Understanding the history of distance education is valuable in that it shows there was more than one historical path to distance education and that the evolution of distance education has not been easy. Many of the same problems facing implementation and acceptance of educational innovations today have been faced by distance education throughout its history.
The history of distance education could be tracked back to the early 1700s in the form of correspondence education, but technology-based distance education might be best linked to the introduction of audiovisual devices into the schools in the early 1900s.
The first catalog of instruction films appeared in 1910 (Reiser, 1987) and in 1913, Thomas Edison proclaimed that, due to the invention of film, "Our school system will be completely changed in the next ten years" (Saettler, 1968, p. 68).
This dramatic change didn't occur, but instructional media were introduced into many extension programs by 1920 in the form of slides and motion pictures just as they were in the classroom.
In tracing the history of distance education, the introduction of television as an instructional medium appears as an important entry point for theorists and practitioners outside of the correspondence education tradition, and marks parallel paths for correspondence study and instructional media.
Although instructional radio failed in the 1930s, instructional television was viewed with new hope. In 1932, seven years before television was introduced at the New York World's Fair, the State University of Iowa began experimenting with transmitting instructional courses.
World War II slowed the introduction of television, but military training efforts had demonstrated the potential for using audio-visual media in teaching (Wright, 1991).
The apparent success of audio-visual generated a renewed interest in using it in the schools and in the decade following the war there were intensive research programs (Reiser, 1987). Most of these studies were directed at understanding and generating theory on how instructional media affected classroom learning.
The 1940s saw great interest in television by educators but little action (Adams, 1958), and by 1948 only five U.S. educational institutions were involved in television with Iowa State being the first on the air.
Early studies by educators tended to show that student achievement from classroom television was as successful as from traditional face-to-face instruction. A study by Parsons (1957) showed only borderline differences in achievement, and Lapore and Wilson (1958) offered research showing that learning by television compared favorably with conventional instruction.
By the late 1950s, 17 programs used television in their instructional materials. The use of educational television tended to grow slowly but by 1961, 53 stations were affiliated with the National Educational Television Network (NET) with the primary goal of sharing films and coordinating scheduling (Hull, 1962).
Although instructional television would never realize what many thought was its potential, it was having limited success and had, unlike instructional radio, established a foothold in the minds of educators.
In 1956 the Correspondence Study Division of the NUEA conducted a study of the use of television to support correspondence instruction (Wright, 1991). The survey report recommended research to measure the effectiveness of television as an educational tool and, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, Gayle Childs studied television instruction in combination with correspondence study.
In one of the earliest education vs. media studies, Childs concluded that television is not an instructional method, but an instrument for transmitting instruction. He also found no appreciable difference in the achievement level of students taught in regular classrooms by means of television or by a combination of correspondence study and television (Almeda, 1988).
In the early 1960s, the innovative Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction (MPATI) launched its "flying classroom" from an airfield near Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana to broadcast instructional programs to school systems and the general public in Indiana and five surrounding states (Smith, 1961).
At its peak, MPATI would transmit educational television programs to nearly 2,000 public schools and universities reaching almost 400,000 students in 6500 classrooms in Indiana and five surrounding states (Gordon, 1965).
This experiment in learning was the culmination of an educational vision for some educators and the result of a $7 million grant from the Ford Foundation (Carnegie Commission, 1979), a small part of the $170 million spent by the foundation.
Although the airborne teaching experiment came down in 1968, the MPATI project succeeded in several ways, including stimulating enough interest in educational television (ETV) in its region that new ETV stations were started. Many schools began using their own closed circuit television (CCTV) systems, and others began experimenting with Instructional Fixed Television Service (ITFS) microwave systems.
An even greater accomplishment (Wood and Wylie, 1977, p. 209) was that the MPATI project got educators from the six-state region to work together to select curriculum and to design and produce "the best example of an agreed-upon body of inter-institutional curriculum materials." And finally, it succeed in organizing hundreds of autonomous school districts to work together for a common educational goal.
The number of educational television stations grew more rapidly in the 1960s and, by 1972, 233 educational stations existed (Carnegie Commission, 1979). Ohio University, University of Texas and the University of Maryland were among the earliest universities to create networks to reach for both on-campus and off-campus student populations (Brientenfield, 1968), and many universities were considering how to bring distance learning to select student populations.
By the mid 1960s, much of the interest in funding instructional television had abated, and the Ford Foundation shifted its support to public television. Much of the blame was placed on the mediocre quality of the instructional programming which was often little more than a teacher delivering a lecture (Reiser, 1987).
The 1967 Carnegie Commission on Higher Education concluded that "the role played in formal education by instructional television has been on the whole a small one... With minor exceptions, the total disappearance of instructional television would leave the educational system fundamentally unchanged" (pp. 80-81). Reasons given for instructional television not being adopted included teacher resistance to television in the classroom, the expense of the television systems, and the inability of television alone to meet the various conditions for student learning (Reiser, 1987).
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, microwave technology developed, costs went down, and universities began to set up microwave networks to take advantage of the Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS) authorized by the Federal Communications Commission. The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education predicted that, by the year 2000, more than 80 percent of off-campus and 10 to 20 percent of on-campus instruction would take place through telecommunications (Carnegie Commission, 1972).
Systems utilizing ITFS technology were able to reach regional campuses and other universities, but it remained a closed circuit concept (Wood and Wylie, 1977) reaching only the sites linked to the system and not the general public. It did appear that, for the first time, distant students were considered part of the extended classroom, and television existed to access those not able to come to campus (Dean, 1982).
Educational Experiments and Change
Alternatives to traditional higher education emerged in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. Trends such as escalating college costs, a renewed interest in nontraditional education by a more mobile population, and success of Britain's Open University paved the way for numerous experiments in higher education (Gerrity, 1976).
Programs such as the University Without Walls, external degree programs, and imitations of the British Open University were encouraged by large grants from the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education.
The instructional technology movement was defining its purpose during the late 1960s and moving further away from equating instructional technology with audio-visual devices (Reiser, 1987). In 1970, the Department of Audiovisual Instructional changed its name to the Association for Educational Communication and Technology, and defined educational technology as "a field involved in the facilitation of human learning through the systematic identification, development, organization, and utilization of a full range of learning resources ....(AECT, 1972, pp. 36-37). The same period saw an increased attention to instructional technology and "systems" approaches to the design of instruction based on theories of cognitive psychology and individualized instruction (Reiser, 1987).
Distance education programs which exist today have a wide range of approaches. The CALS program offers independent study courses through computer networking and relies heavily on computer-based student contact and feedback. Nova University offers computer-delivered instruction; and the students communicate with instructors through electronic mail, attend some concentrated centralized class sessions, and meet in weekend cluster groups. The Mind Extension University offers undergraduate and graduate degrees through cable networks, and it supplements video courses with texts and other collateral materials.
In summary, the history of distance education shows a field that appears to be in a constant state of evolution, that is supported by theory, but in need of research which can fill many unanswered questions. The historical view of distance education shows a stream of new ideas and technologies balanced against a steady resistance to change, and it often places technology in the light of promising more than it has delivered. History shows nontraditional education trying to blend with traditional education while striving to meet the challenge of constantly changing learning theories and evolving technologies.