The Origins of Distance Education and its use in the United States


The purpose of this article is to answer the question 'What is distance education?' and to ascertain the use of distance education in higher education in the United States. The origins, growth, media used, type of student utilizing distance education, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of using distance education are examined. These topics define distance education.


In 1840, Sir Issac Pitman, the English inventor of shorthand, came up with an ingenious idea for delivering instruction to a potentially limitless audience: correspondence courses by mail. Pitman's concept was so hot that within a few years he was corresponding with a legion of far-flung learners (Phillips 1998). Within a few decades, regular, and in some cases, extensive programs were available in the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States and Japan (Curran 1997). By the 1900s, the first department of correspondence teaching was established at the University of Chicago. In Australia, the University of Queensland established a Department of External Studies in 1911. Before 1969, distance teaching had developed into an important sector of higher education in quite a few countries.

The founding of United Kingdom's Open University (OU) in 1969 marked a significant development of the second phase of distance learning, with its mixed-media approach to teaching (ibid.). The OU sent learning materials to students by mail. Materials included carefully constructed texts and audio and video materials. These were supplemented with conventional broadcast radio and television. Each student was assigned a tutor who tutored over the telephone and in group sessions in the evenings or on weekends. The British Open University pioneered distance education on a massive scale (D.N. 1997). The OU and other open universities were important in raising the profile of distance education, effectively bringing distance teaching from the margins closer to the center stage of higher education (Curran 1997).

At roughly the same time as the founding of the OU, satellites were moving into commercial use. PEACENET in the Pacific Basin was founded in 1971 and used in the first ever application of satellites in distance education (Hall, P. 1996).


Distance education is first and foremost a movement that sought not so much to challenge or change the structure of higher learning, but to extend the traditional university and to overcome its inherent problems of scarcity and exclusivity. Second, distance education developed as a creative political response to the increasing inability of the traditional university structure to grow larger (Hall, J. 1995). Distance education dealt with the problem of too many students in a single physical space. The university could, in effect, reach out, offering not seats, but the opportunity to learn.


In the two decades following the opening of the British Open University in 1969, four open universities were established in Europe, and more than 20 were established in countries around the world.

There was considerable growth over the ensuing decades. In the United States, by the mid-1980s, more than 300,000 students were enrolled in university-taught distance education courses. In Canada, some 19 conventional universities were active in distance teaching. In Australia, the University of Queensland initiative had grown to some 3,000 students by the late 1960s. By the mid-1980s, some 40 institutions had an enrollment of external students equivalent to approximately 12% of higher education students. In the Soviet Union, where distance teaching was adopted in the late 1920s, all 61 universities eventually offered education by correspondence, and it is reported in the former German Democratic Republic that approximately one quarter of the university and technical college graduates attained their qualification by means of distance education. It is clear that distance education had developed into a substantive sector of higher education in quite a few countries (Curran 1997).

In 1994 the OU was teaching more than 200,000 students, including young men and women in Russia, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak republics, Bulgaria and Romania. There are now OU offices located in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Switzerland (Peck 1995).

In a number of cases, particular open universities have a student population that is bigger than that of the median-size university in the same country, and in a few cases bigger than the largest traditional university. Nonetheless, in many countries the substantive student population is made up of enrollment in distance teaching programs provided by many individual universities and colleges. The widening over time of the range of programs provided and the kinds of student populations served has, in both cases, reinforced the trend toward further growth (Curran 1997).

The majority of higher education institutions in the United States have distance learning programs (NCES 1997). According to the United States Department of Education, about a quarter of the U.S. institutions that offered distance education courses in the fall of 1995 offered degrees that students could complete by taking distance education courses exclusively, and 7% offered certificates that could be completed that way. There were an estimated 690 degrees and 170 certificates (Lewis, et al. 1997).

