education was defined by educational theorist
Michael Moore as:
"the family of instructional methods in which the teaching behaviours are
executed apart from the learning behaviours ... so that communication between
the learner and the teacher must be facilitated by print, electronic,
mechanical, or other devices" (Moore, 1972: 76).
Distance education is not a new idea, and can be traced as far back as the
first century. The Apostle Paul
wrote to the early Christian churches, instructing them from a distance (even
when he was under 'house arrest' in Rome). This was probably the first type of
'correspondence course', which was the only method of learning at a distance
until the advent of the telephone. Today, distance education calls upon an
impressive range of technologies to enable teachers and students who are
separated by distance to communicate with each other either in real time
(synchronous) or delayed time (asynchronous). A new term,
'e-learning' has been coined to try to describe the many forms of
technology supported learning that are currently being practiced worldwide.
On a recent comparative studies trip with some students to Cape Town, South
Africa, we took a day trip across the bay to the infamous
Robben Island. Robben Island was once a prison for political prisoners,
and during the years of Apartheid, held a number of well known political
actvitists such as Nelson
. It is now a museum and educational centre, and amongst its many features, it
uses a videoconference link to connect to the world.
- (pictured right with Steve Wheeler) - a former political prisoner and
contemporary of Mandela - took us on a tour of the island. Mr Davis, who now
works as an Education Officer for the Museum, informed us that during his
imprisonment, Nelson Mandela had studied by correspondence course with the
University of South Africa
(UNISA) - one of the first truly 'Open' universities. Mandela used distance
education as a sustaining feature of his life in prison - a classic example of
someone who accessed education when all the odds seemed stacked against him.
The distributed learning strategies, which include distance learning, offer a
radical new direction for education. They incorporate flexible and open
learning methods as well as modified and specially created learning resources.
They also modify and incorporate the best practices of the traditional
approaches to learning.
This model enables the delivery of courses and learning materials to students
studying at locations distant to the parent institution. Thus, the term
'flexible and open distance learning' or FODL has been coined to describe the
means by which learners can access education and learning opportunities at a
time, place and pace to suit their individual lifestyles, learning preferences
and personal development plans.
epitomises the move away from institute based learning to a more direct,
student centred approach. As a concept, distance learning has existed
for over a century, notably in the form of paper based correspondence courses.
Now however, it is depending increasingly upon technology for its success and
technological innovations ensure that distance learning continues to evolve and
grow as a valid and potent force in education.
Student centred learning approaches are characterised by the learner becoming
central to the process of learning. There have been numerous debates about
exactly what student centric education entails, but essentially, the learner
takes responsibiliy for his or her own learning and the teacher becomes a
resource in the process. Learners should be able to learn at their own pace,
and in a manner which they feel comfortable with. This may also include the
place in which they study, and the
style of learning they feel most comfortable with. What student centred
learning is NOT is teachers lecturing and students listening.
technologies and methods can provide many of these attributes. Students
with access to the appropriate technologies can study at their own pace
and in a place (perhaps at home or work) that suits their lifestyles and the
demands on their time. The diversity of technologies now available to the
distance educator also ensure that several different modes of learning are
possible, catering for the cognitive
styles and approaches to study of a diverse range of students.
Although St Paul
(pictured left in a painting by Rembrandt) may have been the first to use
correspondence courses to instruct his 'students' (the new Christian churches
in Asia Minor and the Mediterranean), organised institutional use of distance
learning methods was first introduced in the 19th century.
One of the first universities to deliver distance learning in an organised
manner was Pennsylvania State University,
establishing its first distance learning network in 1886. Penn State used the
state of the art technology of the day - U.S. Mail - to communicate with its
In the 1960's the UK Labour Government under
Harold Wilson approved the setting up of 'The University of the Air'.
This was later to become the Open University,
now based in Milton Keynes. The OU was originally set up to offer degree
studies through terrestrial broadcasts (TV and Radio) in partnership with the
British Broadcasting Corporation, but paper based materials, and later
computer mediated communication, have also become vital ingredients in
distance delivery of under graduate taught programmes.
The OU now boasts over 200,000 students enrolled at any particular time, and is
in the largest 'top ten' universities worldwide now known as 'Mega
Universities'. It awards a number of qualifications including BA and BSc
degrees, MA, MBA, MPhil and PhD, and more recently, Post Graduate Certfificates
The changes in distance learning over the past 30 years can be easily charted.
Correspondence courses relied on a combination of paper based and surface mail
communication. Until the 1950's this was the sole method of distance learning.
When television and radio were used, they were one-way media, enabling the
teacher to present information, but with no interaction between the presenter
and the audience. As more sophisticated technologies became available, teachers
began to interact with their dispersed groups.
The most popular methods today are electronic mail, computer mediated
communication (CMC), bulletin board systems (BBS) and of course the plain old
telephone system (POTS). The Internet and World Wide Web (WWW) are increasingly
being used to deliver a range of multi-media materials, and as bandwidths are
broadened and technology improves in performance, more will be done. Currently,
the University of Plymouth is delivering courses or parts of courses to a wide
range of learners. These include nurses, midwives, doctors, surgeons, probation
officers, the military and business users. Methods vary according to the
subject content, level of course, dispersion of students, and technology
available at the time of the course delivery. Research is currently being
undertaken to examine the various
modes, methods and media and how they can be made to match differing
needs and course requirements.
Students who study at a distance are separated both from their tutors and their
peers. For some this can be a particular problem, and for all, some of the time
the separation poses potential difficulties. Social interaction - the sharing
of ideas, discoveries, successes and failures and general social support, are
all to a certain extent, missing from the distance learning environment.
Students may therefore feel isolated, start to lose motivation, experience
frustration or anger, and a host of other unwelcome emotions.
When designing systems and materials for distance delivery teachers must
consider not only learning outcomes, but also content requirements and
technical constraints. Also to be considered are the needs, characteristics,
and individual differences of both the students and the teachers. One useful
area of recent research is cognitive
load theory, which focuses on the amount of cognitive energy students
need to invest in learning in different multi-media environment designs.
The task of the
distance educator is therefore to obviate many of the problems outlined above
as much as possible by mixing and matching techniques, creating and maintaining
a stimulating environment, and offering opportunities for students to
communicate with each other and with the teaching staff on a regular basis.
e-Moderators for example, need to known when to 'stand back' and let
students discuss, and when to intervene to change the direction or seed new
ideas. This is where telematic technologies come into their own.
Teachers will also need to change their traditional role as well. Many remote
students need a great deal of social support, and distance educators may find
themselves spending more time offering one-to-one tutorials and less time
lecturing. Perhaps this is a good thing...?
Some teachers may feel threatened by the introduction of new technologies and
methods. This is often with good reason, because distance education is viewed
by some institutions as a means to cut costs and reduce staffing. However, in
many cases, costs are in fact increased, and more staff are needed to develop
good quality learning materials for distance delivery. Further, teachers who
practice distance education methods will discover that they need to develop a
new set of skills if they are to be effective educators, which has obvious
professional development implications.
Distance education then, should not be viewed as a means of reducing costs, but
as an opportunity to raise standards. It is also about providing quality
learning opportunities for those who, for one reason or another, have
previously been excluded from this basic human right.
Moore, M. G. (1972) Learner autonomy: the second dimension of independent
learning. Convergence, 5 (2) 76-88