01 Thumbnail The Evolution of Distance Learning

Edward F. Spodick
Hong Kong University of Science & Technology Library
Presented August, 1995 - links updated 31 January, 1996

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1. Introduction / What is Distance Education?

02 Thumbnail In 1994, Sir Geoffrey Holland, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter, stated that
"by the year 2020 every education and training programme leading to a qualification or a credit towards one will be available in three modes: full time, part time, and through distance learning." (Wild 1994)

Such a sweeping and generally accepted statement requires a careful look at distance education in general, and of the factors driving the almost geometric explosion in its implementation and acceptance.

Distance education, also called distance learning, has existed for centuries. It involves obtaining knowledge outside of the traditional avenues of attendance at learned institutions. Some recent definitions have focused on it as a new development, involving advanced technology. A few have even sought to define it in terms of a single technology ¯ usually the one they are reviewing or marketing. (North 1993) Others have viewed it simply as a recent extension of the classroom environment into a remote location. (Long dist tech 1990) Such definitions have proven too restrictive and fail to recognize the actual needs of distance education users or providers.

A better definition is provided by Ian Mugridge, who states that it is

"a form of education in which there is normally a separation between teacher and learner and thus one in which other means ¯ the printed and written word, the telephone, computer conferencing or teleconferencing, for example ¯ are used to bridge the physical gap." (Mugridge 1991)

This definition neglects a crucial factor of growing significance ¯ separation not just in space but in time. In the past, this time factor has often been a requirement of the technologies in use, and perhaps Mugridge is promoting an ideal of simultaneity. But in this age of increasing global communication, physical distance can involve significant time displacement.

It also implies that the ideal learning situation is in a face-to-face classroom setting, where all participants are physically present. Distance education, therefore, would be an inferior version, trying hard to fit into this mold. It may be that this is true, but there is an increasing body of research which is exploring other options, especially in light of developing instructional technologies and changing social dynamics.

A simpler definition, more open to expanded possibilities, would be that distance education should provide whatever educational opportunities are needed by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Mugridge uses this as the definition for Open Learning, with distance learning as one means of achieving it, and perhaps this will prove more accurate, as 'distance education' continues to be "characterized by great diversity of practice."

Whatever words are finally settled on, the end result will be increased educational opportunities for broader segments of the population, accommodating different situations and needs.

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Go Forward 2. Who Needs / Uses Distance Education?

last revised 5 March, 1996
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