As of 1997, enrollment had grown to become a substantive part of the university student population in many countries. In a number of countries distance education students compose some 10-14% of the total undergraduate student population, and in a few cases the proportion is as high as 39-40% (Curran 1997).

Media Used

Distance education employs media in many forms and to varying extents. It includes mail, facsimile, radio, television, satellite broadcasts, videotapes, teleconferencing and, most recently, the Internet. Electronic networks, remote databases, and collaborative working are becoming important. In addition, support materials include study packs, TV and radio programs, audio tapes and tutorials.

Interactive videoconferencing provides the opportunity for a faculty member to teach a class in a traditional classroom setting while concurrently instructing a different group of students in another classroom via interactive video. Introducing an audio link from the remote site back to the lecturer allows live interaction and enables questions. Teaching based on videoconferencing is pedagogically close to traditional university teaching.

The 'virtual classroom' is a relatively recent development in distance learning. It is usually based on computer groupware, or can be operated over the Internet. In general, the student uses a local computer (usually from home) to access a range of services and facilities. These include online registration, dissemination of prepared course materials, access to online video materials, and communication with instructors, tutors, and other students via e-mail. 'Classes' and discussion groups are conducted in online chat rooms; assignments and exams are e-mailed to the instructor. Discussion topics are posted to discussion or bulletin boards; students comment on the selected topics, and they may also post new topics.

The United States Department of Education conducted a survey on distance education and found the following regarding technology, delivery sites and course developers (Lewis, et al. 1997):

Technology used to deliver distance education courses

Distance education courses were delivered by two-way interactive video at 57%, and by one-way prerecorded video at 52 % of the institutions offering distance education courses in the fall of 1995. About a quarter of the institutions used two-way audio with one-way video, and they used computer-based technologies other than two-way online interactions (e.g., the Internet).

Delivery to remote sites

About half of the higher education institutions offering distance education courses in the fall of 1995 directed such courses to students' homes. Institutions also frequently directed distance education courses to other branches of their institution (39%) and to other college campuses (35%).

Primary course developers

Three quarters of the institutions developed their own courses. Thirty percent of the institutions used courses developed by commercial vendors.

Type of Student

Distance education, starting with the Open University, has a long history of serving isolated and remote learners (American Council on Education 1996). Today, in addition to serving the learner who lives far from campus, distance education is aimed at part-time students, time-strapped adult learners, and students trying to work full-time while earning degrees. Virtual classrooms are not aimed at the traditional market of young college people, but rather are meant to serve disciplined adult learners (Guernsey 1998).

Students are typically older than traditional undergraduates (Online 1998, May 22). The age profile of students, whether men or women, suggests that many will have family commitments. It is unlikely that they would be willing or able to leave home to attend a full-time, campus-based course (Miller, Smith and Tilstone 1998). Distance learning primarily attracts women with children. Sixty-six percent of the adult distance education market is female, and 80% of them have children (Bremner 1998).

In a survey conducted by the Department of Education (Lewis, et al. 1997) in 1995, more higher education institutions offered distance education courses designed primarily for undergraduate students (81% of the institutions) and graduate students (34% of the institutions) than for any other type of student. Professionals seeking recertification were targeted by 39% of institutions offering distance education courses, and other workers seeking skill updating or retraining were targeted by 49%.

In the fall of 1998, another student population emerged -- students already enrolled in regular classes eager to ease their schedules by taking courses online. Many of these students also work part-time or full-time jobs and they need the freedom to manage their time (Guernsey 1998).

Advantages and Disadvantages

There are benefits and drawbacks to offering distance education. Benefits to the student include: increased access to higher education (particularly for the nontraditional student), flexible scheduling of personal time, convenient location, individualized attention by the instructor, less travel, and increased time to think about, and respond to (via e-mail or discussion boards), questions posed by the instructor.

The institution also reaps benefits from offering distance education. It increases enrollment, attracts new teaching staff (those interested in distance education), reduces the need to build and maintain university campuses and buildings, offers a new level of communication with students, requires the university to keep abreast of new technology, and signals the public that the institution is forward thinking and technologically advanced.

