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Distance education, or distance learning, is a field of education that focuses on the pedagogy and andragogy, technology, and instructional systems design that aim to deliver education to students who are not physically "on site". According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “is a process to create and provide access to learning when the source of information and the learners are separated by time and distance, or both.” In other words, distance learning is the process of creating an educational experience of equal qualitative value for the learner to best suit their needs outside the classroom. Distance education courses that require a physical on-site presence for any reason including the taking of examinations is considered to be a hybrid or blended course of study. This emerging technology is becoming widely used in universities and institutions around the globe. With the recent trend of technological advance, distance learning is becoming more recognized for its potential in providing individualized attention and communication with students internationally.


Distance education dates to at least as early as 1728, when "an advertisement in the Boston Gazette...[named] 'Caleb Phillips, Teacher of the new method of Short Hand" was seeking students for lessons to be sent weekly. Modern distance education has been practiced at least since Isaac Pitman taught shorthand in Great Britain via correspondence in the 1840s. The development of the postal service in the 19th century led to the growth of Commercial correspondence colleges with nation-wide reach.

The University of London was the first university to offer distance learning degrees, establishing its External Programme in 1858. The Society to Encourage Studies at Home was founded in 1873 in Boston, Massachusetts. In Australia, the University of Queenslandmarker established its Department of Correspondence Studies in 1911. Another pioneering institution was the University of South Africamarker, which has been offering Correspondence Education courses since 1946. In New Zealand, university-level distance education or extramural study began in 1960 at Massey Universitymarker. The largest distance education university in the United Kingdommarker is the Open Universitymarker founded 1969. Spain's Public UNED was founded in 1972. In Germanymarker the FernUniversität in Hagenmarker was founded 1974. There are now many similar institutions around the world, often with the name Open University (in English or in the local language), and more than a dozen of them have grown to become 'mega-universities' , a term coined to denote institutions with more than 100,000 students.

The first president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper developed extended education and was considered one of the founders of “learning by correspondence programs.” The University of Chicago instituted the first Extension Service in America through the use of mail, reaching out to a vast group of students internationally.

Charles Wedemeyer of the University of Wisconsin–Madisonmarker is considered one of the fathers' of modern distance education in America. From 1964-1968 the Carnegie Foundation funded Wedemeyer's Articulated Instructional Media Project (AIM) which brought in a variety of communications technologies aimed at providing learning to an off-campus population. According to Moore's recounting, AIM impressed the British who imported these ideas and used them to create the first Open Universitymarker, now called United Kingdom Open University (UKOU) to distinguish it from other open universities which have emerged. UKOU was established in the late 1960s and used television and radio as its primary delivery methodologies, thus placing it in the forefront of applying emerging technologies to learning. It is fair to say that all "open universities" use distance education technologies as delivery methodologies.. During this period Bernard Luskin also Chaired Project Outreach in California. Outreach was a project that included the University of California, California State University and the community colleges to identify the characteristics of telecourses, get legislative authority to use public funds for distance education through coordinated instructional systems and produce the pilot demonstration telecourse.

In addition, there are many private and public, non-profit and for-profit institutions offering courses and degree programs through distance education. Levels of accreditation vary; some institutions offering distance education in the United Statesmarker have received little outside oversight, and some may be fraudulent diploma mills. In many other jurisdictions, an institution may not use the term "University" without accreditation and authorisation, normally by the national government. Online education is rapidly increasing among mainstream universities in the United States, where online doctoral programs have even developed at prestigious research institutions.

In the twentieth century, radio, television, and the Internet have all been used to further distance education. Computers and the Internet have made distance learning distribution easier and faster. Private, for-profit University of Phoenix, which is primarily an online university, now has two hundred thousand students and expects to serve five hundred thousand by 2010, yet little is known about student success or lack of success in such a fast-growing institution.

In 2006 the Sloan Consortium reported that more than 96 percent of the largest colleges and universities in the United Statesmarker offered online courses and that almost 3.2 million U.S. students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2005 term.

The use of online legal education is a rapidly growing phenomenon in the United States. The California State Bar registers and regulates (but does not accredit) online law schools. For a detailed discussion of distance learning legal education, including particularly online law schools, go to the Wikipedia entry at

Two of Canada’s leading distance education providers are Open Learning (TRU-OL) of Thompson Rivers University and Athabasca Universitymarker (AU). TRU-OL educational goals are obtainable for anyone through accessible and varied courses that can be taken anytime and at an individually-determined pace. With over 400 individual courses and more than 57 programs available for completion by distance and online learning, students can take a variety of programs such as: adult secondary school completion; certificates and diplomas, including advanced and post-baccalaureate; associate degrees; and bachelor's degrees. AU educational goals are the removal of barriers that restrict access to and success in university level study and to increasing equality of educational opportunity for adult learners worldwide. AU offers over 700 courses in more than 90 undergraduate and graduate programs, including the Doctor of Education in Distance Education (D.Ed.) and the Doctor in Business Administration (DBA).

In Ontariomarker, Canadamarker the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities establishedthe in 2007 to provide access to students in small and rural communities across Ontario who wanted to pursue college or university courses from their community by distance education.

In the province of Manitoba, the department of Education, Citizenship and Youth provides three options in distance education: Independent Study Option, Teacher Mediated Option and Web-based Course Option.

The Independent Study Option (ISO) provides the opportunity and flexibility for both school-age and adult learners to study a wide range of compulsory optional print based distance education courses from Grades 7 to 12. This form of distance education also provides students with support by email or phone. The Independent Study Option also offers several courses in French. In the event that a student leaves the province on a temporary or permanent basis, the ISO also provides the opportunity for continuing the study of Manitoba curriculum en route to receiving a Senior Years graduation diploma.

