3. Comparing Modes of Delivery
3.1. The Influence of Distance Education on Online Learning
We can learn a great deal from earlier developments in distance education. Although the technology is different, fully online learning is, after all, just another version of distance education.
Much has been written about distance education (see, for instance, Wedemeyer, 1981; Peters, 1983; Holmberg, 1989; Keegan, 1990; Moore and Kearsley, 1996; Peters, 2002; Bates, 2005; Evans et al., 2008) but in concept, the idea is quite simple: students study in their own time, at the place of their choice (home, work or learning centre), and without face-to-face contact with a teacher. However, students are ‘connected’, today usually through the Internet, with an instructor, adjunct faculty or tutor who provides learner support and student assessment.
Distance education has been around a very long time. It could be argued that in the Christian religion, St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians was an early form of distance education (53-57 AD). The first distance education degree was offered by correspondence by the University of London (UK) in 1858. Students were mailed a list of readings and took the same examination as the regular on-campus students. If students could afford it, they hired a private tutor, but the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens called it the People’s University, because it provided access to higher education to students from less affluent backgrounds. The program still continues to this day, but is now called the University of London (Worldwide), with more than 50,000 students in 180 countries.
In North America, historically many of the initial land-grant universities, such as Penn State University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of New Mexico in the USA, and Memorial University, University of Saskatchewan and the University of British Columbia in Canada, had state- or province-wide responsibilities. As a result, these institutions have a long history of offering distance education programs, mainly as continuing education for farmers, teachers, and health professionals scattered across the whole state or province. These programs have now been expanded to cover undergraduate and professional master’s students. Australia is another country with an extensive history of both k-12 and post-secondary distance education.
Qualifications received from most of these universities carry the same recognition as degrees taken on campus. For instance, the University of British Columbia, which has been offering distance education programs since 1936, makes no distinction on student transcripts between courses taken at a distance and those taken on campus, as both kinds of students take the same examinations.
Another feature of distance education, pioneered by the British Open University in the 1970s, but later adopted and adapted by North American universities that offered distance programs, is a course design process, based on the ADDIE model, but specially adapted to serve students learning at a distance. This places a heavy emphasis on defined learning outcomes, production of high-quality multimedia learning materials, planned student activities and engagement, and strong learner support, even at a distance. As a result, campus-based universities that offered distance education programs were well placed for the move into online learning in the 1990s. These universities have found that in general, students taking the online programs do almost as well as the on-campus students (course completion rates are usually within 5-10 per cent of the on-campus students – see Ontario, 2011), which is somewhat surprising as the distance students often have full-time jobs and families.
It is important to acknowledge the long and distinguished pedigree of distance education from internationally recognised, high quality institutions, because commercial diploma mills, especially in the USA, have given distance education an unjustified reputation of being of lower quality. As with all teaching, distance education can be done well or badly. However, where distance education has been professionally designed and delivered by high quality public institutions, it has proved to be very successful, meeting the needs of many working adults, students in remote areas who would otherwise be unable to access education on a full-time basis, or on-campus students wanting to fit in an extra course or with part-time jobs whose schedule clashes with their lecture schedule. However, universities, colleges and even schools have been able to do this only by meeting high quality design standards.
At the same time, there has also been a small but very influential number of campus-based teachers and instructors who quite independently of distance education have been developing best practices in online or computer-supported learning. These include Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff (1978) who were experimenting with online or blended learning as early as the late 1970s at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Linda Harasim (2017) at Simon Fraser University, who all focused particularly on online collaborative learning and knowledge construction within a campus or school environment.
There is also plenty of evidence that teachers and instructors in many schools, colleges and universities new to online learning have not adopted these best practices, instead merely transferring lecture-based classroom practice to blended and online learning, often with poor or even disastrous results.