History of Distance Learning

History of Distance LearningThe postal service remains standing as the earliest form of information technology accessible to the public. Simplistic by modern standards, the concept of a system of information exchange over long distances and on a mass scale changed the world. Information technology began with the postage stamp and global communication soon followed. Towns and cities grew up around post offices where, along with train stations, the telegraph made its appearance. The mail-order catalog expanded commerce and shopping convenience into areas where a vast array of consumer products had never before been available. If goods could be ordered and shipped by mail, so could services. Distance learning became an educational service delivered by mail. The "correspondence course" took education out of the classroom and transported knowledge where it had never gone before.

  • The first record of a systematic distance learning program by mail dates to 1728, when Caleb Phillips advertised a correspondence course for shorthand in the Boston Gazette. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the University of London and Illinois Wesleyan University offered distance learning degrees, though vocational correspondence courses accounted for the largest share of distance learning instruction. By the twentieth century, distance education methods and study materials had developed to a high degree of effectiveness. Technological innovations like the telephone, radio, and motion pictures showed promise as tools for distance learning. Confident that one of his own inventions would revolutionize education, Thomas Edison declared that the American school system would be completely transformed by moving pictures. A catalog of instructional films was published in 1910. Edison's high expectations for films as instructional tools were premature, but distance education gradually adopted audiovisual aids into many programs.
  • The growing popularity of distance learning was not without problems. Complaints over the practices and legitimacy of some distance learning providers prompted demands for regulation. In 1926, the National Home Study Council (NHSC) was organized to review distance learning programs and establish guidelines for their operation. Distance learning programs administered by colleges and universities were accredited by the National University Extension Association as early as 1915. The content quality of distance learning programs from then on was based on identifiable standards.
  • Telephone service was reliable and widespread by 1920, and radio broadcasts reached large audiences by 1925. Electronic communication rapidly merged into the daily routine of life as a primary source of information. Distance learning tried each new type of information technology and adopted what proved useful and effective. Slide-show projections and recorded lectures proved to be stimulating audiovisual aids that made instruction more appealing than textbooks alone. Radio did not work out as a distance learning tool, but television held real promise. In 1932, when television was nothing but a marvelous novelty, Iowa State University conducted tests using television as an instructional medium. The possibilities of a "virtual" education were already being explored.
  • Among the first to appreciate the value of distance learning was the U.S. military. During World War II, the American army, navy, and air force commissioned hundreds of instructional and educational films for men and women in uniform. These films were distributed to every military base and training camp to speed up instruction, standardize what was being taught, update previous training, and close knowledge gaps. Industrial training films emerged at about the same time and for similar purposes as military films. Although film never played as large a role in academic and vocational distance learning, techniques for audiovisual courses were developed from film experience.
  • Distance learning made great strides during the 1950s as correspondence courses in art, electronics, automotive repair, hotel management, and stenography found favor with people too busy to attend school. Mainstream academics, however, continued to doubt the integrity of distance education and criticized what they perceived to be a lack of professionalism. Independent research on distance learning was performed during this time, which validated the program methodology. In the decades that followed, information technology innovations provided distance learning with the instruments to distribute education more effectively than ever.
  • During the 1970s, "telecourses" broadcast over satellite or by cable introduced a new dimension to distance learning, but telecourses faded from the scene once the personal computer became a household appliance and Internet traffic rushed onto the information superhighway. Information technology has guided the way for distance learning from the beginning, and has transformed the humble correspondence course into a multimedia educational bonanza. There is no ending to the distance education story, because distance learning is always about new beginnings.



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