Most readers of this blog know that I think the term distance education is terminally flawed, but it continues to be used in the common vernacular so we need to address it. One problem is that many practitioners today think the the terms “distance education” and “online education” are equivalent. We need to address that by examining the history of “distance education” and see where “online education” falls on that timeline.
In the beginning there was the word. In my perspective – one that’s not generally shared in the field, I should point out – distance education began with the first technology that allowed the relatively accurate transmission of instructional messages from the teacher to the student. In this case I’m referring to physical distance but synchronous mode, that is both people are able to exchange communications in real time. It’s the “I-talk-you-talk” model we’re most familiar with. That first technology is spoken language. The codified collection of symbolic utterances which follow rules of pronunciation, grammar, and syntax represents a technology that is used to bridge the physical distance between teacher and learning. This is thought to have occurred sometime before 30,000 years ago. Whether it occurred simultaneously with the evolution of Genus Homo or shortly thereafter, is open to speculation.
The next milestone in the development of “distance education” occurred with the development of a tool that allowed the communications channel to become asynchronous – that is, separating the teacher and learner in time. The teacher speaks. Sometime later, the learner hears. The learner speaks. Sometime later, the teacher hears. They don’t need to be together in time for communications to occur. That milestone is “written language” and the earliest known use of written language is about 5,000 years ago.
It’s significant to note that without the precursor technology, spoken language, writing technology would have had no basis upon which to be developed. The encoding of the spoken word sounds and the grammatical ordering of those encoded sounds into words, sentences, and paragraphs depended on having the system of sounds to encode.
After these two technologies, all other contributions to “distance education” are largely just new ways of transmitting either spoken or written words. The invention of print – and eventually moveable type – was just the next step in the mass production of the written word. Mail, telegraph and teletype are ways to move those words across large distances. Telephone and radio move spoken language quickly and expand the range of a speaker’s voice from in-the-room to around-the-world.
In our timeline of “distance education” the generally accepted beginning of the use of these media for instruction in a mode which has become known as “distance education” occurs with the advent of the “correspondence course” in the early 1700s when a Boston teacher is reputed to have offered the first class using the mail service to send and receive lessons. This laid the groundwork for the modern model of so-called “distance education” and represents, in my opinion, one of the first instances of an educational use of language to corrupt meaning by assigning a general term – “distance education” – to a specific application of technology – “correspondence course.” We’ll see this again.
An anomaly on this time line is the use of graphical materials. Earliest man used drawings and graphically symbolic representations of the world to record and explain what he saw around him. From the three dimensional renderings of Stonehenge or the Anastasi arrows to the cave paintings in Europe, this graphical representation of the world has been around for a long, long time. The use of diagrams and images is probably most famously documented in Da Vinci’s notebooks where he drew meticulously accurate renderings of this ideas. The key element of the diagrams – at least in terms of an educational use – is the text and explanation that went with them. While it’s true that an image carries meaning unto itself, from an educational standpoint, one really needs to make that meaning as unambiguous as possible in order to be sure that the messages that are being exchanged are the messages that are intended. This application of graphical recording was expanded to photography – a process of mechanically reproducing an image from the world and rendering that image more or less permanently onto a page – in the early 1800s.
Media convergence began almost as soon as there were media that could converge. Earliest printing sometimes included drawings and sketches. In the 1800s we began to see the convergence of synchronous media with the advent of movies. Movies permitted the encoding of moving graphical images and written language. This is a significant development in that it led to the rise of “talkies” that merged spoken language with moving graphical images, permitting a more natural appearing rendering of the world that could be manipulated for the purpose of instruction. The primary purpose of film for this discussion is the invention of the documentary. Short films of a documentary nature were produced in the late 1800s, but Nanook of the North (1922) is considered to be the first example of the modern documentary.
Television permitted the synchronous distribution of pictures and sound in a broadcast mode — that is, you needed to be watching when the message was sent in order to be able to receive it. That quickly changed with the invention of video tape. Video tape permitted the sender to record his message and store it for later transmission. That same technology was eventually available to the receiver which permitted a true asynchronous application of broadcast media. This medium had the draw back of being one-way. They could send but in order to respond, you needed a separate channel — usually mail or telephone — to send your messages back.
In later half of the 20th century that all changed with the advent of teleconference and the ability to have two way, live, communications between two locations. This gave rise to a huge program of linking in “remote campuses” across the US. These networks are still in use today.
Eventually, near the end of the 20th century, the invention of the personal computer, the evolution of computer networks, and the convergence of telephone and computer technology has given rise to one of the single most powerful forces for social change since the advent of the automobile — the internet. By using digital modes of encoding and transmission, almost any form of media can be sent and received across a global network. The communications options include both synchronous and asynchronous modes, the use of video conference, text, audio, and even real time handwriting and drawing.
This evolution of correspondence course to online delivery has led to the next conflation of general term “distance education” to the specific application of technology — “online course.” These are not simple splitting of semantic hairs. As I have made clear here and in other postings, I believe the term “distance education” is redundant. All education is, by definition, at a distance. The term “distance education” in the modern vernacular has been applied to the system of teleconference and other remote delivery modes as an omnibus term intended to relegate all such modes of mechanical transmission of instruction as somehow different — a semantic segregation of “distance education” from “real education.” This is, I believe, a deliberate attempt to maintain the educational status quo without consideration of what that segregation means to the field.
By making “distance education” something other than “education,” it robs practitioners of the opportunity to use established educational research as a foundation. “Well, that was classroom based instruction and that tool hasn’t been validated for use at a distance.” As long as “distance education” is different, that becomes a valid obstacle. In return, by failing to recognize the continuum of technology used in the classroom setting, educators forego the opportunity to fully realize the potentials by not being able to see how those technologies might be manipulated and leveraged to take advantage of the opportunities.