Distance education is an increasingly common educational alternative, as well as a key contributor to the newly competitive landscape in higher education. Once regarded as an experimental alternative outside mainstream university education, distance education has attained new levels of legitimacy and expansion and has grown into a higher education industry of its own. This article discusses the history and transformation of distance education to create a framework for the sequence of events that have contributed to the distance education movements and shaped modern post-secondary distance education programs. The article outlines the evolution of post-secondary distance education from its inception to the present: its progression from informal programs offered by individual providers to a well-organised formal educational alternative; its purpose and characteristics; its expansion and internationalisation; and the various forces that have shaped its growth. While noting that technology has its limitations—it can facilitate teaching but not replace it—the article highlights the crucial role that advancements in technology have played in propelling the evolution of distance education, and points to the role of technology in blurring the conceptual divide between distance and traditional education.
Although there is no universal consensus on the origin of distance education, most researchers trace its roots to the emergence of correspondence education in the mid-nineteenth century in Europe (Great Britain, France, Germany) and the United States (Matthews, 1999; Peek, 2000; Ponzurick, France, & Logar, 2000). It was the English educator Sir Isaac Pitman who foresaw a need to deliver instruction to a student population that was limitless in comparison to the traditional classroom, and reach out to students in various locations (Matthews, 1999).
In the early years, distance education was dominated by individual entrepreneurs who worked alone; later, organised formal education institutions emerged, such as Sir Isaac Pitman Correspondence Colleges in Britain, and a school in Berlin to teach language by correspondence (Holmberg, 1995; Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2000). At the same time, universities in Great Britain, such as Oxford and Cambridge, began to develop extension services. This university extension movement included not only traveling lectures, but also a system of correspondence education (Holmberg, 1995). In the United States, the earliest instance of distance education dates back to 1728 when an advertisement in a Boston newspaper offered weekly shorthand lessons by mail (Gilbert, 2001).
While initially, distance learning was envisioned as:
a way to serve students who lacked access to a complete education, whether due to insufficient resources, geographic isolation, or physical disabilities, it evolved to become a viable way to supplement programs and support innovation, rather than being merely a better-than-nothing alternative to doing without. (Weinstein, 1997, p. 24)
While some scholars identify Pitman as the initiator of correspondence education, other researchers recognise American educator William Rainey Harper as the pioneer of modern post-secondary correspondence teaching (Mood, 1995). Harper helped organise the Chautauqua College of Liberal Arts (New York), the first institution to receive, in 1883, official recognition of correspondence education; from 1883 to 1891, the college was authorised to grant academic degrees to students who successfully completed work through correspondence education and summer workshops.