Summary of “Distance Learning, Past, Present, and Future” by Brown and Lease (2009)

Key Concepts:

  • Distance education began in the nineteenth century with correspondence courses.
  • Educations delivery methods adopted new communication methods as became available and were cost-effective.
  • Distance education expanded greatly with the availability of the Internet for exchanging course content and student work.
  • Opportunities for distance education attracted non-traditional, older, and students with full-time employment or transportation limitations.
  • Institutions recognize that distance learning provides opportunities to attract more students and has increased competition among institutions to enroll these students.

This article surveyed past publications on distance learning to provide a context for understanding the roots of distance education technology, the types of distance education technologies used today, and the implications of distance learning for education institutions in the future.

Distance learning is not new. Rather it began with correspondence courses offered in the nineteenth century and since that time has incorporated technological delivery systems as they became available. The earliest correspondence course was Isaac Pitman’s shorthand system and utilized the postal system for delivery. Lessons were provided and assignments returned in the mail. This method was used extensively into the twenty-first century. (I took a printed paper distance learning biology class from the University of Minnesota in 2003.) Early higher education offerings began with degree offerings from Illinois Wesleyan University beginning in 1873.Other institutions and commercial education companies adopted printed correspondence courses. In the first half of the twentieth century, the poor quality of some courses led to the establishment of the Distance Education and Training Council in 1926.

Radio delivery of courses was little used until after World War II and the development of magnetic tape recording. Telephony was also ineffective until the advent of teleconferencing in the 1950’s.

Television began broadcasting courses in the 1950’s from Iowa State University. The Ford Foundation provided funding for educational television leading to the creation of Chicago TV College and the offering of an accredited two-year degree program. Television offerings grew in the 1960’s after Educational Broadcasting Facilities Act provided funding for educational television.

Video conferencing technology brought effective interactive education to distance learning. Video conferencing was used by many educational institutions but was expensive to operate.

Computers and other personal computing devices coupled with the growth of the Internet has led to a consolidation of delivery methods. By the early 2000’s, the Internet became the preferred method of course delivery.

Distance education enabled more people access to education especially working adults needing to balance school, work, and families. Older adults and adults with transportation constraints also participate in distance education. These adults may also use distance education for professional development. Many companies partner with academic institutions to provide specific courses for their employees.

A study of 103 public education institutions in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee found that 67 institutions offered distance education including diploma or certificate programs. At the time of this study in about 2006, the offerings used a variety of methods but the trend was increased used of the Internet. This shift is due to the cost effectiveness and flexibility of Internet websites when compared with manufactured paper, audio, or video media.

Institution competition for students is also driving the trend toward distance education. Institutions are no longer tied to a specific location so administrators are concerned about maintaining enrollment in an environment where all institutions are equally accessible to students. This leads to the development of very specific programs that meet specific educational needs enabling institutions to offer courses optimized for specific student populations.

Distance education continues to grow with the availability of delivery technology. Most institutions currently offer distance learning courses and plan to offer more. Other institutions without distance learning courses plan to implement them very soon.

Brown, T. A., & Lease, A. J. (2009). Distance learning past, present and future. International Journal of Instructional Media, 36(4), 415+. Retrieved from


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