Lectures on Distance Learning Over Time

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What Does the History of Distance Education Tell Us About Training Today’s Students?


Here are two findings on why it is imperative to adopt and promote distance learning to meet a variety of social and educational challenges.

Report Finding (A):  “The twin problems of declining public funding and increasing costs require the growth of interactive online courses.  It is a moment that demands innovation.”

Report Finding (B):  “The turn to the new technologies is not solely important because it is innovative, but also because it will be a means to address a number of socio-economic issues.  This includes the need to resolve a number of social problems and to adjust to the increases in the costs of education.”

These two findings have very similar conclusions, but they differ in one important way.  The first one is a finding from a private research group report in 2014 (Griffiths, et al., 2014, p. 7).  The second is a summary found in a National Academy of Engineering study in 1969 (National Academy of Engineering, 1969, p. 1).

This article argues that these two differing findings at differing points in time should not be surprising.  Over many technological periods there is interplay between key social needs and educational tools that mean to optimize certain teaching and learning goals.  Challenges and opportunities are trade-offs that each technology brings in re-aligning the use of optimal tools.  In fact, as technology has become more powerful, teaching principles grow ever more important because they require the fusion of disparate learning types.

This fused context can be called teachnology, or the melding of a technology with a learning apparatus.  It is a process that configures differently according to both time period and particular technology.  It reflects the state of learning and the technology behind it, along with the development of appropriate educational systems.

The research examines teachnology through four differing technological periods of distance education.  The constellation of concerns in each period however is not ideographic.  Some concerns are more prominent in certain periods while some are less important.  Such areas of learning reflect the type of technology and how to adapt given a certain learning environment.  Pedagogical solutions evolve with each new technology and adaption is a constant response.

The article has three parts.  First, it offers a theoretical lens from which to evaluate and understand the evolution of teachnologySecond, it breaks down distance learning into four identifiable periods and compares them.  Third, it looks ahead to new technologies and the ways education and teaching will need to adapt.

  1. Research Overview

What is distance education?  It generally refers to learning outside of a traditional face-to-face classroom.  Beyond this simple context, the concept is widely misunderstood.  Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary says that it is “education that takes place via electronic media linking instructors and students who are not together in a classroom (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2014).”  This definition is debatable and probably wrong.

Correspondence courses were clearly instances of distance learning and involved no electronics.  So too were radio and television courses.  A technologically neutral definition to describe distance education (or sometimes known as distance learning) is probably more accurate and there are several examples to choose from.

Anderson and Dron: “distance education is learning that is technologically mediated by place and time” (Anderson and Dron, 2011).

Greenberg: “a planned teaching/learning experience that uses a wide spectrum of technologies to reach learners at a distance and is designed to encourage learner interaction and certification of learning” (Greenberg 1988, p. 741).

Teaster and Blieszner: “the term distance learning has been applied to many instructional methods: however, its primary distinction is that the teacher and the learner are separate in space and possibly time” (Teaster and Blieszner, 1999, p. 741).

Distance education is an intellectual mediation between pedagogical methods and technological tools.  It is not a new invention.  The pedagogy of how people learn is as old as people.  Schools and teachers are ancient institutions.  Rather, distance learning is a changing medium and has undergone changes over time.

While the challenges are quite familiar so are the inadequacies of distance education, no matter the technology.  These issues include (1) student feelings of depersonalization, (2) technology system failures, (3) faculty training shortcomings, (4) limited ability to serve differing communities, and (5) realizing cost gains.  This point of view has the perspective that the teaching essentials remain fundamental, though the technological means of delivery may shift over time.  The result is a sort of optimal operating level that attempts to balance these concerns.

Communications systems help define distance education concepts (Dron and Anderson, 2009).  In an attempt to define a middle ground between either technological or pedagogical determinism, some researchers see the two intertwined in a dance: the technology sets the beat and creates the music, while the pedagogy defines the moves (Dron and Anderson, 2009).  In this perspective, the two pieces are thought of as one basic configuration.

Some technologies may more easily embrace pedagogy, compared to others, thereby hardening the learning structure.  It is at that point the learning type becomes far more influential in a learning design.  Technology becomes the leaders of the dance rather than the partners.  This imbalance occurs more often in the hard sciences, for example, in computational research where the learning is more task-driven than discursive oriented.

The availability of technologies to support different constructs of learning strongly influences the kinds of models that develop.  If there were no means of two-way communication, for example, it would prevent the development of a pedagogy that exploited dialogue and conversation.  On the other hand, the use of a one-way communication tool would encourage the development of a pedagogy that allowed for self-containment in course content.

