Distance education has a long history of providing educational opportunities for individuals who are unable or unwilling to attend traditional institutions. Our understanding of distance education is often defined by the associated mode of delivery. Correspondence is distance education delivered via the postal system. Internet course delivery has yielded new distance education terms, including on-line learning and e-learning. Confusingly, e-learning and on-line learning can also refer to supplemental classroom activities over the Internet in traditional face-to-face classes. Increased demand has resulted in more distance education opportunities for adult learners. Busy professionals, like geophysicists, can study diverse subjects all from the comfort of their homes or offices.
Distance education has evolved from its inception as a correspondence model. Correspondence is a distance education term that many people are familiar with that can be traced back to 19th century Britain when postal services became readily and cheaply available. By the early 20th century correspondence education was well entrenched in North America. However, until the late 1960’s correspondence was viewed as inferior to face-to-face instruction (Crawford, 1999).
Since the establishment of the Open University in the United Kingdom in 1969 and Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada in the early 1970’s, there has been tremendous growth in credible educational opportunities for those who are unable or unwilling to attend traditional universities worldwide. While negative biases still exist, distance education has become increasingly recognized by institutions and employers. Through distance education, individuals can overcome the obstacles of time and geography to achieve their educational goals and needs (Crawford, 1999).
Most definitions of distance education include the separation of teacher and student in time and/or space. Geography is the most common association of distance. Given the expanse of Canadian geography, this is not surprising. Time is the other common perception of distance where students and teachers work according to their own personal schedules. Geography and time constraints can create barriers preventing students from attending traditional institutions (Haughey, 1997).
While distance students could study anywhere and anytime, the traditional correspondence model had drawbacks. With the postal system being the mode for transporting print materials and assignments, feedback from the instructor was slow. Students studied in isolation with no peer contact and had little contact with their instructors. Students following a correspondence model interacted with only their learning materials and were deprived of the benefits of social interaction (Bates, 1997). The barriers of geography and time were overcome, but students learned in solitary and in isolation.
Advances in communications technologies have greatly enhanced the ability of learners to interact with each other (Haughey, 1997). The Internet and the World Wide Web has brought many new communication technologies to distance education. Technologies that students can access at any time are called asynchronous technologies. Examples of asynchronous computer mediated communications (CMC) include email, interactive chat sessions, and message forums or discussion boards. These technologies allow students to interact directly and flexibly with a teacher or other students (Bates, 1997; Talbot, 2003). Synchronous technologies, like audio and video conferencing allow students to interact directly at the same time. The use of synchronous technologies is becoming increasingly more common in educational institutions. However, not everyone has the same access to technology.
Technology can open up access for some and deny access to others (Bates, 1997). The use of Internet technologies in distance education can facilitate interaction. However, students without access to computers and/or Internet are unable to participate. Individuals with lower incomes who are unable to afford a newer computer and those with inadequate Internet service are unable to benefit from courses that use Internet technologies. Also a lack of technical skills can prevent students from participating in on-line courses. The digital divide, that tends to benefit societies’ more affluent, is also shifting into the traditional classroom.
Increasingly traditional institutions are moving towards a distributed learning model and blurring the distinctions between distance and face-to-face programs. “Distributed learning means using a wide range of computing and communications technology to provide learning opportunities beyond the time and place constraints of the traditional classroom” (The California State University center for distributed learning, 2004). Terms like e-learning and on-line learning can refer to distance learning environments and supplemental Internet activities in to traditional face-to-face learning.
There is a growing convergence of distance and campus based teaching. Advances in learning technologies and the proliferation of technologies have changed how adults study. Many on-campus courses have a substantial amount of course information and materials on a course web site. While the web materials are convenient and accessible at any time, students of on-campus courses still have to attend lectures; this is the distinction between distributed and distance learning (Bates, 1997).
Attending classes can be challenging for adults in demanding professions and for those with family commitments. Increasing numbers of adults, including geologists and geophysicists, are turning to distance education for access to learning opportunities and continued work-place training. Adults who seek employment advancement, career changes, managerial skills, professional and personal development can continue to work and study on their own time. Distance education can also help adults pursue learning interests outside of work.
Correspondence, e-learning, and on-line learning are just a few of the myriad of terms that refer to distance education. Whatever term is used, distance education enables students to learn regardless of where they live. Increasing opportunities in distance education can conveniently fulfill a lifelong learner’s quest for knowledge.
The California State University center for distributed learning. (2004). Retrieved October 13, 2004
Bates, A. W. T. (1997). The impact of technological change on open and distance learning. Distance education, 18(1), 93-109.
Crawford, G. (1999). Introduction to distance education: study guide: Athabasca University.
Haughey, M. (1997). Distinctions in distance: Is distance education an obsolete term. In J. M. Roberts & E. Keogh, M. (Eds.), Lessons for open & distance learning (pp. 2-14). Toronto: Trifolium Books Inc.
Talbot, C. (2003). Studying at a distance a guide for students. Berkshire, England: McGraw Hill.
About the Author(s)
Krista Poscente is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Technology at the University of Calgary. She received her Master’s degree in Distance Education from Athabasca University and her B.Sc. in geology from the University of Alberta. Krista has worked as a Multimedia Instructional Designer for the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, and she has also worked for the Canadian Association of Distance Education.