The current growth of online based education has brought it fully into the mainstream in 2021, with the pandemic speeding up the gradual culture shift towards a more digital world. Ten years ago many of us would have scoffed at the idea of the equivalency between virtual education and traditional institutionalised education but through the slow increase in the quality, variety, and accessibility of them they are solidifying themselves as the future of education.
What is Distance Learning?
‘Distance Learning’ is the general term to cover all forms of learning done outside of localised institutions. This type of learning can also be called “E-learning” or “Digital Learning” and consists these days of usually courses being delivered in a video format, usually accompanied with quizzes or assignments. Some of the larger institutions offer certification for some of their courses and some even offer industry standard certifications such as the ones from Google or Cisco.
Brief History of Distance Learning:
Whilst it can be easy to view this type of distance learning to be quite a modern concept, the first accepted instance of Distance Learning was all the way back in 1728 in Boston, Massachusetts. At this time a man called Caleb Phillips put an advert in the Boston Gazette offering lessons in shorthand to be posted out weekly. However due to the limitations and speed of the post services back then this idea didn’t really take off until much later.
The first formalisation of distance learning was at the University of London in 1858 when Queen Victoria officially chartered the University of London’s External Programme which offered students outside of London access to courses and degrees through the post. The accessibility this provided was praised by many, including Charles Dickens who referred to it as “The People’s University”. As the years went on the University kept modernising how they delivered this distance learning, moving on from books and letters to VHS and DVD’s until finally offering these courses over the internet.
In the US in 1973 the University of Houston made history when it televised college credit courses on the US’s first public TV station called KUHT. This opened the door to the normalisation of more education from within the home, whilst correspondence courses existed for nearly a 100 years previous, the idea of receiving education at this level from the home wasn’t yet a well-known thing.
In 1996 we got to witness the world’s first accredited and fully online university was founded by Glenn R. Jones at Jones International University . Despite the full accreditation coming in 1996, Glenn Jones’ career in the cable TV industry allowed him to launch the cable television network Mind Extension University which allowed 30,000 students to take courses from over 30 universities.
By now the ball has already begun rolling on the growth of distance learning and public knowledge and support of the distance learning option was growing. In 2009, in one of the largest public investments in the area, President Obama pledged $500 Million towards the creation of new online courses and materials.
Current applications of Distance Learning
The present world of distance learning is split into two main sections. The first is formalised education, like the offerings of the Open University or other official university distance offerings. And secondly we have the rise of qualifications from organisations and websites which don’t have the physical institutionalisation. As mentioned earlier, a few years ago public opinion would have scoffed at the idea of distance learning and in-person learning being of equivalent value. Following this pandemic there has been a global shift in the perception of distance working and education and a greater attention has been spent looking into the research and productivity of distance education and learning.
In a 2012 paper titled “Understanding the Implications of Online Learning for Educational Productivity” the researchers take a deep look into the different aspects of education and how different those effects are on students receiving different styles of education. Some of the main points they raise in support for the adoption of a more distance learning approach are the cost benefit, and the effectiveness of the teaching. In this paper the researchers conclude that the adoption and use of distance learning greatly reduces the cost needing to be spent on wages and faculty costs while still delivering a high standard of education.
In formalised education the end result of completing the course via distance learning is the same qualification as if you attended in person, because of this popularity and growth many global universities are also offering distance learning courses to cater to this growing demand. We have also seen many of the larger universities start offering their video lectures online for free to be able to share the standard of education which is offered at the institutions with the main downside being the lack of certification with these.
As we see the growth in more specialised skills being needed for many academic and creative disciplines, the role of certifications has been brought into public discourse. With more and more education being done online, with a lot of it coming from free sources, how do we standardise the education to allow these gained skills to be valuable to an employer.
This is where the second other section of distance learning comes in. Online course providers like Udacity, Udemy or Coursera have seen a huge growth in demand over the past few years , spurred on following the pandemic. As with anything that has a trend of demand following it, as the amount of choice on the variable courses increased. This however has led to a varying degree of quality in these online offerings. Some of these organisations and websites offer certifications through themselves or sometimes partnering with an organisation to offer them. Whilst a lot of these websites charge a price to enrol on the courses, this includes setting and marking of assignments and receiving an official certificate on completion, and many courses will allow you to audit it for free. This will allow you to experience all the educational material the courses offer to improve your own skills on the topic.
Future of E-learning
A report titled “Global Online Education Market – Forecasts From 2020 To 2025” reports that “The global online education market is projected to witness a CAGR of 9.23% during the forecast period to reach a total market size of US$319.167 billion in 2025, increasing from US$187.877 billion in 2019.” With possible forecasted growth like that it’s no surprise how many different distance learning suppliers have arisen.
As we look forward to the future of distance learning there are two main areas we should look for. Firstly we should focus and push for some global standardization of certifications to allow a more global job and skills market as the growth of distance learning goes alongside distance working. This type of growth should be focused on making sure the accessibility and quality of this certification is prioritised and an attempt to move away from geographical and financial barriers to education. This improved standardization would allow for the quick reskill and retraining of students and workers as the type of work we do evolves alongside technology.
Secondly, the other main area the growth of distance learning can usher in is the reduced costs or free education which we have seen grow in number over the past few years. Access to education is one of the greatest struggles we have as a global community at the moment, and by increasing the options and availability of free education, we can hopefully start building a better prepared society.
As we witness the continued growth in the realm of distance learning, the quality and variety offered can only lead to a better educational world for us all. By removing the geographical barrier to education is one of the first steps in making it accessible to all, and with a greater amount of diversity in the types of education offered, the greater diversity of thought we will have.
However, as we have seen with so many trends before it, it’s important to keep vigilant and fight back against the mass production of low quality distance learning and its attempts to flood the market. To keep the benefits of this style of learning going, oversight and the ability to review or curate the content should be at the forefront of consideration.
It’s evident that there is still a lot to learn about distance learning however the ability to offer this as a style of education to students who it works best for can only be a benefit and it will be extremely interesting to see where else this can go.