There are two primary aspects of distance education to consider in looking at its role through time.  First, technologies do create unique challenges in determining optimal pedagogical tools to employ for instruction.  Each period adds an additional mode of technological discourse that can be both beneficial and detrimental.  Second, there are nonetheless clear issues of pedagogy that consistently arise in use of distance education versus face-to-face (f2f) environments, as noted earlier.

  1. Periods of Distance Education

Several researchers identify periods of distance education, including D. R. Garrison, Terry Anderson and Jon Dron, and Denise Casey.  The three perspectives are mostly similar but with some significant differences in the number and types of periods (see Table 1).


Table 1
Technological Periods in Distance Education

Period Garrison Anderson & Dron Casey
1 Postal Correspondence and Broadcast Post Office
2 Multi-Media Early Internet Radio
3 Interactive Databases Web Network Television
4 na na Computer and Communication


  1. R. Garrison describes three periods of distance education (Garrison, 1985). His timeline starts with a correspondence course period identified with the development of a large-scale postal system. This period was prominent for more than one hundreds years.  Development of radio, record and tape players, along with movies and television is lumped into a second era.  These two periods together lasted for perhaps 75 years.  A period of computer and Internet use marks the third and final period in this perspective.  This era has been underway for 50 years.  There appears to be a shrinking time horizon for technology changes in distance education.

Terry Anderson and Jon Dron derive three distinct technological periods in distance education.  The periods generally conform to those outlined by Garrison.  They believe the periods are cumulative in their impact, meaning that the new technologies are layered on one another and create unique learning contexts.  Teaching and learning modes adhere to a basic set of requirements, but the constellation of parts shifts with each period.  They use a community of inquiry model to analyze the periods, with a focus on teaching, cognitive, and social presence.  The three periods are described.

“The first generation of distance education technology was by postal correspondence.  This was followed by a second generation, defined by the mass media of television, radio, and film production.  Third-generation distance education (DE) introduced interactive technologies: first audio, then text, video, and then web and immersive conferencing” (Anderson and Dron, 2011).

These periods were not isographic in their implementation but rather homographic in describing distinct periods of learning.  That is to say they have resemblances in growth processes but not a one-to-one match in evolution.  “Each era developed distinct pedagogies, technologies, learning activities, and assessment criteria, consistent with the social worldview of the era in which they developed” (Anderson and Dron, 2011).

Anderson and Dron saw these periods not in terms of technology but in the prevailing pedagogical approach.  At first, in the correspondence course, the approach was behavioral-cognitive, suitable for classes that are generally independent studies.  In the radio and television period, there was a community of inquiry approach to encourage participation in depersonalized environments.  More recently in the Internet Era, the focus is often on constructivist approaches to deepen discourse that is the essence of humanities and social science education.

Denise Casey imagines four periods of distance education.  The eras grew out of and reflect geographic and socio-economic distances, the need for general education, and the “rapid development of technology” (Casey, 2008).  Casey saw four distinct ages: postal, radio, television, and a combined computer and communication time.  Breaking audio and video periods of distance education seems to reflect the distinctiveness of these types of communication.

Distance education of course did not arise out of a vacuum.  In early history, education was largely limited to persons of power and privilege, and especially religion.  Churches used distance education to spread belief systems and educate the priest class.  It was also later part of a solution for schooling people who could not access face-to-face learning environments.

When did distance education begin?  Arguably, humans have been learning from other humans, though separated by large distances, for millennia.  Tool-making techniques and cultural practices spread over thousands of miles.  Archeologists in Spain found a carved female figurine made from mammoth tusk that originated in Siberia that date back 35,00 years.  The carving was no doubt acquired via trade but presumably was accompanied by a related story that gave it meaning and information for the buyers.  It was a transfer of technology.  The figurine no doubt inspired other carvings.

Soon after the start of the last millennium, the teachings of Apostle Paul were hand copied and mailed or hand-carried to the many cities along the Mediterranean Sea.  In these places, literate people read the missives aloud (a sort of Podcast) to the masses that came to listen.  One could argue this was distance learning.

The instruction of royal children in the Middle Ages relied on private tutors who communicated by mail and courier.  These classes were often hybrid arrangements with both the student and tutor travelling for instruction.  Such hybrid courses were highly seasonal.  In winter, students would travel to the warmer coasts.  During the summer, teachers would travel to more to inland locations.

