What Is Distance Education? - Definition & History

Instructor: Loren Rozanski

Loren has a B.S. in History and a M.S. in Special Education. She works actively in the education field.

While very popular today, distance education has been helping people access learning for centuries. Read on to learn how to define distance education and how it has evolved over time.

What Is Distance Education?

Distance education is defined as the practice of using correspondence, either written or virtual, to learn. With this practice, a teacher in New York could provide instruction to students all over the United States and the world. This helps students access teachers who may live geographically too far away to attend a class; it also assists students who cannot take classes during traditional hours because of work or other responsibilities.

History of Distance Education

Correspondence Courses

While the exact start time of distance education is under debate, the earliest modern form can be traced back to Europe in the early 1800s. The earliest courses were pre-designed materials that would be mailed through the postal service to learners who could not attend universities either because of geography or the high cost of tuition and board. These early courses were called correspondence courses.

In these early courses, there were no opportunities for direct interaction, such as face-to-face meetings or instruction. The student would send an order form in the mail and receive a set of printed course materials. The student would review materials and return assignments in the mail, which the teacher would grade. At the end of the course, the student would take an examination and return the results via post. This provided no opportunities for students to ask questions about assignments or have a discussion with their teacher as it would have taken days or weeks to correspond.

Growth of Correspondence Courses

By the late 1800s, correspondence courses had taken off, especially in the United States. Colleges and universities began offering correspondence courses, including some large schools such as Baylor University and the University of Chicago. As popularity in distance education grew, so did the number of schools offering the courses. By the mid-1900s, schools all around the world relied heavily on correspondence courses to supplement their on-campus student bodies.

An early ad for a correspondence course in Chicago. This course promised to teach students to be an automotive chauffeur, repairman, and salesman.
correspondence course

Correspondence Courses to Distance Education

The mid- to late 1900s brought many technological advances, such as radio and television to widespread audiences. No longer just for the wealthy, most families were able to own these items. Colleges began delivering instruction though both mediums. This was a major shift in distance education as it provided students with access to the teacher for the first time. Students were now able to listen to a lecture or watch a television program that corresponded with their course.

Some courses would mail a VHS or cassette tape series to their students. Others utilized television, and students would attend class at a ''host location'' that had a television set up with a specific course and a special communication system that would allow students and the teacher to communicate.

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