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What is Distance Higher Education?

Distance higher education is any learning that takes place with the instructor and student being geographically remote from each other. Distance education may occur by surface mail, videotape, interactive TV, radio, satellite, or any number of Internet technologies such as message boards, chat rooms and desktop computer conferencing. Online education delivered over the Internet is one form of distance learning.
In the United States, several synonyms refer to distance learning, including: distance education, correspondence learning, elearning (electronic learning), online learning, online education, virtual learning, remote learning, external learning, CBT (computer-based training) or WBT (web-based training).
In Europe, the terms “open learning” and “open university” are more popular than the terms higher education distance learning or online learning. The United Kingdom’s Open University offered college lectures via television in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The Open University still exists, but in 2007 it quit TV in favor of Internet broadcasting of all its courses.
Today, Americans use the terms “distance learning” and “online education” interchangeably. This is because the Internet has become the prominent way distance learning is delivered in the United States. In fact, three-fourths of all higher education distance learning courses (77 percent) are now delivered online, according to a 2007 study by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Web-based or online distance coursese may employ many different technologies. E-mail, asynchronous computer conferencing (bulletin boards) and live chat are core technologies.
As Americans have embraced cable and DSL, streaming video has surged to the forefront as a delivery method. Today, YouTube is being used to deliver videotaped college lectures to students’ computers.
A distance education student also can “see” their virtual classrooms and actual professors through the increasing use of virtual environments, like Second Life. Second Life is an example of a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE) system, where students create animated versions of themselves, called avatars, and are able to move through campuses, classrooms, libraries and other locations created by virtual universities and an elearning advantage.
Second Life is being used to teach skills—ranging from nursing care to fashion design, and more—through “immersion” or “live modeling.” Students in Second Life are sometimes asked to “act out” specific situations, such as mock job interviews or medical procedures.
Distance higher education goes back at least as far as the first century A.D., when St. Paul wrote texts called epistles (or letters of instruction) that were given to early Christian communities.

In 1840, the first formal distance course was offered by Sir Isaac Pitman in England. He used the Bible to teach shorthand. By 1850, the first distance degree was awarded by the University of London.

For most of the 1900s, distance learning was synonymous with the term “correspondence learning,” because learning used to be delivered primarily via mailed correspondence lessons. Students would receive their books and assignments in the mail, then mail completed assignments back to instructors to be graded.

Today, the Internet has become the primary source for delivery of college-level distance learning. The term “correspondence education” is rarely used; “online education” is the more popular and accurate way to describe much of today’s distance education.

By 2020, perhaps some new technology will prove more reliable and popular than the web; if so, that new technology will undoubtedly be harnessed by colleges to transmit knowledge.