The Catholic Church was a singular source of distance education.  Church figures were often some of the few literate people in the community and taught Bible courses of their own.  Church instruction also depended on a system of travelling tutors (see Table 2) with a select clientele.  Other religions spread out over large geographic distances (Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, and others also) had proto-types of distance education systems, not only to ordain to the faithful but also to spread the faith and gain new adherents.  The church would remain a pillar of distance education for many centuries.
Table 2
Pre- History of Distance Education

Type of Learning When How Disseminated Mode of Delivery
1.  Letters Read Aloud to Groups 30-50 AD Teachings of Apostle Paul (and other religions) Letters read aloud to groups; missionaries
2.  Letters to Individual People 500-1500 Education of Royals and Privileged Class Letters to individuals, hybrid; often church based


This research looks at more organized systems of distance education and builds from the noted studies.  It takes the view that technology does play a powerful role in shaping the basic pedagogical approaches in each period.  It benchmarks the Correspondence, Radio, Television and Internet Eras as key markers representing four periods of distance education and technological evolution.

First, the written correspondence period began on an organized basis in the early 1800s, relying on adoption of universal postal access by the public.  A second period followed in the early 1900s with the advent of radio.  A third period began in the 1950s with the widespread use of television.  The fourth period was the global use of Internet technologies that began around 1990.

The technological eras were both ground breaking and enabling.  The first and fourth periods were about creating tools for the general public, while the second and third periods introduced entirely new modes of communication.  The Internet grew as a medium of aggregation for written correspondence, voice, and visual representations (see Table 3).

Table 3
Distance Education by Mode, Vehicle, and Time

Distance Mode Technology Vehicle  Time of Introduction
Written Correspondence Sea and land transport Mid 1700s
Audio: Radio and Recordings Radio Early 1900s
Visual: Movie and Television Television About 1950
Internet Availability World Wide Web About 1990


Another way the periods differ is by directionality of interaction.  In the past, distance communications were generally one-way, particularly correspondence courses.  Radio and television broadcasts had no two-way means of discourse.  Even correspondence courses were simple grading exercises but no real interaction given the time required for transport.  The newest period is fundamental in bringing back the two-way mode of communication that humans are accustomed to.  The Internet period also facilitates the joining of writing, voice, and visual to form an educational whole.  Teaching today is often about unpacking these aggregations of knowledge (see Table 4).
Table 4
Distance Education by Mode, Vehicle, Time, Interaction, and Layer

Distance Mode Interaction Type Educational Layer
Written Correspondence One-way Writing/Reading
Audio: Radio and Recordings One-way Speaking/Listening
Visual: Movie and Television One-way Creating/Watching
Internet Two-way Aggregating/Unpacking
  1. Written Correspondence Period

Distance and hybrid courses have been taught for centuries.  Citizens of British colonies in North America often took correspondence courses for higher education prior to the founding of Harvard University in 1636 (though the College of William and Mary would argue it began earlier).  For the majority of the population seeking higher education in the Americas, correspondence courses were the only alternative to travelling back to Europe for education.

Imagine the reality of these distance courses.  Students would wait at least three months for feedback on assignments, travelling across the Atlantic on clipper ships, largely to Britain, Spain, and France, to established academic institutions.  As a result, courses ordinarily took much longer than the now-recognized semester or quarter system and often required a year to complete.  Students today of course would rightfully complain if a professor failed to return a paper in three months.

It is also important to note that this pedagogical construct was not based on classes with interaction between a teacher and students.  Rather, these were independent studies with very intermittent interactions.  The classes were missing the learning that comes from student-to-student interactions and the role of the instructor in translating and articulating the materials into learning experiences.  For the faculty member, it was a much more laborious teaching process that had no economies of scale.

Correspondence courses open to the public came later.  Charlie Osbourne finds that the “earliest distance education courses may date back to the early 18th century in Europe.  One of the earliest examples was from a 1728 advertisement in the Boston Gazette for “Caleb Phillips, Teacher of the new method of Short Hand,” who sought students wanting to learn through weekly mailed lessons (Holmberg, 2005).  These courses were advertised both in print and by travelling salesmen.

Correspondence education, on an organized basis, began in the mid-nineteenth century, largely in Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United States (University of Florida, 2015).  The English educator, Sir Isaac Pitman, taught shorthand by mail starting in 1840.  In the United States, there were several enterprises in adult education that also used the postal system.

Early courses often focused not on technical subjects but on knowledge of certain books.  This education was largely religious teaching based on the Bible, and later an understanding of the classics (i.e., Aristotle or Socrates).  Law was also taught by correspondence course, which is ironic since law schools today are the least likely academic institution to accept online learning as part of their curriculum.

The focus of distance education shifted from men to women over time.  For women, courses were generally used to make them “interesting” in social circles, so they learned how to play musical instruments and dance (Osborne, 2012).  As women entered the work force they also sought technical skills.  Thus, correspondence courses, over time, emphasized taking shorthand or typing and were aimed at women.

