Michelle Aron, Margaret Bryant, Darcy Markham, Nickey Walker Michael Blocher



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Michelle Aron, Margaret Bryant, Darcy Markham, Nickey Walker

Michael Blocher

ETC 677

12 June 2004



The Foundations and History of Distance Education

As society continues to become increasingly immersed in technology, education must reflect this trend and provide optimal learning for all participants. Work schedules, family obligations, and geographical factors make it difficult for many to obtain an education outside the K-12 setting. Distance learning has proven to open doors for those who would normally have limited educational opportunities. As this instructional mode continues to become more mainstream, its effectiveness and future must be evaluated. This paper will explore the foundations of distance learning, as well as the research and theory behind current technologies.

Many significant events have contributed to the current distance learning environments. Throughout American history, as people have developed technology for communicating from a distance, they have also developed innovative ways to utilize the latest technology to teach and learn from a distance. It started in the 1800s with the mail system, then with radio and television in the early 1900s. The 1962 decision that the University of South Africa would become a distance teaching university brought about a fundamental change in the way distance education was practiced in much of the world (Albright et al. 35). In 1971, the Open University of the United Kingdom was the first to provide distance learning degrees utilizing innovative media. The openness of these universities to create changes in curricula has led the way for the many universities currently offering such programs.

The prevalence of technology has changed drastically since the 1960’s. Personal viewpoints of treatise members lend to this observation. The Internet was originally designed in the 1960's as a computer network that would function even if parts of it were destroyed in a nuclear war.

Having lived through the Cuban Missle Crisis, let me also disclose that we lived in New York State. My mother was concerned enough about this eminent threat that we had a bomb shelter built into our basement. True story. The military planners and programmers that developed the Internet soon saw its value as a way to exchange news and personal messages (Nickey Walker).

Satellite technology was invented in the 1960's and was made cost effective in the 1980's.

This was my first acquaintance with distance learning. In 1990, as a college freshman, I took my first televised course at Arizona State University. These became commonplace during my academic career and are still utilized today. These set the example for the Internet courses of today. While I do feel the televised lecture courses were effective, they were missing the peer interaction that an online course allows (Margaret Bryant).

The changes in technology itself led to changes in theory surrounding its utilization in distance learning. Globalization, emerging technology, and new theories about student learning have made it difficult to come up with one theory or group of theories that have proven to be most influential. A variety of definitions seem to include the separation of teacher and learner, the effects of organization and two-way communication, and the ability of the learner to individualize the instruction.

In Chapter 2 of Teaching and Learning at a Distance, the concept of Fordism, Neo-Fordism, and Post-Fordism are presented. The term Fordism is derived from Henry Ford’s approach to mass production for mass consumption of automobiles early in the 20th century (Albright et al. 49). The Fordist strategy entails a centralized, national distance education provider. Administrative control is the goal of the model. The neo-Fordist theory extends upon Fordism, but allows more flexibility. However, this strategy is still greatly centralized. The post-Fordist strategy is open for far more process variability and labor responsibility. Its roots lie in constructivism. While it seems that the post-Fordist strategy of distance education is the most practical, it is still oriented towards the “masses” and proves to be stifling in the contemporary setting of distance education.

When attempting to link theory to distance education, the student must be at the center of the equation. Hilary Perraton’s theory of distance education is composed of elements from existing theories of communication and diffusion, as well as philosophies of education (Albright et al. 45). These elements work in accordance with effective distance learning. For example, the instructor can use any medium to teach anything. There are times when distance teaching can be more cost effective than conventional learning. Distance learning can reach audiences that normally would not receive an education. These principles tend to be universal when analyzing distance learning.

Research gives way to the fact that student motivation is at the center of effective distance learning. Dille and Mezack’s 1991 study created the profile of a high-risk telecourse student. This student would be 25 years or older, divorced, less than 30 college credits completed, a low GPA, and would hold an external locus of control. Students with an external locus of control were less likely to persevere when faced with the perceived tougher challenge of the telecourse (Albright et al. 67).

Besides student motivation, there are other factors involved in determining the effectiveness of distance education. Berge and Muilenberg (2000) listed the following attributes that hinder successful learning (Albright et al. 74).



  1. Increased time commitment.

  2. Lack of money to implement distance education programs.

  3. Organizational resistance to change.

  4. Lack of shared vision for distance education in the organization.

  5. Lack of support staff to help course development.

  6. Lack of strategic planning for distance education.

  7. Slow pace of implementation.

  8. Faculty compensation, incentives.

  9. Difficulty keeping up with technological changes.

  10. Lack of technology-enhanced classrooms, labs, or infrastructure.

On a student level, barriers could include financial issues, time constraints, and lack of technical ability.

The challenges of distance education are outweighed by the many positives. Globalization and emerging technologies will provide innovative opportunities. How distance educators take advantage of them will shape the future. Currently, it is impossible to fully replace conventional classroom learning. However, distance learning can prove to be a beneficial supplement in many content areas. Students can participate in online or satellite science and social studies courses. If some students are engaging in these activities, it frees up time for the teacher to work with lower aptitude students.

Chapter 4 of Teaching and Learning at a Distance discusses selecting appropriate online instruction technologies for classrooms. These four points are presented to help guide teachers through the process (Albright et al.107-113).

1. Assess available instructional technologies.

2. Determine the learning outcomes.

3. Identify learning experiences and match each to the most appropriate available technology.

4. Prepare the learning experiences for online delivery.

Far more technology in-services need to be presented to K-8 teachers. Many teachers still do not incorporate technology into their curriculum. If students are acquainted with this mode of learning at an early age, they will be more apt to participate in distance or distributed learning. Thus, their educational horizons will be greatly broadened.

Distance or distributed learning takes advantage of its ability to blur all boundaries of age, culture, or geographical separation. Currently, educators utilize satellite technology and fiber-optic communication systems to communicate quickly and clearly, and this opens up a whole new range of possibilities for distance learning. Research shows that students learn the same with distance learning or with traditional teaching methods. Successful students tend to have a positive attitude about distance learning, and also tend to be intrinsically motivated, abstract learners with an internal locus of control. Currently, distance learning is an effective tool. The future of this form of instruction is sure to bring innovative uses of current and new technologies.

Works Cited

Simonson, Michael, Smaldino, Sharon, Albright, Michael, Zvacek, Susan. Teaching and



Learning at a Distance. Upper Saddle River: Merrill Prentice Hall, 2003.


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