The disadvantages of distance education include:

Cost of entry
The entry cost to quality distance education can be substantial. Distance education is a capital-intensive business (Hall, P. 1996). Investments in computers, virtual libraries, central servers and data networks, ongoing technical support, program development costs, and marketing can discourage institutions from pursuing distance education.

Cost of educational materials
There is a need to develop world-class educational materials (Emmert 1997). Learning materials must be constructed that anticipate the learning problems of the isolated student, and provide a wide range of activities that will support learning (Hall, P. 1996).

Labor intensity
Distance education is more time-consuming (Guernsey 1998); it is more labor intensive to teach an online class than it is a regular chalk-and-talk class (Bremner 1998).

Need for staff training
Distance education requires a high level of instructor and staff training (Connell 1998). Lecturers need to be trained in the use of technology (Hall, P. 1996).

Cost to the student
A distance education course can be more expensive than traditional courses because of the need to recoup some of the costs of technical support, course development and instructors' salaries (Bremner 1998, Guernsey 1998).

Inadequate infrastructure
In many institutions there is limited technological infrastructure to support distance education (Lewis, et al. 1997). Communication systems can be unreliable (Hall, J. 1995) and equipment failures numerous.

Inaccessible libraries
Libraries might be inaccessible and scarce (Hall, J. 1995). A recurrent difficulty with the distance learning institutes is how to provide access to libraries. There is a need to develop electronic libraries (Hall, P. 1996).

Maintaining sufficient student contact
A fundamental problem with distance education is how to maintain sufficient student contact including timely assistance and adequate performance feedback (Hall, J. 1995).

Inadequate reflection, conversation and intellectual dialogue
Distance education limits the extent to which students can reflectively browse in their subject matter with their peers and engage in exploratory discussion of their discipline (Curran 1997). Distance learning might be inadequate for deliberation and discourse among students, their instructors and their peers. There is value in being at a university campus, interacting socially and intellectually with fellow students and teachers (Plant 1996).

Possible fraud in authenticating submissions
There is always the problem of authentication (Hall, P. 1996).

Legal issues of intellectual property rights
Syllabi or course outlines on the Web might be absorbed into the public domain and could be used and adapted by others (Gallick 1998).

Inadequate financial aid policies
There are restrictions on financial aid availability for distance learners (Selingo 1998).


When looking at distance education from a global perspective, translation remains an issue. In addition, because of differences in culture, the content of the educational materials, the values implicit in the materials, and the underlying assumptions about educational processes need to be reviewed and might need to be transformed (Hall, P. 1996).

Underdeveloped countries might not even have access to technology. Furthermore, in New England's Journal of Higher Education and Economic Development, Emmert (1997) states:

One hindrance to globalization of distance education is the issue of quality control -- an area in which U.S. institutions begin with a disadvantage. Today, quality in American higher education is assessed by a complex, some say arcane, system of accreditation. The American accreditation system relies heavily upon the assessment of proxies for educational quality, such as hours spent in classrooms, student-to-faculty ratios, availability of facilities, and total resources spent on each student. Many other nations, particularly in Europe, approach quality control through competency examinations for each discipline. Such competency assessment de-emphasizes time to degree, instruction mode, and the reputation of the institution providing the instruction. These nations therefore may be better positioned to adopt quality control in distance education (p. 21).

Distance Education in the United States

It is estimated that in the 1998-1999 academic year, 58% of higher education institutions in the United States offered distance learning courses. According to a study done by the U.S. Department of Education (Lewis, et al. 1997),

In the 1994-1995 academic year, one-third of higher education institutions offered distance education courses; an estimated 25,730 courses were offered....approximately 753,640 students were formally enrolled in distance education courses. Public two-year institutions accounted for 55%, public four-year institutions for 31%, and private four-year institutions for 14% of the students enrolled in distance education....23% of the institutions offered degrees that could be completed through taking distance education courses exclusively....An estimated 3,430 students received degrees and 1,970 received certificates in 1994-1995 by taking distance education exclusively (p. 6).