In 1873, Anna Ticknow began a series of courses for women to study at home.  Her organization provided correspondence instruction to more than 10,000 students for 24 years (Nasseh, 2001).  Communication, teaching and learning all took place through printed materials sent through the mail.  Ticknor’s “Society to Encourage Studies at Home” offered 24 classes and student enrollment peaked at 1,000 in 1882 (Berg, 2005, p. 1007).  Many courses were aimed at teaching work force skills but there were also language courses are still taught in large numbers, especially French.

It should also be noted that Ticknor herself was a disabled woman.  She thus encountered problems of education in her personal life and saw how people in her situation needed alternatives to the traditional classroom.

Cornell University attempted to establish a Correspondence University based out of its Ithaca, NY campus in 1883.  It did not succeed.  But in the same year the first official recognition of correspondence education took place.  Chautauqua College of Liberal Arts in the state of New York offered degrees through correspondence education and summer workshops, which used both distance and hybrid formats.

Skills to fuel the Industrial Revolution encouraged the development of distance courses.  Thomas J. Foster started home-study courses in mine safety in the 1880s.  This set of instruction grew over time to become the International Correspondence School.  In 1883, the subsequent Correspondence University was a consortium established between 32 U.S. higher education units.  The students were given certificates of completion, often on a course-by-course basis.  There was however no unified program that led to any type of degree (Berg, 2005, p. 1007).

One of the drivers of U.S. distance education growth at the end of the 19th century was the geographic separation in the country as it stretched west.  Correspondence courses pre-dated organized school systems in these frontier areas and grew to be vehicles for educating people with physical handicaps, as was the case with Ann Tickner (Berg, 2005, p. 1007).

Hybrid versions of correspondence courses also employed an old technology.  Lanternslides were glass images on plates that could be projected and seen by audiences.  They began use perhaps by the 16th century probably with a simple lantern and bed sheet hung on a wall.  By replacing a series of glass slides, the projection of the lantern could show a series of instructions.  The process had become much more sophisticate by the early 1900s.  The lanternslide was an early version of PowerPoint.

If we compare the correspondence course period to today there are many startling similarities.  In the 1920s, over 4 million Americans were enrolled in correspondence courses at the college or university level.  This total exceeded the number attending face-to-face courses.  But the academic record was abysmal and rivals the reality of the contemporary MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).  Their course completion rate for correspondence courses in the 1920s was under 3 percent, about the same as modern MOOCs (Kett, 1996, pp. 236-8).

A 1926 Carnegie Commission Report was commissioned to examine the state of distance education at this time.  They had four significant observations.

  1. In higher education, more students were in correspondence courses than in traditional programs.
  2. Three-quarters of U.S. adults had no other access to academic training programs.
  3. Rigors of instruction and course material lacked quality control and standardization.
  4. Systems for identity verification were notably absent (Berg, 2005, p. 1007).

One concern for correspondence courses was their quality.  Along with the known reputed institutions there were also many frauds and connivers.  Early courses suffered significant downturns in the early 1900s for a variety of reasons.  The sliding in educational quality has been attributed to the growth of for-profit institutions and the subsequent weakening of educational standards (Berg, 2005, p. 1007).

Vocational courses drove enrollment in distance education, but its roots in religious education remained strong.  Even in 1960, it is estimated that 32 Bible schools had enrolled a quarter of a million students per year in some sort of distance learning course (Berg, 2005, p. 1007).

  1. Audio Period

Broadcast radio was new in the 1920s and soon thereafter free distance education programs began sprouting up.  In 1922, New York University (NYU) operated its own radio station, with plans to broadcast practically all its courses.  (Compare that to the promise by some universities today to put online all their class materials.)  Other universities followed NYU’s lead, including Columbia, Harvard, Kansas, Ohio, Purdue, Wisconsin, Utah and many others.  The courses however were ineffective and did not fit into any clear degree program and, more importantly, lacked a payment mechanism.

Radio classes built on the prior lessons from the correspondence courses.  Students read textbooks and listened to broadcast lectures, and mailed in answers to tests.  Radio was hailed as the new way of learning and a means for greater dissemination of public information.  The U.S. federal government granted over 200 radio broadcast licenses between 1918 and 1946 to educational institutions (Craig, 2005).

The radio means of instruction never caught on in the United States.  Douglas Craig concludes “many university stations began operations with high hopes of bringing education to the masses, but soon faltered as broadcasting costs increased, audiences diminished, and professors demonstrated that lecture-hall brilliance did not always translate into good radio technique.  These problems were quickly reflected in an unfavorable allocation of frequency or broadcast times, sending many of these stations into a downward spiral to oblivion (Craig, 2005).

