Distance Education

Distance Education

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Distance Education


Distance Education, methods of instruction that utilize different communications technologies to carry teaching to learners in different places. Distance education programs enable learners and teachers to interact with each other by means of computers, artificial satellites, telephones, radio or television broadcasting, or other technologies. Instruction conducted through the mail is often referred to as correspondence education, although many educators simply consider this the forerunner to distance education. Distance education is also sometimes called distance learning. While distance learning can refer to either formal or informal learning experiences, distance education refers specifically to formal instruction conducted at a distance by a teacher who plans, guides, and evaluates the learning process. As new communications technologies become more efficient and more widely available, increasing numbers of elementary schools, secondary schools, universities, and businesses offer distance education programs.

Nearly every country in the world makes use of distance education programs in its education system. Britain’s nationally supported Open University, based in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, England, has one of the best-known programs. A vast majority of the school’s 133,000 students receive instruction entirely at a distance. More than 20 other countries have national open universities in which all instruction is provided by distance education methods. This method of education can be especially valuable in developing countries. By reaching a large number of students with relatively few teachers, it provides a cost-effective way of using limited academic resources. Many businesses use distance education programs to train employees or to help them update skills or knowledge. Employees may take such programs in the workplace or at home in their spare time.


Distance education traces its origins to mid-19th century Europe and the United States. The pioneers of distance education used the best technology of their day, the postal system, to open educational opportunities to people who wanted to learn but were not able to attend conventional schools. People who most benefited from such correspondence education included those with physical disabilities, women who were not allowed to enrol in educational institutions open only to men, people who had jobs during normal school hours, and those who lived in remote regions where schools did not exist.

The invention of the educational radio in the 1920s and the advent of television in the 1940s created important new forms of communication for use in distance education. Educators used these new technologies to broadcast educational programs to millions of learners, thus extending learning opportunities beyond the walls of conventional teaching institutions.

The development of reliable long-distance telephone systems in the early 1900s also increased the capacity of distance educators to reach new student populations. But telephone systems never played a prominent role in education until the introduction of new teleconferencing technologies in the 1980s and 1990s. Teleconferencing systems made it possible for teachers to talk with, hear, and see their students in real time—that is, with no delays in the transmissions—even if they were located across the country or around the world.

Distance education increasingly uses combinations of different communications technologies to enhance the abilities of teachers and students to communicate with each other. With the spread of computer-network communications in the 1980s and 1990s, large numbers of people gained access to computers linked to telephone lines, allowing teachers and students to communicate in conferences via computers (see Telecommunications: Computer-Network). Distance education also makes use of computer conferencing on the World Wide Web, where teachers and students present text, pictures, audio, and occasionally video. A conferencing method is known as one-way video/two-way audiences television pictures that are transmitted to particular sites, where people can reply to the broadcasters with a telephone call-in system. Television pictures can also be transmitted in two directions simultaneously through telephone lines so that teachers and students in one place can see and hear teachers and students in other places. This is called video-conferencing.


In the United States, institutions of higher education, business, and the armed services all use distance education methods. Millions of students have enrolled in television courses produced by certain colleges and universities around the country. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) delivers these courses to students at over 2000 institutions. A growing number of private businesses, including multinational corporations, operate satellite television networks to deliver vocational training to employees throughout the world. The United States Army offers distance education programs to military personnel stationed in different parts of the country. These programs are conducted by the Army Logistics Management College, based in Fort Lee, Virginia, and delivered over the Internet and in one-way video/two-way audio systems to over 70 locations. The United States Air Force also offers distance education programs through the Air Technology Network (ATN), a division of the Air Force Institute of Technology. The ATN uses one-way video/two-way audio telecommunications systems to reach students at every Air Force base in the continental United States.

Distance education offered through colleges and universities in the United States provides instruction in a wide range of academic and vocational subjects. The National University Teleconference Network (NUTN) is a consortium of approximately 260 colleges and universities that offer distance education programs in most fields of knowledge. The National Technological University (NTU), based in Fort Collins, Colorado, offers hundreds of courses taught by faculty at dozens of major universities. The Agricultural Satellite Corporation provides courses on agricultural topics to many colleges and universities. HealthNet, an institution operated by Boston University Medical School, carries continuing education courses for health care professionals. The Black College Satellite Network (BCSN) broadcasts primarily from Howard University with programs aimed at colleges around the country.

A number of institutions offer complete college degree programs via computer conferencing. The Online Campus of the New York Institute of Technology offers bachelor’s degrees in science. A distance education program called ConnectEd offers a master’s degree in Technology and Society in conjunction with the New School for Social Research in New York City. The University of Phoenix Online, a program at the University of Phoenix, offers computer-based courses leading to degrees in business and management. The Open University in Britain offers a master’s degree in the field of distance education to anyone in the world who can access the Internet.


Each medium of communication carries certain advantages over the other. The most effective distance education employs several telecommunications media linked together so that learners can benefit from the strengths of each one. For example, a student may watch an instructor’s lecture on a video monitor, respond with questions through electronic mail on a computer, and then participate in class discussions through telephone audio-conferencing. Distance education programs require teams of media producers, teaching specialists, and experts in academic subjects to design effective teaching strategies. Other specialists plan and facilitate communications with learners. Because such programs can be expensive to produce, institutions usually design distance education courses for relatively large audiences and wide geographic areas.

Distance education has created a major shift in how educators and students think about teaching and learning. By allowing students to learn in more convenient locations and often at more convenient times, distance education opens the educational opportunity to previously unreached populations. It also enables more people to extend the period of their education from a limited number of schooling years to a lifelong learning process. In addition, it changes to power and authority relationships between teachers and learners, often encouraging more equal and open communication tha occurs in conventional educational settings. Because distance education enables institutions to reach students all over the world, learners gain increased opportunities to experience other cultures and enrich their educational experience.

Contributed By:
Michael G. Moore

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