History of Distance Education

A Brief History of Distance Education

Colleges and universities need to adopt at least one or more of the different forms of distance education to maintain enrollment levels and to maintain relevance to the students of today.  In the following two papers, I intend to discuss the concept of distance education (D.E.).  I will first define the terms distance education, distance learning and other key terms.  In this first paper I will use the theory of democratization as put forth by Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt and a comparison of the social reform movements of the 19th century to help establish a social context for the history of distance education.  In the second paper I will define the two most popular forms of distance education currently in use and highlight the benefits and drawbacks of each method.  I will also outline possible future directions for distance education.

Furthermore I will explain the popularity of distance education and its importance to institutions of higher education by using the theory of convergence as put forth by Radinger and Goeschka, and by using the theory of self-efficacy, as described by Compeau and Higgins.  I currently work as a distance education technician for Central Washington University and I will also utilize my personal knowledge to help support my thesis.

Distance Education, Distance Learning: A Few Key Terms

Distance education has many connotations and denotations and as such it is important to examine several of the key terms associated with the concept of distance education. Holmberg (1986) in his book titled “Growth and Structure of Distance Education” provides the definition I will be using throughout my two papers:


 “Distance education includes the various forms of study at all levels which are not under the continuous immediate supervision of tutors present with their students in lecture rooms or on the same premises, but which, nevertheless, benefit from the planning, guidance and tuition of a tutorial organization.” (Holmberg, 1986)


However there are others who have weighed in on the definition of d.e. and should be mentioned in this section as well.  In a 1999 report for the United States Department of Education, Lewis, Snow, Farris, and Levin(1999) defined distance education as:


“…education or training courses delivered to remote (off-campus) location(s) via audio, video (live or prerecorded), or computer technologies.” (Lewis, et al., 1999)


Clearly this definition is for the current iterations of distance education and overlooks the historic method of correspondence courses conducted through a postal delivery system.  It is important to note that there are several additional terms associated with distance education that should also be included for further clarification.  An extensive glossary can be found at stateuniversity.com posted to their ‘educational encyclopedia’ section but here are a few key definitions:


 “Distance Learning: Those wishing to focus on the learner as the center of the instructional process favor using the word learning. Others insist that the higher education institution cannot force someone to learn, and that the activity undertaken by the institution is education, not learning.

Correspondence study: The original form of distance learning, correspondence study involves the exchange of the written word, on paper, between teacher and learner, usually through some form of postal service.

Online learning: Distance learning where the bulk of instruction is offered via computer and the Internet is called online learning.

E-learning: Any electronically assisted instruction, but is most often associated with instruction offered via computer and the Internet.”(stateuniversity.com 2007)


Additionally E-learning includes the idea of virtual learning environments.  Jenkins, Brown and Walker defined this concept:


“Virtual learning environment (VLE): A software system designed to help teachers by facilitating the management of educational courses for their students, especially by helping teachers and learners with course administration.”(Jenkins, et al., 2005)


However, for the purpose of these papers, I will use the terms distance education and distance learning interchangeably.  Similarly I will use the terms e-learning and online learning interchangeably as well.

A Society in Need: Historical Context for Distance Education

To fully understand the popularity of distance education and to grasp the relevance of its use today we must first look its history.  Beginning with the origin of correspondence courses as envisioned and invented by Sir Isaac Pitman we will then transition to a discussion of two other early pioneers, Anna Eliot Ticknor and William Rainey Harper.  These educators were truly interested in reaching the people who didn’t have the means to get an education for themselves.  Next, we will examine the expansion of distance education using electronic media such as television and satellites: included in this section will be discussion of DeVry’s “Theater in a Suitcase” and NYU’s Sunrise Semester as well as the United Kingdom’s Open University and the start of the PEACENET, a form of satellite television instruction.  Finally we will explore the prototype stages of online or virtual learning environments through a chronology of the developments that led to the widespread use of computers and the internet in distance learning.  This will include early attempts like the University of Illinois’s PLATO and IBM’s Coursewriter and the creation of software like WebCT and Blackboard. 