By 1940, only one college-level credit course was offered through instructional radio.  Completion rates were very low and cheating was hard to detect.  By the 1940s, radio courses had virtually disappeared in the United States.

Outside of the United States however radio courses thrived in some places.  In Australia, the Schools of Air used two-way short wave radio for instruction and to interact with remote students, starting in 1951.  Radio was also heavily used in the 1950s in Canada for remote education.

One early innovation was in 1935 when New York University professor C. C. Clark taught a course with a two-way radio (it can send and receive broadcasts).  This effort began to create a classroom environment since he could repeat questions and answer them.

In South America, the broadcast medium itself served as a source of controversy.  There were some objections to the dialect of Spanish used, but the biggest complaint was that places such as Guatemala and Peru had large populations of non-Spanish speakers.

Audiotapes mailed to students for a long period were used in correspondence courses, especially the teaching of foreign languages (Teaster and Blieszner, 1999).  The evolution of distance education by distinct periods (defined by technology) belies an additive process.  For example, the addition of radio to the correspondence course model provided an audio supplement to traditional reading assignments.  Learning technologies use multiple media and incorporate earlier technological manifestations.

  1. Video Period

Some educators wanted to use a new invention, moving pictures, for education (Novak, 2012).  Visual broadcast capacity was the next phase in the evolution of distance education.  This era spanned several inter-technological advances.  It began with moving pictures and filmstrips, added audio, and continued with the wide-scale diffusion of television.

The very first films began in the 1890s and were generally only several minutes in length.  This was at first a technological limitation.  Today, online instructional designers advocate using very short videos, but ironically the technology is not the reason.  Rather, it is an assumption of learning timespans for today’s students.

At first, movies only included visuals and text and this limited it as a teaching tool.  Movies did not include sound until 1927, but it made a complete difference in its use in an educational setting.  This period also begins a new phase in remote education.  Educational films arose in France and Russia, and emerged in Europe and North America within a few years.

In 1934 the University of Iowa became the first higher education institution to use television as a learning tool.  These tools were limited to groups sitting around a television and watching point-to-point broadcasts, since there was no commercial television industry then.  The first organized televised classes over the airwaves started in the late 1940s at the University of Louisville.

Television built on the advances in radio and movie pictures.  While “the first educational radio license was issued in 1921, the first educational television license [was issued] in 1945” (Neal, 1999, p. 40).  This suggests a period of substantial change in the modes of delivery in distance education courses.

Visual broadcasts were used in a variety of ways in distance education, including military and academia.  During World War II, movies were used to train millions of draftees, as recorded lecturers could demonstrate use of physical equipment in live action.  Sometimes these media were used to introduce uncomfortable topics (such as how to kill in combat).

The 1969 National Academy of Sciences report on computers and television in higher education found that (1) only a small part of learning occurs in the lecture halls and (2) the major purpose of education is to create a competent self-learner.  These two goals were not thought to be impediments to effective online learning.  Learning was not about where the class was held, but what happened in it.  This finding reflects current trends in terms of authentic learning exercises and life-long learning in online formats (National Academy of Engineering, 1969, p. 1).  Four conclusions about the state of distance education in 1969 follow that are of particular note.

First, the instructor will need a complete re-understanding of his/her function in the distance class.  The traditional pure lecture model will not succeed.  Rather, the role of the lecturer must be radically altered (National Academy of Engineering, 1969, p. 2).  Some researchers today have loosely characterized this transition as going from the instructor as the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”.

Second, students will need to respond to this shift in their instructor’s role.  It will require realigning the learner’s role in the course and the ability to re-create a social community.  Creating a social presence for faculty will be a key issue in learning and will require student involvement.  With the instructor as only a guide, the student must take on more responsibility in the learning process.  The key need for the distance learner, in any period, is self-discipline and ability for self-learning.

Third, when the entire course is moved to a distance format, there may be a feeling of student depersonalization (National Academy of Engineering, 1969, p. 2).  This ensues due to the degradation of the “sage,” or the central authority type, in the distance environments.  The challenge of building a collaborative social community in distance formats always has unique aspects.  A written correspondence course was a limited one-to-one interaction.  A radio course evolved to a one-to-many interaction.  The television course combines the correspondence and radio era technologies.

Fourth, the turn to the new technologies is not solely important because it is innovative.  It is important because it will be a means to address a number of socio-economic issues.  It is a venue for reaching students with non-traditional learning styles.

