This chapter provides an overview of the history of the rapidly changing field of distance learning with a focus on trends and lessons for contemporary developments. Beginning with central concepts of distance learning, the chapter traverses the span of developments and technologies on a high level. At a time when it is no longer a matter of whether learners should engage in distance learning, but when, it is vital to address selected issues, controversies, and problems facing the field. The chapter presents topics of solutions, recommendations and future trends, problem based learning, delivery models, and assessment.
While the most compelling reasons people pursue distance learning opportunities may be the convenience and flexibility of the instruction, from an educational perspective there are many other motivations (Allen & Seaman, 2007). Indeed, the multitude of people engaged in informal learning via Internet searches, audio books, podcasts, and television programming highlights the fact that people of all ages seek learning opportunities when they have a critical need to gain knowledge and skills. (Berg, 2005; Christiansen, Johnson, & Horn, 2008; King & Sanquist, 2009; The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2004; Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2008). The dominant formal education efforts and perspectives (schools, colleges, trade schools, corporate training, etc) have mostly overlooked this fact.
Instead, informal distance learning opportunities create learning experiences which are on-demand, highly dynamic, and which turn the tables on traditional formats. Especially since the advent of the VCR, DVR and Internet, formal and informal learners are in control and “time shift” their learning (King & Gura, 2009). The general public now expects to be able to start and stop, choose topics, schedule at will, and pace their learning how they see fit. Control and flexibility have become major characteristics of continous information gathering, learning and entertainment.
In fact, distance learning has a much greater place in formal education than it ever could have without this widespread social adoption of technology use for everyday needs. Fueled by the technological delivery of 24/7 global information, users expect to pursue academic studies with the same tools, convenience, and global reach as their work, entertainment, and social engagement. (Allen & Seamen, 2007; Tapscott, & Williams, 2006).
One of the greatest challenges to this ubiquitious technology experience may be that our educational institutions need to set aside their preconceived notions of student-teacher relationships, program study restrictions, and student responsibility and allow for new models to emerge. When we are able to embrace what technology offers and learners seek, we stand to reach an educational revolution. Moreover, if not, many educational leaders expect that many learners will go outside traditional venues, and schools, colleges and universities will have a difficult economic struggle (Berg, 2002, 2005; Christensen et al., 2008; Simonson et al., 2008).
This chapter’s critical examination of the history and trends of distance learning develops a foundation that considers issues, recommendations and future pathways that may not otherwise be recognized. Studying the historical trail of technology users’ (learners’) adoption, choices, and innovations offers a grounded longitudinal framework. This chapter’s premise is that such a foundation provides fertile soil for growing distance learning developments.
Key Terms in this Chapter
21st Century Literacy Skills: An aggregate of skills commonly focusing on information technology skills, information literacy skills and critical thinking skills (King & Sanquist, 2009). The importance of these skills is demonstrated in the importance for success in daily, academic and workplace success in the 21st century. Individual interpretations of the term also exist which focus on K-12 educational processes rather than skills (The Partnership for 21st Century Learning, 2004); however, in general the primary definition is referred to when the term is used.
Asynchronous / Synchronous Learning: When teachers and students are engaged in learning at the same time- meeting face to face, online or any other way simultaneously, this is termed synchronous learning. Asynchronous learning stands for non-simultaneous learning and affords the convenience of learners and teachers being able to log-in, read material, engage in discussions, post assignments, etc, whenever is convenient for their schedule, commitments and time zones. Technology options can extend the possibilities in many directions for both asynchronous and synchronous learning through for example online discussion boards, chat, video conferencing, podcasting, etc.
Intellectual Property: The intangible property right to protect the intellectual work of the person/s who created it (includes patents, trademarks, designs and copyright). A critical and extensive area of institutional concern in distance learning since 2000 (King, 2008; Morrison, 2006).
Wiki: A universal definition is that a wiki is a webpage that can be easily changed by anyone. A web-based interface that has been developed to most fully encourage and ease collaboration. More than the collaboration of a web-based bulletin board, a wiki allows users to add, delete and edit pages in the environment to name just a few of the fundamental construction functions possible.
Simulations (Technology Assisted): Examination of a problem or through online, computer based, or another technology representation of the experience and process. For example, pig dissection simulation, or financial planning simulation. Virtual simulations closely resemble firsthand experiences through interaction with many human senses.
Web 2.0: Development of the World Wide Web to include more Web-based programs, otherwise known as hosted services, collaborative and easier content creation technologies (King, 2009; Simonson et al., 2008). Examples of Web 2.0 technologies include Google ® applications which are run over the Internet rather than needing to be downloaded; social networking sites, such as Linked-In and MySpace; and content creation technologies such as blogs, wikis and podcasts. Controversy regarding the term exists as the original vision and capabilities of the Web included some of these abilities in fundamental ways although they were not widely adopted at the time.
Podcast: Audio or video files hosted on the web but served up via a special scripting language (XML) which provides automated and usually free subscription to users. Therefore users can elect to “subscribe” to a podcast and every time they open their program to listen to them (e.g., iTunes ®, MusicMatch ®, Windows Media Player ®, etc.) the latest episodes of the podcasts will download for them without any action on their part. Podcasts may be listed to on a computer or transferred to a mobile listening device such as a MP3 player. There are many educational podcasts available (King & Gura, 2009).