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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4. Tools Available for Distance Education

05 Thumbnail The past 100 years have seen phenomenal growth in avenues of information development and dissemination. The earliest form of distance education simply involved people reading what scholars had written on a variety of topics, and was almost exclusively the province of the upper classes, who could afford both the time away from survival-oriented tasks, and the cost of individually hand-crafted manuscripts.

Gutenberg's invention of the printing press was perhaps the earliest example of technology revolutionizing distance education. The written word could now be mass-produced with relative efficiency. Coupled with the emergence of international postal services, correspondence courses began to appear. Through the latter half of the nineteenth century and up to the middle of the twentieth century this was distance education. A much larger segment of society had access to the thoughts and ideas of their fellow men (as opposed to women, who have remained marginalized throughout much of recorded history).

The next great advance was radio. In the space of a few decades programs and materials were available which greatly reduced the barrier of distance. Much more revolutionary was the advent of instructional television. Technology seemed to have provided a mechanism to duplicate the classroom setting, in a medium which could be sent right into the learner's home.

But both of these technologies had significant drawbacks. First, they were one-way mediums of communication. The learner remained essentially enrolled in a correspondence course, but with some useful supplemental materials. Second, the broadcasts were only available 'live.' (Sherry 1994)

With the development of phonographs, audio and video tapes, and xerographic equipment, all of these course materials could be duplicated with relative ease. Production costs declined, more varied course schedules could be accommodated, and review of materials became commonplace. In addition, with the widespread availability of telephone communications in some parts of the world, distance learners and educators finally began to be able to provide fairly rapid feedback and communication. (Douglas 1993)

The development of microwave and satellite technologies greatly expanded radio and television coverage. Signals could be broadcast farther, to more locations, at reduced cost compared to terrestrial systems. In the past 10-20 years, as the cost of reception equipment has declined, and the variety of programs available has increased, there has been a significant increase in television-based distance education courses. But this remained a one-way means of communication. Critics complained that distance education programs "should be more than a passive transmission of academic information." (Cartwright 1994)

06 Thumbnail The big change needed was interaction ¯ starting with two-way communication between the learner and the instructor. Joan Fulton put forth five fundamentals of an effective program:

  1. contact between the student and the instructor
  2. active learning through writing out answers
  3. timely feedback to the instructor on students' comprehension
  4. timely feedback to students on work done
  5. opportunity for students to make revisions to work done and learn from their mistakes (Fulton 1992)
Four of these require timely bidirectional communication. Communicating by mail was increasingly unsatisfactory. Telephone and conference calls helped a great deal, but remained awkward and expensive. It is also not feasible for the instructor to communicate with every learner in this manner. Fax machines took up some of the burden, especially easing administrative tasks. As computer networks expand, electronic mail is beginning to take hold as the principal alternative for non-real-time communication between learners and instructors, and among learners themselves. This is a rapid and inexpensive method of communication, and it is flexible enough to accommodate both individual and group communication. (DeLoughry 1994 - Pushing)

One of the biggest movements currently is the provision and expansion of two-way video communication, whether through satellites or communication networks. Most of these are an expansion from the one-many to include the many-one paradigm. The instructor can see the students, and the students can see and respond to the instructor. This sort of 'full presence' system is becoming the minimum standard required for such distance education programs. (Fugel 1995) The past year has even brought technologies such as auto-tracking cameras, zoom lenses, and other devices which permit the instructor to move around during the class. (Shields 1995 - Distance...nuts&bolts)

As Lorrainne Sherry points out, "without connectivity, distance learning degenerates into the old correspondence course model of independent study. The student becomes autonomous and isolated, procrastinates, and eventually drops out." Still missing from most such systems is the ability to accommodate many-many communication ¯ true videoconferencing technology. This permits interaction not just between the learner and the instructor, but among the learners themselves. The most successful distance education programs incorporate interaction among the students, for it is here that many of the intellectual leaps occur. (Sherry 1994)

Satellites continue to be the favored medium, but as coaxial and fiber-optic cables spread to more locations this is starting to change. Fiber, especially, has the capacity to handle multi-directional full-motion video. (Douglas 1993) A contributing factor recently has been the sharp rise in satellite costs. The problem is here now, but the cable system alternatives have been installed in only limited areas. Institutions are also finding it increasingly difficult to maintain awareness of the changing technological fields, and to make long-term purchasing decisions. (Day 1994)

As an example, many providers have failed to update their satellite technology and find themselves unable to incorporate new advances ¯ from signal compression to analog-to-digital conversion. The need for the latter is increasingly apparent, as new technologies evolving with the computer age permit the encoding and transmission of a variety of data formats through everything from telephone lines to satellite links. (DeLoughry 1995 - Steep)

One probable future direction will be the leasing of cable services from local service suppliers such as telephone or cable television corporations. This will reduce the burden on the institution for making market decisions, and for handling maintenance and upgrades. It will also position them more effectively for the emerging global electronic information environment.


Go Back 3. Changing Needs / Roles of Providers
Go Forward 5. The Internet - Changes in Tools and Toolmaking


last revised 5 March, 1996
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