Before we look at what is distance education, let's examine it's history. Distance education is not a new phenomenon as it has been practiced since the turn of the century.
The term "distance education" is used interchangeably with "distance learning". The earliest efforts at distance education involved correspondence study and really did not use any form of telecommunication. Instead, these early efforts relied on the postal service for the delivery of content and assignments.
Next came audio-based distance education which incorporated radio and audio teleconferencing. During the 1940's, video-based distance education consisted of one-way video and audio, one-way video and two-way audio or two-way video-audio. Video-based distance education is still one of the major sources of training delivered from a distance. The late 1960's and early 1970's introduced computer-based distance education, using technologies such as network-based computer conferencing and tapes.
Today we're looking at web-based instruction using telecommunication and Internet technologies. Learning can be facilitated via learning management systems or learners can simply download various plugins to participate in online activities and communicate with their classmates and instructors.
Distance education is defined by Moore and Kearsley(1996) as "the planned learning that normally occurs in a different place from teaching and as a result requires special techniques of course design, special instructional techniques, special methods of communication by electronic and other technology, as well as special organization and administrative agreements".
Research results and studies show that with good instructional design, distance education is as effective as other forms of teaching and learning generally characterized as face-to-face education or conventional education. It may not override conventional learning but distance learning serves the same purpose and allows for more people to be reached, conveniently.
If anything, distance learning colleges are more appropriate for some students as these schools often have a better understanding of what it takes to continue your studies while working full time. Therefore, online colleges strive to create courses that are as flexible as your schedule requires.
Given the rate of current technological advancements, no one can truly and accurately predict the future of distance education. However, we can recognize the advancements that have already arrived, such as:
Desktop Video conferencing - using Microsoft's NetMeeting or Webex is an example of video conferencing. Desktop videoconferencing allows you to both hear and see the other party. You can share live, motion video images and exchange images of objects and documents. File sharing and application sharing is also possible. This allows for both individuals to look at one file or application at the same time from two separate locations. Applications for desktop videoconferencing cover all areas of business, education, and the military. Its popularity has increased as a result of advances in video data compression technology.
Web-based Instruction - Most online learning offered by the some of the top accredited colleges and universities constitutes web-based instruction. It's convenient for the student because it allows him or her to access the instruction (learning materials) anytime, from any location with an Internet connection. Web-based instruction also facilitates mentoring through teacher and student interaction and promotes active learning. Web-based instruction is also becoming one of the fastest means of education geared toward the life-long learner.
We are still in the early stages of web-based instructional learning. To a large degree, it will be up to technology and educators to define and shape its future.
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