The NAS report also reviewed the effectiveness of computer-aided instruction (CAI), referring to “a teaching machine” and it’s use in teaching.  It found that CAI was not an effective teaching tool (National Academy of Engineering, 1969, p. 18).  The teaching machine nonetheless evolved into computer-based teaching (CBT) modules of today.  They remain rather poor teaching tools.

Jim Finn was one of the first researchers to analyze television as a learning tool.  His 1953 study veered from traditional analysis of television.  Most early research focused on the physical features of the machine and people’s reaction or choices.  This includes criteria such as the size of the screen, the brightness of the picture, or the clarity of the audio (Saba, 2013).

Finn looked beyond to the educational experience.  He found that in some situations, television was an effective teaching medium.  Accordingly, he identified five keys important to success in distance education (Kumata, 1960).

  1. Use of audience motivation
  2. More faculty focus on subject matter preparation and integration with a teaching process
  3. Appeal to differing learned audience intelligences
  4. Retention is course-specific, TV or face-to-face has no differential effect upon recall of the subject matter
  5. The learning medium is not the issue. Negative attitude towards the medium has no effect on learning achievements

At first, the promise of uniting television and education was enthralling.  The original dream saw television as a medium that would liberate learning and offer access to education worldwide.  After some time, it was assumed most Americans citizens could speak several languages, grasp basic physics, enjoy opera, had a working knowledge of chemistry, was aware of world history, and possessed a variety of other higher education interests and knowledge.

That is not how it turned out, and this was known early on.  When Newton Minnow became the head of the Federal Communications Commission in 1961 he gave a renowned speech bemoaning the state of television in society.  He called it a “vast wasteland” and believed “there are still not enough educational stations, and major centers of the country still lack usable educational channels” (Minnow, 1961).

Minnow believed that television was not living up to its promise in delivering education.  “If there were a limited number of printing presses in this country, you may be sure that a fair proportion of them would be put to educational use.”  Minnow also signaled that there was more to the public interest than simply what interests the public.  He argued that “educational television has an enormous contribution to make to the future, and I intend to give it a hand along the way (Minnow, 1961).

  1. The Internet Period

The Information Revolution created conditions for more and greater social discourse in a class setting, but the value of these interactions is still under debate (National Academy of Engineering, 1969, p. 1).  The enduring discussion about effective teachnology intrudes in the Internet Era as in the others.

The building of the Internet, and its wide availability to universities in the late 1980s, established a new phase in distance education.  There were four distinct technology phases that encapsulated the phases of distance learning that followed: email, the web page, podcasts, and video broadcasts.  All of these phases represent the incorporation of prior technological advances.

  1. Email: the New Corresponding Tool

The first phase of this rebuilding of distance education in the Internet Era was the introduction of email.  The use of email harkened back to the correspondence course.  It was a new mode of interaction that reduced time and ease of communication.  Subsequent response delivery of feedback time fell from a few days to instantaneous.  It also meant that discussions could be real time given proper scheduling.

After email, bulletin board systems (BBSs) created course discussions in synchronous time and are the predecessors of the modern blog.  “The first BBS or electronic ‘Bulletin Board System’ was developed and was opened to the public in 1979 by Ward Christensen” (Borders, 2009).  These attempts were the ancestors of the basic learning management system (LMS) that accelerated with the growth of the World Wide Web.  The BBSs also inspired a variety of other systematic advances in communicating and storing information.

  1. The Web Page: Having Your Own Post Office

The second phase of the Internet Era was the creation of the World Wide Web (WWW) that began about 1990.  WWW uses a graphical user interface and links to other system parts through hyper-links.  This interface advance allowed the email-correspondence model to add a central point for holding an online class.  The operational part of a class, that is the delivery of handouts or articles as well as the collecting of assignments, became automated.  The course interface was also integrated with the new instant correspondence tool.  The basic web page became a portal to an online class.  Course materials could be made available, assignment given, discussions held (thanks to email), and papers or quizzes submitted.

In the late mid-1990s I taught an online class with only email and a web page.  I knew a little HTML and instructed students who prepared materials that I could easily post.  We also met in person overseas in Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates so the distance aspect of the course was part of a hybrid approach.  This sort of class, and I was not the only one to do this, pre-dated any of the burgeoning learning management systems of today.  But the issues of teaching and learning still loomed large.  How to facilitate a good discussion?  What are the best tools for learning?

  1. Podcasts: Audio Period Redux

The basic web page offered only limited tools for adding materials beyond text.  From a simple file size viewpoint, the capacity for adding audio was far easier to introduce compared to video.  Research also showed that seeing the picture of the speaker did not add much to the overall learning experience and could be listened to outside of traditional platforms (like the Walkman, one of the first audio systems with headphones).  Apple popularized the process (hence the IPod and the Podcast), but these were simply formats for uploading audio files to web sites.

