Distance Learning, the method of learning at a distance rather than in a classroom. Late 20th-century communications technologies, in their most recent phases multimedia and interactive, open up new possibilities, both individual and institutional, for an unprecedented expansion of home-based learning, much of it part-time. The term distance learning was coined within the context of a continuing communications revolution, largely replacing a hitherto confusing mixed nomenclature—home study, independent study, external study, and, most common, though restricted in pedagogic means, correspondence study. The convergence of increased demand for access to educational facilities and innovative communications technology has been increasingly exploited in face of criticisms that distance learning is an inadequate substitute for learning alongside others in formal institutions. A powerful incentive has been reduced costs per student. At the same time, students studying at home themselves save on travel time and other costs.
Whatever the reasoning, distance learning widens access for students unable for whatever reason (course availability, geographical remoteness, family circumstances, individual disability) to study alongside others. At the same time, it appeals to students who prefer learning at home. In addition, it appeals to organizers of professional and business education, providing an incentive to rethink the most effective way of communicating vital information.
Course design involves a choice of methodologies as well as structuring of content. Careful preparation and updating of courses are as essential as initial structuring. The materials vary from packages of published materials, sometimes sold separately, to radio and television programmes, with the possibility through video recording and CD-ROM of adding to the flexibility. Distance learning is hailed as “flexi-learning”. It has also been related to the concept of “life-long learning”. Individuals learn when they themselves consider that they need to learn, rather than at specific periods set by legislation or convention.
Another and more recent related term, open learning, lays the emphasis more on the learner than on the provider. Not all distance learning is open, however, although, like open learning, it provides the opportunity for the learner to progress in his or her own time and at his or her own pace. A necessary element is educational interchanges and feedback. In the most sophisticated (and expensive) system’s students are provided with a marking and comment service, accompanied by the tutorial and/or counselling support. The systems can be evaluated for quality. Indeed, in face of criticism that distance learning involves loss of contact and of personal inspiration, the enhancement of quality is held up as an asset.
Not all of the most recent methodologies focus on the individual learner, however. Through teleconferencing, distance learning can be used by linked groups. Telephone systems have also been employed. As far as broadcasting is concerned there is often an overspill audience for radio and television programmes. Far-flung students learning at a distance are sometimes brought together, for example, in weekend conferences or in summer schools. There are conferences, too, for course providers.
II COURSE PROVIDERS
The providers of distance education include a wide variety of agencies operating at different levels and in quite different situations. These include open universities and colleges, set up specifically as distance-learning institutions, and drawing in part on public funds, as well as commercial organizations, of which privately run correspondence colleges were historically the first. Business itself is now a major provider, supplementing in-service training schemes with carefully selected distance-learning programmes. Development has been slower in the United States and in Japan than in countries with less interest in research in communications technology, but distance learning has been used at a high level in both countries, and the possibilities for the involvement of technology are being examined imaginatively.
Expansion of public provision began during the 1960s with the establishment of the British Open University in 1969 providing one possible model. Yet six years before that the National Extension College, providing a different British model, had been founded in Cambridge. Other European countries, including those which now have open universities, were slower to act than Canada and Australia, countries with great distances, which, like New Zealand, had developed correspondence education long before. Even after the educational attractions of television had been canvassed, the correspondence element remained central, not least in the case of the British Open University.
III DISTANCE LEARNING AROUND THE WORLD
Among the ambitious Asian projects of the 1970s and 1980s were the Indira Gandhi Open University of India, founded in 1985, which followed in the wake of earlier state universities using distance-learning methods: one of these, in Andhra Pradesh, already had 45,000 students. There had also been experiments in India with community education by satellite. The Indira Gandhi University was unique in developing a distance-learning course on the objectives and methods of distance education. In China, the Radio and Television University was backed by a large number of local television universities, and by 1990 the Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University in Thailand claimed half a million students on its rolls. Concerned in particular with the training of young public servants in government and defence, it had similar objectives to the huge Korea Correspondence University which admitted students by lottery. In Nigeria and Latin America, distance learning was used to train teachers.
Not all distance learning systems were open to all, however. In the former Soviet Union, where the right to distance learning was enshrined in the constitution, it was no more open than in China. Openness was proclaimed as a virtue, however, when the Commonwealth of Learning was set up in Vancouver, Canada, in 1987. Its manifesto proclaimed that it should be possible for “any learner anywhere in the Commonwealth to be able to study any distance-teaching programme available from any bona fide college or university in the Commonwealth”. Difficulties of funding did not darken this vision. Yet it was not easy to satisfy expectations. Nor was it in Latin America, where the flow of resources did not match the enthusiasm of the planners.
Advances in the role of distance learning seem less likely to come as a result of large-scale plans or through the multiplication of specialized distance-learning institutions. Tactical rather than the strategic use of distance-learning methods is becoming common in what has been called a “quantum leap”, with traditional institutions introducing distance-learning functions. The obstacles in the way of advance are not merely traditionalist resistances, but transferability of materials and copyright.