"The development of the personal computer brought about another metamorphosis in distance education and is undoubtedly the single greatest factor in the explosion of distance—or online—programs available today."

History of Online/Distance Public Education in America

The earliest form of "distance education” was education by correspondence, often in non-traditional or niche programs. Since correspondence degrees had limited methods of ensuring quality or guaranteeing that a student actually completed an appropriate level of study, they have always been regarded rather lightly. Nevertheless they persisted and provided many students with an education that would otherwise have been unavailable. In fact, the term “distance education” was used in a University of Wisconsin catalog as early an 1982.

One woman whose work contributed to the development of the concept of distance education is Anna Eliot Ticknor, daughter of George Ticknor who was the historian of Spanish Literature and the president of Boston Public Library, among other things. Anna, highly educated herself, very talented, and a master of what today would be called multi-tasking, used her status and money to reach out to other women who craved an education. In 1873, with the full support of her own wealthy family, she founded the “Society to Encourage Studies at Home.” While education by correspondence can be traced to the early 1700s, Ticknor's Society with its very specific focus is an important contribution as it created an avenue of education for many to follow and modify into the 20th century.

Many historians say that the real development of distance education occurred hand-in-hand with the development of technology, particularly the audio-video advantages of television. Radio education was attempted in the 1930s, but is regarded as a failure. Prior to WW II, however, television was recognized and utilized by the military as a means of enhancing training of recruits.

Still, the idea caught on slowly. From the early 1950s to 1961, the number of programs sharing films and coordinating their scheduling increased from 17 to 53. Then in 1956 Gayle Childs received a grant from the Ford Foundation and began studying the role of television instruction in correspondence study. His research showed that there was little difference in the performance between students who were taught via television in a traditional classroom and those who studied by means of correspondence and television. His conclusion thus was that television is not an educational method but rather a means for transmitting instruction.

The first real quantitative breakthrough in distance education came with the Midwest Program on Airborne Television, the so called ‘flying classroom” launched from an airfield near Purdue University in Indiana (MPATI). MPATI at one time transmitted educational programs to nearly 2000 public schools in Indiana and 5 surrounding states. MPATI was an experiment funded by the Ford Foundation, but its impact was far reaching and inspired numerous educators to explore the possibilities of distance education. By the 1960s hundreds of school districts had begun to work together for common educational goals, and educational television stations multiplied with Ohio University, the University of Maryland, and the University of Texas being the first to create networks to reach students both on and off campus. However, the mid 1960s brought about resistance to the notion of a television replacing the teacher, and interest in education TV seemed about to go the way of instructional radio.

The development of microwave technology and closed circuit television in the 1970s helped revive the waning interest in distance education. In spite of some crude effects caused by time delay, students in multiple locations could participate simultaneously in a class taught by one professor on one campus. The professor controlled a desktop console which allowed one to view any part of the classroom and actually communicate with peers among classrooms at different campuses. Although the equipment was expensive, the cost reduction brought about by having one instructor teaching two or three classrooms more than compensated. Real-time distance education—rather than merely correspondence, shared films, or pre-recorded lectures—was born. However, education by correspondence has not disappeared and is regarded by many as simply the ‘traditional’ form of distance education.

The development of the personal computer brought about another metamorphosis in distance education and is undoubtedly the single greatest factor in the explosion of distance—or online—programs available today.  It has also led to two different schools of thought regarding the definition of distance education. Many universities maintain multiple campuses. It saves time and money to use closed circuit systems through which a professor can teach several classes simultaneously from one campus. The technology has improved dramatically such that most campuses no longer have problems with the time delay effect, and the students across classrooms can converse with each other as well as with the professor. Students do, however, have to report to a particular classroom at a particular time. The advantage of this type of distance learning is primarily in that it makes many more courses available on each campus without having to hire additional professors.

The other form of distance learning is the internet variation of the old correspondence approach. Instead of sending material back and forth through the mail, students may purchase a text book, but then access lecture material, assignments and tests via the internet. They can do so on their own time and often have flexibility in the time allowed to complete a program. In most cases—the exception being doctoral degree programs—students never have to appear in a physical classroom at all, but may be required to log a required minimum amount of time in the virtual classroom via the internet. The internet allows for closer monitoring of activities such as test taking and completion of assignments. The technology can be used to prevent copying and printing of tests, and the test taker can be prevented from returning to a question once it has been answered. Of course, if closed book tests are a requirement, the exam would have to be proctored at a testing center, scores of which have been set up around the country for just that purpose.

The most up-to-date distance learning programs combines closed circuit broadcast with computer or online technology. That is, at some colleges, students sit in an actual classroom where they interact with a classroom on another campus, but need to access the internet for assignments, research, and other activities. However, it is the online, no-campus-required approach to education that has seen the greatest explosion in both the development of programs and in student enrollment. Online education is comparatively inexpensive for both college and student and makes educational opportunities available to people who, by reason of either responsibilities or location, would otherwise have no chance to obtain a college education. While traditional colleges are not likely to disappear any time soon, colleges that want the greatest enrollment must offer at least some online programs in order to stay on the cutting edge of modern education.

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