  1. Broadband: The New Television Period

The fourth phase of the Internet Era introduced the use of broadband technology to enhance video capabilities to Internet users.  This development added to the ability of the teacher to replace the class lecture with parallel teaching mode.  It added media capacity for students to create assignments and to have discussions within their course pages.  This breakthrough allowed streaming media for classes, live webinars, and student video upload capabilities.

The ensuing trends in developing new technology platforms and approaches, such as more advanced learning management systems (LMSs) or Massive, Open, Online Courses (MOOCs).  The MOOC recombines the breakthroughs in technology that have seen earlier incarnations.  It is simply a reprise of the massive courses taught to hundreds of students (typically introductory courses) with an instructor and an army of teaching assistants.  What has changed is the nature of the institutional presence and support for such classes.  It is not a new idea but only recombined.  The Internet Era is still a mix of the basic tools of writing, speaking, and watching in distance formats (see Table 5).

Table 5
Distance Education Success and Contributing Factors

Distance Mode Instructor Interaction Student Social Presence Programs & Identity
Email Written
Much quicker, ability to cut and paste Low-to-medium, start of real discussion Harder, but possible
Podcasts Simple to record and listen Some two-way interactions A real human voice
Web Page Ability to Post Materials Increased teacher to student connection Capacity to track downloads
Broadband Video Re-Use of live events Not greatly impacted Recordings of teacher and others


Distance learning issues reverberate through time.  The technology enables new modes of learning, but the basic problem to overcome, the separation of place and time, remains constant.  Table 6 shows six prevailing distance issues that endure over time, and which periods encountered certain issues.  A particular focus is on comparisons to today’s key issues (see Table 6).  Distance education is getting better at re-creating a class environment and reducing de-personalization.

Table 6
Distance Learning Issues Through Time (Issue by Historic Era)

Issue Correspondence Radio Television Internet
Single Student Focus* X X
Low Completion Rate X X X X
Poor Course Quality X X
Weak Production Value X X X
No Oversight of Cheating & ID Problems X X X X
Depersonalization of Learning X  



*   The tendency of courses to be less of a collective class and more a set of related independent students.

Two issues show up through the four time periods: “Low Completion Rate” and “Cheating & ID Problems.”  The two probably are symptomatic of the “Depersonalization of Learning” nature of the course that is especially noteworthy in the Correspondence Course Era and the Internet Era.  The “Single Student Focus” and “Poor Course Quality” issues (that describes the tendency of courses to be less of a collective class and more a set of related independent students) also resonate in the Correspondence Course period and the Internet Era.

Online courses today are augmented with discussion boards (the Correspondence Era), audio files (from the Radio Era), videos (from the Television Era), and features of the Internet Era, including web sites and videoconferencing.

III.        The Next Phase: Reality Education

When comparing the evolution of distance education by the technology period the natural impulse is to think about gains on the basis of productivity.  It is a mistake in conjuring the analogy that the purpose of education is to add more students or provide greater revenues.  Educating more students however is not the sole goal of distance education.  Rather, education must consider the quality of instruction alongside the quantity served.

It is a fallacy to equate productivity in education with the material gains realized in the Industrial Revolution.  The Industrial Revolution made it possible for people to have more things at a cheaper price.  Can education also become so commercial that it is packaged and sold like widgets?  The answer is no.  This next revolution will not wind up embracing the economy-of-scale model.  The MOOC platform therefore, emphasizing the one to thousands approach, except where other alternatives are absent, will not be the future.  Rather, the emphasis will be on recreating the real classroom and authentic classes that necessarily embrace smaller cohorts of learning.

The challenges will not be in the technology.  The real trials will be in how to embrace new types of learning, different approaches to teaching, and alternative assignments and the means to assess them.  These will occur in reaction to the capabilities and the needs of the still evolving Internet Era.

Reality education is the next evolution that will re-shape the Internet Era and embrace the idea of real participation, just as each technological era has attempted to hold onto some semblance of the meaning of a traditional class and its rules and cadences.  In the attempt to harken back to the desire for a face-to-face educational encounter, academia will borrow from the world of gaming.

This approach makes sense given where students are today.  Learners are familiar with role-playing platforms in the various games of popular interest and that use Internet platforms.  The student that is comfortable with an Xbox reality gaming can find a niche in the educational world.  The games can be against a machine, with a small group of known acquaintances, or in global world that is often anonymous.  Simulations are one area of possible application.