Correspondence Courses and Educational Democratization:

Its hard to pinpoint the exact beginning of distance education since, like many other innovations, it was built upon the work of many.  It possible that distance education in the form of correspondence courses, began as early as 1728.  The Boston Gazette of 20th March 1728, printed an advertisement from Caleb Phillips, a teacher of shorthand, that offered: 


“……any persons in the country desirous to learn this Art, may, by having the several lessons sent weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston.” (Holmberg, 1995)  


However, it is Sir Isaac Pitman that is generally credited with the invention of correspondence courses.  Pitman is most famous for developing a new form of shorthand in 1837 now known as Pitman Shorthand.  At one time it was one of the most widely used forms of shorthand.  By the 1840s Pitman was teaching shorthand at his “Phonetic Institute” in Bath, Great Britain but he was also mailing instructional information on the techniques of his ‘Pitman Shorthand’ to anyone requesting the material, for the small sum of a penny, the cost of postage at that time.  Pitman believed in:


 “…educating anyone of any class from anywhere who could read and had the desire to learn.”


Although it was never expressed by Pitman, it can be argued that he was advocating the democratization of education, a theory eloquently defined by Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt as: 

 “… increasing either the access to higher education of populations that would be otherwise excluded, or increasing the range of people who might be served by elite institutions. In adopting this view of democratization, we make no claim about the particular political or ideological commitments of proponents of distance or online initiatives. We recognize that increasing access to meaningful educational experiences can occur without changes in political democratization, social justice, or equity. However, we are also aware that, regardless of the educators’ explicit intent, democratizing educational experiences is an act not without societal consequences.” (Larreamendy-Jones, et al., 2006)


They go on to clarify their vision of democratization:


“Again, in this context, democratization does not refer to the direct advancement of particular political ideas but to increasing access to higher education by underserved populations (e.g., women, blue collar workers, farmers) through the delivery of distance instruction that is not less compelling and motivating than its campus counterpart.” (Larreamendy-Jones, et al., 2006)


Pitman’s belief that ‘anyone, anywhere’ could be the genesis of democratization of education, but it should be noted that many social reform movements got their start in the 19th century and had, for their core ideals, the betterment of society as their driving force.  In that respect Pitman’s correspondence courses were no different than the other reform movements going on around the world during this same time.  Sanitarium reform, penal reform, electoral reform, women’s suffrage, labor movements, and many of the religious and moral reformers all believed that society could be better if the all the classes, especially the lower classes, were integrated.  In 1892 Pitman was knighted by the Queen of England for his efforts to teach any and all.  He eventually created the Pitman Correspondence College which still exists today.

The democratization of education as well a societal reformation of women’s rights was further carried out by Anna Eliot Ticknor of the United States.  In 1873 Ticknor saw a growing need in society.  Many young women of the day simply did not have educational opportunities due to their lower class standing and most were obligated to stay home to take care of the children. (Bergmann, 2001) Ticknor recognized that these women deserved the same chance to receive an education as much as their wealthy counterparts and she developed a society in Boston to encourage study at home.  As she put it:

 “…to induce among ladies the habit of devoting some part of every day to study of a systematic and thorough kind.” (Bergmann 2001)


Her program was called the Society to Encourage Studies at Home.  All courses were conducted through the mail and at one time employed 200 correspondent teachers.  Although never expanding beyond its Boston roots, the program nonetheless was responsible for educating nearly 8000 women over a 24 year period.  Anna Ticknor is sometime referred to as the ‘mother of American correspondence study’ as a result of her pioneering efforts. (Bergmann 2001) 

            If Anna Ticknor was the ‘mother’ then William Rainey Harper, could be considered the ‘father of modern correspondence study’. (Harting, Erthal 2005)  Democratization of education came into the fold of colleges and universities with Harper and his contemporaries in the late 19th century. (Larreamendy-Jones, et al., 2006)  Beginning with the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York in 1883, Harper developed correspondence courses that he later modified for the newly created University of Chicago in 1891, when he became the first president of the university. (Larreamendy-Jones, et al., 2006)  Like Pitman and Ticknor, Harper believed that everyone in a society should have access to education, not just the wealthy elite who could afford to reside on a university campus.  Richard Moulton, also of the University of Chicago, summed up the sentiments behind the development of correspondence study at UC:


“A university remains in an imperfect stage until it realizes how it must extend its influence to the whole body of people; how it must extend its education to the whole period of the human life; and how it must bring its high ideas to bear upon all the vital interests of mankind.” (Moulton, 1917)


Additionally Harper believed in the quality of education available:


“The Student who has prepared a certain number of lessons in the correspondence school knows more of the subject treated in those lessons, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom.” (Harting, et al., 2005) 


It should be noted that it is not just access to education that helps with democratization but also the quality of education received.  Harper also believed distance learning would surpass the traditional classroom methods in time:


“The day is coming when the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than that done in the classroom of our academies and colleges; when the student when the student who shall recite by correspondence will far out number those who make oral recitations.” (Harting, et al., 2005) 


These courses were the first college level courses to be offered by mail and mail remained the dominant delivery method for distance education over the next half century.

Pictures and Sound: Television

A new form of distance education emerged with the widespread use of the visual mediums of film and later television that left the old version of mail delivered correspondence courses behind.  It is hard to pin-point the exact moment the concept of a televised university first came about since so many contributed to its beginning.  For example, in the mid 1920s Herman DeVry started producing educational films as well as lesson plans and teacher’s guides that he distributed around the country. (Hernandez, Dement, 2007)  In 1926, while working for the newly developed BBC, noted British educationalist, J.C. Stobart suggested the idea of a ‘wireless university’, which would combine televised lectures and correspondence courses. (History of the OU, 2007)     

It wasn’t until the 1950s that college credit courses were offered using broadcast television.  Western Reserve University and New York University were both pioneers in the area of televised distance learning.  In fact NYU produced the well known and long running program Sunrise Semester which aired on CBS from 1957 until 1982. (175 facts about NYU, 2007) 

However, in the early 1960s, in Great Britain, members of the government and the BBC, began floating a new idea.  Both groups were interested in developing a “University of the Air”, and by 1969 that vision had been realized. (History of the OU, 2007)  Re-titled the Open University, it was the first successful wholly distance learning institution.  Walter Perry, OU’s first Vice-Chancellor, had this to say about the new concept of a distance education university:


“I was persuaded that the standard of teaching in conventional universities was pretty deplorable. It suddenly struck me that if you could use the media and devise course materials that would work for students all by themselves, then inevitably you were bound to affect – for good – the standard of teaching in conventional universities. I believed that to be so important that it overrode almost everything else.” (History of the OU, 2007) 


In 1971 OU admitted 24000 students and by 2003 was teaching to 200,000 plus. (History of the OU, 2007) 

In addition, in 1971, UNESCO’s PEACENET program began in the Pacific Basin and this marked the first time satellite TV was used in distance learning. (Hall, 1996)  PEACENET stands for ‘Peaceful Alternatives to Conflict through Educational Networking’, and is devoted to maintaining peaceful interactions of different cultures by promoting education.  With the widespread commercial use of satellites for broadcasting television, geographically remote areas like the Pacific Basin could now be reached easily.  It was no surprise that distance education would logically expand to these areas.  In fact this concept was in line with Isaac Pitman’s theory regarding teaching ‘anyone anywhere’ and the concept of democratization.   In 1971, Chaya Ngam of UNESCO witnessed first hand the power of distance education in these remote areas:


“…distance education showed that it could provide educational opportunities to large numbers of people who had previously been denied such opportunities, and that it could be done in a cost-effective manner… The developing countries have found in distance education an answer to the previously almost insurmountable problem of how to take education to the large number of their population who are isolated geographically” (Hall, 1996)


Kathleen Ward, an administrator for Central Washington University was a student at the University of Fairbanks in Alaska in the 1970s.  She recalls experiencing satellite TV education for the first time:

 “The university had a branch campus at Dillingham over 90 miles away.  It so rugged up there and in the wintertime the roads to Dillingham were closed.  Satellite TV and the telephone were the only ways to reach them most of the time, and really the only way many of them could get a college education.  We really thought we were cutting edge at the time.” (K. Ward, personal communication November 5, 2007)


The theme of democratization of education by reaching men and women whose access to education was limited, championed by the pioneers like Pitman, Ticknor and Harper, was illustrated through the use of this technology.

