Distance education has been in existence for centuries, believe it or not, since the mid 1800s. Earlier distance learning programs were typically in the form of correspondence, requiring learners to read study materials, complete assignments and tests, submit assignments and tests via postal mail, and await results. Today's distance learning options are more often available via the Internet, making them much more flexible, convenient, and timely options for learners worldwide, wherever Internet access is available.


What IS Distance Learning?

As its name suggests, distance learning is an activity that takes place outside of the traditional classroom. In an informal setting, typically in the learner's own home, and in a less structured format, distance learners do all their reading, studying, completing assignments, taking tests, and submitting work at a distance from the related school.

Some "firsts" in distance education include the following:

  • First correspondence course on record was Sir Isaac Pitman's shorthand course in the 1840s.
  • First university to offer distance learning degrees was the University of London in 1858.
  • First use of the term distance education was in a pamphlet from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the USA.
  • First university to offer ONLY distance learning was Harold Wilson's Labour Government's Open University in 1969.
  • World Wide Web was birthed in 1989 as a "web of notes with links"--brainchild of Tim Berners-Lee.
  • First distance education course delivered by Internet derived from Penn State University in the USA in 1995.
  • First use of the term elearning occurred in 1999.

Now, in the 21st century, millions of students worldwide study via some form of distance education.


General Global Trends in Distance Learning

A 2011 Hanover Research report compiled a 30-page report detailing the general trends and potential for distance elearning worldwide. The report highlighted and profiled "seven key players in the global higher education distance learning market":

  • Open University
  • University Of Derby
  • University Of Maryland – University College
  • Drexel University Online
  • Universitas Terbuka (Indonesia Open University)
  • Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU)
  • University of South Africa (UNISA)

According to the report, each of these distance learning schools is considered a "mega university" with enrollments varying from about 100,000 to more than 500,000 students worldwide. While specific degree offerings varied widely, depending on the school and its resident country, the report found that business and technology, along with other professional disciplines, were the most common program areas offered at all seven universities.

Other key findings of the report included the following:

  • Africa and India appeared to be among the fastest growing markets for distance education across the globe, due to their respective nations placing a high demand for higher education, yet possessed insufficient existing infrastructure to expand as much as they need to meet the demand.
  • US-based distance education institutions primarily focus on active military personnel and working professionals for their distance learning options.
  • The UK focuses more heavily on graduate level distance education programs, while the US more frequently offers undergraduate level programs in distance learning format.

Regarding specific findings for country trends in distance learning, the Hanover Report cited the following:

  • Africa trends: Highest demand for expansion of global distance learning with just under 45 percent of students enrolled in higher education, but only two instututions offering distance education.
  • India trends: One of the fastest growing demands for more distance learning options, with over 25 percent of its students enrolled in distance education among its national, state, and open universities.
  • UK trends: Distance learning universities primarily offer postgraduate courses and degrees; commercial organizations partner with programs; the majority of programs come under the category of continuing professional development; and the overall distance learning market concentrates around business, education, law, medicine, and science.
  • US trends: Distance learning universities primarily offer undergraduate courses and degrees, followed by graduate or first-professional degrees; larger public universities are more likely than smaller private universities to offer distance education; and the distance learning market offers a wide range of professional areas, including business, computer, education, engineering, and information sciences.


High Quality of Global Distance Learning Programs

Students interested in pursuing options among global distance learning programs should start by doing some research into the credibility of programs. Each country has its own standards and criteria for distance education programs to meet, and the World Council for Distance Learning Schools (WCDLS) provides further accountability. As long as the school and its program fulfill those requirements, they receive the credentials necessary to indicate they meet high quality standards and students will benefit from investing their money, time, and effort there while earning degrees that are equivalent to those earned in traditional schools.

Consider some of these examples of high quality distance learning programs around the globe, who offer a variety of undergraduate and gradudate degrees:

  • Great Britain/UK: Oxford University, University of London, University of Cambridge, and other "high-visibility universities" offer over 2,600 online and distance education courses and programs.
  • India: The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) had about 335,000 students enrolled in 2004; they offer degrees in agriculture; education; law; tourism and hotel management; computer and information sciences; journalism and new media studies; engineering and technology; humanities; sciences; health sciences; and performing and visual arts.
  • South Africa: The University of South Africa had about 265,000 students enrolled in 2008; they offer degrees in agriculture; environmental sciences; human sciences; law; science, engineering, and technology; business; renaissance studies; and science and technology education.
  • USA: Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Cornell offer distance education programs, along with what U.S. News & World Report identified as the top 10 largest online schools based in the US (but open to international students meeting specified criteria): University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, Strayer University, Ashford University, Liberty University, Walden University, University of Maryland-University College, Grand Canyon University, Capella University, and American Public University System. These schools cover the gamut in program offerings, from arts and humanities, business and management, and computer and information technology, to health, law, and science.

Source: Anglia Ruskin University
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