Distance education in the United States is offered by individual states, by cooperatives and consortia, and by individual institutions. Currently, an estimated 180 accredited graduate schools and more than 150 undergraduate colleges and universities now support distance learning degree programs, and an increasing number of the programs are Web-based (Phillips 1998).


Information technology and distance education are exciting developments in higher education. They provide extraordinary opportunities to transform the when, where and how of what we teach. 'Distance' learning is becoming less important as the key descriptor for courses or students (Hall, J. 1995). Perhaps 'connected' learning will become a more accurate descriptor.

Distance education built around new technology offers one way of meeting the need for a more flexible system, allowing people to dip in and out of education and periodically update their knowledge. The awareness of the possibilities of open and distance learning in education is increasing, and the use of new technologies to foster lifelong learning becomes increasingly attractive and appropriate (Ljosa and Mann 1995). For this reason, the virtual campus will be added by conventional universities as one more way of delivering higher education (Warden 1995).

Emerging in the United States is a community of open and distance learning institutions with a healthy collaboration among themselves (Hall, P. 1996). Partnerships between institutions, between institutions and business, between states, and between countries are increasing our opportunities in distance education. This will continue to expand, some believe at a rapid pace. While Peter Drucker overstated the case when he proclaimed recently in Fortune magazine that the traditional residential campus would be dead within 30 years, there can be little doubt that distance education will have a tremendous impact on institutions of higher education in the United States. Indeed, distance education might well become an internationally traded commodity early in the 21st century. It is no longer a question of whether or not the new higher education will develop, but how fast it will occur (Connick 1997).

Diane Matthews, CPA, MS is a professor at Carlow College in Pittsburgh, Pa., and a Ph.D. student at the University of Pittsburgh. She teaches various online classes. E-mail:



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Connell, T. 1998. 'Distance holds the key to growth.' Times Higher Education Supplement, (1341), 12. July.

Connick, G. 1997. 'Issues and trends to take us into the twenty-first century.' New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 71. 7-11.

Curran, C. 1997. 'ODL and traditional universities: dichotomy or convergence?' European Journal of Education, 32 (4), 335-346.

D.N. 1997. 'Schools ponder new global landscape.' Science, 277 (5324), 311.

Emmert, M. 1997. 'Distance learning tests America's higher education dominance.' New England's Journal of Higher Education & Economic Development, 12 (2), 20-22.

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Guernsey, L. 1998. 'Distance education for the not-so-distant.' The Chronicle of Higher Education, 44 (29), A29-A30.

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Ljosa, E., and Mann, K. 1995. 'EDEN -- a growing garden.' European Journal of Engineering Education, 20 (2), 239-241.

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NCES issues report on distance education. 1997. College & Research Libraries News, 58 (10), 689.

Online. 1998, May 22. While most colleges and universities are setting up chairs and clipping grass to prepare for spring commencements, some institutions that offer distance education have been readying television studios and tuning up World-Wide Web servers instead. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 44 (37), A27.

Peck, B.T. 1995. 'Open and distance learning in the European Union.' Phi Delta Kappan, 77 (3), 263-265.

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Plant, M. 1996. [Review of the book Technology, Open Learning and Distance Education, Studies in Distance Education]. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 21 (1), 103-104.

Selingo, J. 1998. 'Congress moves cautiously on aid for students in distance education.' The Chronicle of Higher Education, 44 (39), A30.

U.S. Department of Education. (1995). Survey on distance education courses offered by higher education institutions. National Center for Education Statistics. Postsecondary Education Quick Information System.

Warden, R. 1995. 'Metaphor made real with an open mind.' Times Higher Education Supplement, (1197), pIi. October.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.

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