Teacher Mediated Option (TMO) supports the delivery of distance learning courses that are scheduled within the school day and use a variety of technologies to assist students including: instruction twice a school cycle for 40 minutes per class by audio teleconference, recording of classes as required for use up to five days after the class has occurred, and corresponding with an instructor between classes by email or phone. These courses are only available to students attending school or an adult learning centre.

Web-bases course in Manitoba are available to schools wishing to deliver high school courses on the internet. Manitoba uses the Blackboard learning System CE version 6.2. While being delivered through the internet, these courses are taught by a teacher who may be off-site. Assignments are submitted online by students to teachers, and a final examination is written on site.

Technologies used in delivery

The types of available technologies used in distance education are divided into two groups: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous technology is a mode of online delivery where all participants are "present" at the same time requiring a timetable to be organized. Web Conferencing is an example of synchronous technology. Asynchronous technology is a mode of online delivery where participants access course materials on their own schedule. Students are not required to be together at the same time. Message board forums, e-mail and recorded video are examples of asynchronous technology.

Synchronous technologies

Asynchronous technologies

There are also Learning Management Systems or Learning Content Management Systems which can be used for both Synchronous and Asynchronous learning. (LMS is not so much a learning tool as a framework for an instructor to better administer the classroom.)

Types of distance education courses

  • Correspondence conducted through regular mail
  • Internet conducted either synchronously or asynchronously
  • Telecourse/Broadcast, in which content is delivered via radio or television
  • CD-ROM, in which the student interacts with computer content stored on a CD-ROM
  • PocketPC/Mobile Learning where the student accesses course content stored on a mobile device or through a wireless server
  • Integrated distance learning, the integration of live, in-group instruction or interaction with a distance learning curriculum

Distance Education has traversed four to five 'generations' of technology in its history.These are print, audio/video broadcasting, audio/video teleconferencing, computer aided instruction, e-learning/ online-learning, computer broadcasting/webcasting etc. Yet the radio remains a very viable form, especially in the developing nations, because of its reach. Australian children in extremely remote areas have been participating in the "School of the air" since the 1940s using 2 way radio. In India the FM Channel is very popular and is being used by universities, to broadcast educational programs of variety on areas such as teacher education, rural development, programs in agriculture for farmers, science education, creative writing, mass communication, in addition to traditional courses in liberal arts, science and business administration. The increasing popularity of mp3 players, PDAs and Smart Phone has provided an additional medium for the distribution of distance education content, and some professors now allow students to listen or even watch video of a course as a Podcast . Some colleges have been working with the U.S. military to distribute entire course content on a PDA to deployed personnel.

Major benefits of use

Distance education provides major benefits to at least three main markets or categories, such as:

  • Expanding access: Distance education can reach underserved populations of students who cannot attend a school that offers the educational services they desire, perhaps because they live too far away.
  • Emerging market opportunities: Distance education fuels the public's need for lifelong learning in education by providing access to learners not in the traditional k-12 age group.
  • Adapting to new technology and environments: Educational institutions may adopt distance education as a means to adapt to the rapid changes in technology being used in education today.

Testing and evaluation

Distance education has long had trouble with testing. The delivery of testing materials is fairly straightforward, which makes sure it is available to the student and he or she can read it at their leisure. The problem arises when the student is required to complete assignments and testing. Online courses have had difficulty controlling cheating in quizzes, tests, or examinations because of the lack of teacher control. In a classroom situation a teacher can monitor students and visually uphold a level of integrity consistent with an institution's reputation. However, with distance education the student can be removed from supervision completely. Some schools address integrity issues concerning testing by requiring students to take examinations in a controlled setting.

Assignments have adapted by becoming larger, longer, and more thorough so as to test for knowledge by forcing the student to research the subject and prove they have done the work. Quizzes are a popular form of testing knowledge and many courses go by the honor system regarding cheating. Even if the student is checking questions in the textbook or online, there may be an enforced time limit or the quiz may be worth so little in the overall mark that it becomes inconsequential. Exams and bigger tests may be harder to regulate.

Used in combination with invigilators, a pre-arranged supervisor trusted with overseeing big tests and examinations may be used to increase security. Many Midterms and Final examinations are held at a common location so that professors can supervise directly. When the Internet became a popular medium for distance education many websites were founded offering secure exam software and packages to help professors manage their students more effectively.


In recent years, the CollegeBoard has been promoting its College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests. These tests are fully accredited and can be used for many of the general education and even core requirements of many degree templates. The tests are administered in approved testing centers and are closely proctored to prevent cheating. CLEP tests are computer-based, online tests that consist of roughly 80-120 multiple choice questions. Because the test is computer-based, the candidate's score can be tallied as soon as the test is completed. CLEP's passing grade is a 50 (roughly equivalent to a C-grade) and is scaled all the way to 80 (roughly the equivalent of an A-grade) for a perfect score. CLEP operates on a pass or fail basis, in that the actual grade does not determine credit awarded, but is strictly based on whether the candidate passes or not.


In addition to CLEP tests, the DANTES Standardized Subject Tests (DSST) is also frequently used to cover areas that CLEP does not offer tests in. These are very similar in format and administration to CLEP, being computer-based, online, and proctored, with immediate test results available. DSST also offers a number of its exams in paper based format, though they must be sent in to DSST's offices for grading, resulting in a delay for application of credit. Traditionally, DSST has used a grading system nearly identical to that of CLEP, but has recently been overhauling its tests and applying a new grading system, with a 300-500 point grade, with 400 as the passing grade. Credit is awarded based on pass or fail.

See also


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