A Study on Distance Learning Thoughout History


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Throughout history, since the early days, there was a continuous emphasis on education. Parents were trying to send their kids to what we perceive as schools, to learn the basic principles of reading and writing.

Education was also highly valued by the ancient great civilizations. According to Lazaradis (2010), practices of education were performed in ancient Egypt. Education in ancient Egypt was much more focused on professions teaching and training. Education was also restricted to the children of the upper class while the middle and lower class children were allowed to learn to become craftsman.

Education throughout history:

Through time, we can also how the standards of education had changed, along with the advancement in technology, especially in the last century. For example, in the last years in the Arab world, an educated person was believed to be the person who was able to read and write. Such a rank was highly valued through the society. As time passed by, in order to get the same respect, a person would be expected to finish his elementary schooling. After a period of time, people were expected to finish their high school in order to be considered as educated. Nowadays, it is for granted by the society that a person can't stop his educational career until he gets at least a bachelor.

Moreover, throughout history, technological advancement had played a great role in the advancement of education. Students now became more open to resources via the internet. It is now possible for students to stay up to date with the instructor in terms of proposed assignments or quiz grading. An instructor now can simply upload the material he is going to teach electronically into the internet and allow students to access the material. To make long story short, a chalk and a board is now replaced with a computer and a projector. The latest improvement is that, the ability to go to the university while you are still at home. The last sentence is going to be explained in details in the coming sections.

Introduction to Distance Education:

According to Rice (2009), distance education is defined as:

"Any form of education or training courses delivered to remote (off campus) location(s) via audio, video (live or prerecorded), or computer technologies, including both synchronous and asynchronous instruction"

Distance Education simply means that a student and a teacher are parted by distance. It also sometimes refer to being parted by also time. Since the student and the teacher are not there in the same time, communication technologies are the channel by which information is being exchanged between both parties. Therefore, there is the need to design a graphical interface that will help to ease the interaction between both parties. Some educational institutions even go further and allow the interaction between students.

According to Moore & Kearsley (1996), a distance learning system consists of many parts. The most essential part is called the distance learning unit. This unit consists of the hardware and the software that is used to store the materials and data needed to keep the system running. Most classes are given by the instructors through video-conferencing. This allows the ability for the students to attend the lectures online, taking in consideration that the installation of the hardware needed by the students is very simple and easy since it only requires a webcam, a microphone, and an internet connection (which is a common thing to find in most households these days).

Some educational institutions also prepare video recordings by instructors to help the students to have access to whenever they need to. Moreover, a computer network will be needed for the student to get access to all the folders that contain all of these materials and to make sure that no one other than the students has access to them.

Distance Education though history:

According to Reiboldt (2001), distance education started in the 1950s along with the introduction of correspondence schools. Before the widespread of the internet, distance education was carried out using the simple communication instruments of mail. With time, distance education progressed to radio, video conferencing, and Internet.

According to Hellman (2003), the first virtual university opened in Britain in 1969. With regard to the instruments used, he states:

"Carefully constructed texts and audio and video cassettes were supplemented by conventional broadcast radio and television, and a tutor who could be reached by telephone" (Hellman, 2003:15).

According to Guri-Rosenblit (2005), in the US, only 7.6% of the students take distance teaching courses to aid them in their studies. On the other hand, only 2.2% complete the whole degree using distance education.

Two of the biggest virtual universities until 2003, were the University of Phoenix and the University of Athabasca enrolling 174,000 and 77,000 students respectively. These two universities are not only the biggest virtual universities, but also the first two virtual universities to exist in both USA and Canada (Kim & Shih, 2003). The University of Phoenix is also considered the largest with 134 branches. In 1999, it only opened in 13 US states along with Puerto Rico with 56,000 nonresidential students. In the United Kingdom, the biggest virtual university is believed to be The Open University of the United Kingdom with 160,000 registered students from 90 countries in the world (DiPiro, 1999)

Advantages of Distance Education:

One of the most important reasons that urge students to engage in distance education is the possibility of not being physically in the same place in order to complete the studies. This is becoming very handy for the people who would like to complete their higher education study but have difficulty to. This will allow housewives, military personnel, handicapped people and many other people, to complete their studies from home without the need to travel or to physically exist in the university. This will also relieve the students from the pressure of managing work and school in the same time, especially for post graduate students who have some other affairs to manage.

