can be among the most economical. There are even a few free programmes available in theology. However, beware of the lowest-priced programmes, since this may be a sign of poor quality and that little educational process will be in evidence.

You don’t pay for what you don’t need
Distance learning programmes are often strongly focused and designed for the busy professional with limited time. On campus, you pay for libraries, research facilities, fraternities/sororities, sports teams and a large bureaucracy designed to support tenured faculty in their position of privilege. For most adult learners, these additionally imposed costs, often aimed at the high school graduate market, have no relevance to their educational aims. A specialist distance learning school will be better able to meet the needs of such individuals.

You can gain access to higher education even if attending a conventional campus would be difficult or impossible
For those with disabilities or special needs, attending campus can be a challenging experience, despite the efforts many make to ensure adaptation. Distance learning offers a means of access to higher education that is rooted in your existing home and community environment, and where adaptation of pace and learning style can often be arranged.