The attempt to incorporate virtual students into real (virtual) classrooms will perhaps revive Second Life or something like it.  For a time, starting 2006 when it was on the cover of Business Week, Second Life was often hailed a “second coming”, at least for education.  But the phenomenon quickly peaked and died back.  It was never really able to make a connection to the educational world, though clearly it attempted to link to the evolution of popular gaming experiences.

Second Life is an example of the MultiUser Visual Experiences (or MUVEs) and a means to use semi-real interactions in the distance education experience.  Halo is another example (Smith and Berge, 2009), a science fiction virtual reality game owned by a subsidiary of Microsoft.  World of Warcraft (WoW) is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) and had 10 million subscribers in 2014.

Dissatisfaction with the impersonality of current modes of distance education will offer opportunities where students are required to have a class avatar.  They will attend a real-time class on a campus.  There will be places around the campus where students will go in real time.  Bookstores or video check out lines would be places where students might run into one another in a virtual world.  If geography allowed, there might even be a mix between virtual and real meetings.

Breakthroughs such as Google Glass, or a variety of other wearable video devices, will also be vehicles for sharing class experiences in a more intimate fashion (even though this product seems to have gone back on the shelf at Google for further development).  Some examples are already appearing.  Surgeons have made training videos using MUVE devices (Edwards, 2014).

No doubt the push to require police to use MUVE’s will lead to training videos used in both online and in-person classes.  For students, this would allow them to check in from interesting places related to curriculum, for both in-class and outside of class participation and interaction.  Many other fields could also use MUVE’s as part of training or in-situ demonstrations or lectures.  The Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset is another example along the same lines.  There could even be sub-dermal chips implanted in people that allow for an entirely different level of personal intimacy.  For health and nutrition classes, this might be an course requirement.

Other devices such as a phone camera can capture the entirety of human experiences, for better or worse. The addition of wearable devices guarantees a degree of interaction that is clearly more dedicated and purposed.  The devices will allow a very personal level of discourse that can interact with real facsimiles of people or their avatars (Sivakumar, 2014).

The point is to bring back the necessary elements of the teacher to student relationship.  Rebuilding presence in a distance education course requires creating a social presence – “the extent to which a student’s true self is projected and perceived in an online course” (Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, and Archer, 2001).

These personalized experiences will have other educational uses.  Facial recognition could automatically tabulate attendance or link with the class avatar.  A professor of history could walk through a museum and give a personalized lecture for a class.  The students could then visit the MUVE of the museum (see Table 7) and add to the discussion.  There could be in-person or remote visits to places.  The new class will be a mix of real and virtual students in a new type of hybrid.

Table 7
The Internet Phases of Distance Education

Distance Phase Technology Vehicle Time Interaction Type
1.  Email Instant written 1985 One-to-email-list
2.  The World Wide Web WWW site 1992 One-to-world
3.  Audio-casting Instant audio 1996 People-to-People
4.  Broadband Instant video 2005 World-to-world

There are enduring pedagogical issues that appear in each stage of

distance education.  Several researchers identify periods and modes of distance education that go back hundreds if not thousands of years.  While these separate technologies have created differing learning styles and approaches, the problems of learning through such mediated technologies have remained fairly constant.

Even in this new period of re-defining the world of distance education, there will be many challenges for new technology.  The training challenges for faculty and students will be enormous.  But the approach may in fact shift to reduce the impersonality inherent to distance education.  However, the door may swing too far in increasing personalization of people in classes.  For example, something like wearing Google Glass would capture a lot more about a person and their behavior than simply attending a class.

Would a virtual environment invite individuals to take on personas vastly different from their real one?  In a virtual reality class would one meet the real person or a personification?  Nonetheless, the virtual presence opportunity may go a long way in bringing education back to its traditional roots.

From the beginning, the success of distance education rested on making a mutually beneficial connection between the teacher and the student.  Doing so requires a “confluence of three distinct types of presence; social, cognitive and teaching presence” (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000).  This debate dates back to the correspondence courses.  “Since the birth of distance education over 150 years ago, there has been both a practitioner and academic interest in presence.  The notion also covers the concept of “being there,” or being “in the room” despite physical separation (McKerlich, Riis, Anderson, and Eastman, 2011).

Ross McKerlich and a team of researchers see a future class as a search for ways to give a personal feeling to distance formats.  These are “virtual worlds in which learners and teachers can readily create, use, and re-use learning objects, where planned and chance encounters abound and in which their presence is created and enhanced through avatar interaction are likely ideal contexts in which to develop and exploit connectivist learning pedagogies” (McKerlich, Riis, Anderson, and Eastman, 2011).  Sometimes going forward means going back.


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