Distance education are considered to be cheaper for students since it relieve them from the burden of traveling to distant locations and pay for tuition, rent, and other expenses a normal student studying abroad will pay.

Moreover, in all of the universities, enrollment to classes is limited due to the accommodating capacity of the classes. In other words, distance education will help accommodating more students since the class's enrollment capacity is not determined by physical space of a class, allowing the number of students to be enrolled per class to increase.

In addition to that, teachers won't need to be restricts to class timings. This will allow the instructors to have a more flexible and customizable schedule since they don't need to be there to give the lecture. They don't even need to be around the same geographical area to give classes. This will eliminate the phenomena of canceled and make up exams. In other words, an instructor can go to a conference in another city without having forced to cancel the class.

One more advantage is that students will be able to go back to the materials they have whenever they need to which is not possible in conventional learning. This will get them the ability to review a class or to revise a certain concept by simple viewing the lecture again since the lectures are prerecorded and uploaded for students' access.

Distance education also helps the students to develop a more responsible character since the student will go by himself to watch lectures, read electronic material, and send requests to explain a certain aspect to the instructor. This will help the students to become more responsible since there will be no pressure and supervision by an instructor to attend a lecture.

Reiboldt (2001) argue that distance education helps to increase the quality of an instructor feedback to a student doubt. He argues that in a conventional education institution, when a student asks a question, the teacher will be struck at the moment to produce an answer, which might not be clear the student doubts. While in a distance education system, when an instructor receives an email from a student with a question about a certain aspect, the instructor will be able to take his time in writing a response with explanations and provide a quality response to the student.

For students to engage in a distance education system, the technological requirements are very simple and cheap. All that a student need is a computer with internet connection, a webcam to interact with a teacher in a video conference, and a microphone. These items are very easy to find, and very cheap to buy and don't put an extra substantial costs on the students.

Disadvantages of Distance Education

Many people argue that a virtual university will never be able to replace the traditional university. They state that the traditional university is very important for students and cannot be replaced. They state that the school/university life experience cannot be compensated for any other choice. They also state that students in a conventional educational institution are more exposed to multi-cultural differences which yield in more life experience that a distance education student won't able to posses (Reiboldt, 2001).

Distance education institutions are argued to lack the face-to-face interaction between the students and the instructors. Many people argue that this interaction is very essential in the process of information delivery from the instructor to the student. They argue that even though a student can repeat lectures whenever he wants, but that doesn't replace the face-to-face interaction between the instructor and the students.

Distance education is subject to many concerns about the reliability of the institution in case of a system failure. In case of such a situation, all of the school/university will be paralyzed along with the students. The real problem is what if such a failure happened during exams.

Distance education doesn't provide the same social and life experience that a conventional education institution provides. Students will feel isolated and will not experience the chance to make new friends, expand their knowledge by getting introduced to different people and different culture.

Although the distance education seems like a very bright and revolutionary idea, it still has some limitations to where it can reach. Distance education is not feasible for studies that require practices and some practical learning skills and require some laboratory work. Distance education only provides theoretical experience. For example, distance education is not feasible for students studying medicine.

Distance education requires large investment in technological capital in order to produce a reliable and efficient system. It also requires technical training to the instructors to be able to deal with technical aspects and to be able to use the system without problems. It also require the instructors to devote more time for recording material, uploading, and stay up to date with the students to reply their concerns.

Many people also argue that since there is a huge gap in the interaction between the students and the teachers, the instructors won't be able to get a vague idea about the capabilities of his students. This will make it very hard to decide what level of exams to be given to the students. It will also make it very hard if a student submits an assignment for the instructor to see if the assignment submitted was above his level or not (Garrison, 2000).

Since distance education heavily relies on the internet, it is very difficult to introduce distance education in countries with poor electronic and technological infrastructure. The problem is that not all the people have internet connection. According to Hellman (2003), 700 million people were projected to the internet out of six billion living on earth. Although this is considered to be a high number, but still a lot of people are not connected to the internet, restricting the access of many people to distance education (mainly the people living in the poor countries who don't have internet access, are the people who don't have proper education systems and are deprived from having access to the distance education institutions).


There is no doubt that education had become a very essential part in today's society. The level of education a person has corresponds a lot to the standard of living he lives in. As time progressed, the advancement in information technology had played a great role in the existence of the revolutionary idea of distance education. Although the idea had been subject to many criticisms, it is of no doubt that the advantages and the benefits that distance education brings is very huge to neglect.

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