Computers and the Internet: Democratization Expands:

No discussion on the history of distance education would be complete without an acknowledgement of the impact of the computer and the internet on distance learning.  Virtual or online learning environments, and the software that creates and supports them, have been around for almost as long as the electronic computer.  Vannever Bush, in his prophetic article, from 1945, “As We May Think”, envisioned an electronic device that he called the memex. (Bush, 1945)  His description sounded strikingly similar to today’s modern World Wide Web.  Fifteen years later, in 1960, the University of Illinois developed a program called PLATO. (Wise, 1987)  This unique system allowed instructors and students to communicate via online notes.  Further the students could study online assignments and the teachers could evaluate student progress electronically.  In 1965 an analysis of the usefulness of PLATO was published, it was noteworthy for its acknowledgement of democratization and individual progress:


“The results of exploratory queuing studies show that the system could teach as many as a thousand students simultaneously, while still allowing each student to proceed through the material independently.” (PLATO, 2007)


IBM continued the prototyping period.   In 1965, IBM developed its own version of an online learning tool, Coursewriter, which it tested at Stanford University. (Silvern, Silvern, 1966)  It, too, allowed different users such as teachers and students to communicate electronically.  This system was important for being the first developed by a commercial company, outside of the academic environment.

The ARPANet, the precursor to the internet began in 1969. (Kahn, 1997)  Then, in 1995, researchers at the University of British Columbia, developed the first commercially available software to create an online learning environment. (Goldberg, Salari, Swoboda, 1996)  WebCT, (Web Course Tools) premiered in 1996, and later that same year researchers at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis developed ONCOURSE, which became ANGEL (A New Global Environment for Learning) in 1999. (Jafari, 1999)  A year later, 1997, another piece of educational software, BLACKBOARD Academic Suite was released. (On The Web, 2000) These examples provided support for both distance learning and the traditional classroom setting.


            It is important to study the history of distance learning pioneers such as Pitman, Ticknor, and Harper.  They were at the forefront of the social reform movements of the 19th century simply by advocating the democratization of education.  In addition, by examining the adoption of technologies such as television and the internet we can recognize distance education has continued to further the goals of these pioneers by reaching and teaching ‘anyone, anywhere’.  In fact, the National Center for Educational Statistics indicates that during the 2000-2001 academic year, 90% of colleges and universities reported using some form of distance education, with 51% using synchronous interactive video conferencing and 43% using internet based software platforms. (Harting, et al., 2005)    

            In the second part of this paper, I will discuss the two most popular forms of distance education and highlight the benefits and drawback of each.  By using Radinger and Goeschka’s theory of convergence I will also explain distance education’s popularity.  I will also explore some possible future trends of distance education.  Finally, by utilizing a broader definition of Compeau and Higgin’s theory of computer self-efficacy, I will support my thesis that colleges and universities need to adopt one or more iterations of distance education to maintain relevance to students of today and the students of the future.




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  1. Your information is very important to know about the history of Distance Education. Will you provide the references or links related at this information.

    I need it to include in my investigation, because the professors required the primary references.

    Thanks for your attention.

  2. This atricle will help my institution understnd how and why it should move more vigerously towards the on-line teaching platform.

  3. I found your paper to be most interesting being that I am doing an Action Project for Phi Theta Kappa. My theme is Democratization of Information. With the issue being, What is the relationship between information and education. The focus is, What is lost and what is gained in online education. I have been putting together a power point, but I have been having trouble putting this all together. Your post helped me fill in the gaps. I hope to read your second paper. Also, I was wondering if you knew of the people who were instrumental in democratizing education in the U.S. and the how and why.,

  4. Hi! I would like to quote something in your blog about Distance Education – do you have the date you wrote it? Thanks Terri

    • This paper was posted in November of 2007

      • Thank you so much!

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