Distance education or distance learning or D-Learning is, unlike commonly thought, a mode of education and learning that originated nearly three centuries ago.
Simply put, distance learning is a method of providing instruction and education, on individual or group basis to students who are unable to be physically present in a traditional classroom setting. By exact definition it provides “access to learning when the source of information and the learner are separated by distance or time, or both”. From the times of classes being held in open spaces or under trees by a tutor to a student to the age of distance learning, education has made such vast strides and come full circle.
Distance learning may require a physical presence for any reason, from being present for contact classes to taking examinations. Such courses of study are referred to as ‘hybrid’ or ‘blended’.
Recent developments in distance learning include interactive participation on large scale by groups through open access like the Internet or other technology; these are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
In 1728, an advertisement appeared in the Boston Gazette placed by Caleb Phillips, who ‘sought students who wished to learn through weekly lessons mailed to them’. There are no records however of whether this was indeed put into effect.
Earliest distance learning courses can date back to the 18th century in Europe. In the 1840s, Sir Isaac Pitman, an Englishman who received Knighthood in 1894 developed Pitman’s Shorthand, the most widely used method of ‘shorthand’, a very useful technique in office procedures and office correspondence. He pioneered the system of mailing prescribed texts in shorthand to students on postcards and receiving answer transcripts from them for correction; the element of feedback thus proved to be an innovative tool to gauge levels of student understanding and for the tutor to provide corrections and help answer their questions. Coincidentally, this form of ‘postal tuition’ was made possible around this time when England introduced uniform postage rates in 1840.
The Phonographic Correspondence Society was established three years later and this paved the way for the setting up of the ‘Sir Isaac Pitman Colleges’ all over the country.
Correspondence courses established by university
In 1958, an External Program was established to offer academic degrees through distance learning by the University of London, which later came to be known as University College London. However, the non-denominational or non-religious nature of this university, gave it a ‘godless’ flavor and caused intense religious rivalries. The issue soon blew over into which institutions had powers to grant ‘degrees’ of academic study and which did not.
In 1858, a charter by Queen Victoria created the External Program through a new academic institution with official recognition called University of London. This body would be the governing body for King’s College London and University College London, giving access to higher studies to students who came from poorer backgrounds and award them with University of London degrees. Thus, the first ever academic institution offering degrees to students through distance learning was the University of London, soon earning it the name ‘People’s University’. Its successful programs began to be emulated and copied around the globe at various institutions.
This distance learning program is today called the University of London International Program and comprises Undergraduate, Postgraduate and Diploma degrees offered by renowned colleges like Royal Holloway and Goldsmiths and the London School of Economics.
The Internet and widespread use of PCs and computers have made distance education faster and easier; virtual schools and universities deliver entire curricula and prescribed texts online. The Jones International University, a fully online university, launched in 1996 in the US by Glenn Jones and Bernard Luskin is the first one to receive accreditation by an accrediting agency in the US. This has opened the doors wide for online high school courses, where subjects like high school Math, English and Science are taught.
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