Distance Education

Distance education or distance learning commonly refers to formal education offerings where instructor and learner are physically separated and where learners can study appropriately designed materials at a place, time and pace of their own choosing. Today most distance learning involves some form of communications technology to link learner to instructor and other learners. This can occur synchronously (at same time for all) through audio, video or Web conferencing, and asynchronously (at their own time) through online discussion forums, blogs, wikis, messaging and email. Distance learning requires that the institution provide appropriate structures for the development of distance learning materials; the facilitation of learning such as opportunities for interaction with instructor and other learners; organizational procedures geared to the distance learner; adequate library services; and specific student support. To be successful such systems require sustained funding and organizational policies that do not marginalize distance education. When distance learning courses include some on-site instruction they are referred to as blended or hybrid courses. When they have no set entrance requirements they are referred to as open learning courses.

Canadian Beginnings

Distance education, then called correspondence education, was used first in 1889 to provide degree opportunities for rural teachers who were unable to attend MCGILL UNIVERSITY full time. By 1912, the Universities of Saskatchewan and Alberta were offering off-campus self-study programs for rural learners. In 1921, a parent wrote the BC Ministry of Education requesting study materials for his children because they were too far from a school, and at first primary and then secondary correspondence education was begun. As the provision of schooling across Canada changed, the need for correspondence materials, especially at the primary grades, decreased. However, secondary course materials were always in demand. Today most provinces continue to develop and offer k-12 distance education programming.

Early Developments

Although the first developments in distance learning were mainly print-based, Canada was an early adopter of new technologies for adult learning. In 1941 the CBC, the Canadian Association for Adult Education and the Federation of Agriculture together initiated FARM RADIO FORUM. The series of radio broadcasts and materials for living room study groups were coordinated by St Francis Xavier University in cooperation with universities across the country. The NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA with its local community presentations and associated discussions was another initiative.

The 1960s brought increasing demand for further education and more universities began technology-based programs. Memorial University was famous for the use of slow scan video to provide a consulting service to doctors in remote communities. This led to the development of an extensive number of audio- and then video-conferencing sites that were used for k-12 and adult education. To meet the needs of co-op students on worksite placements in remote locations the UNIVERSITY OF WATERLOO instituted audiotaped lectures with accompanying text and assignments.

In the 1970s, with greater recognition of the possibilities of distance education, provincial governments moved to establish three institutions focused solely on distance education. In 1972, the Alberta government instituted ATHABASCA UNIVERSITY (AU), which offered courses in arts and science and had an "open" entry system. Modeled on the British Open University, AU relied on print course materials and student-tutor interaction via phone. In Québec, Télé-université was established to offer university credit and noncredit courses throughout the province. British Columbia established the Open Learning Institute (OLI) in 1978 to provide college, adult basic and technical, career, vocational and university education to students throughout the province.

Knowledge Network (see EDUCATIONAL BROADCASTING), the telecommunications arm of OLI, was established in 1980 after a highly successful initiative of the federal and provincial governments with the ANIK B satellite (see SATELLITE COMMUNICATIONS.) Soon other telecommunications authorities, TVOntario, Radio-Québec, the Saskatchewan Communications Network (SCN), Northern Canada Television and ACCESS Alberta were using broadcast television and, in some cases, other technologies to provide educational programming for learners of all ages. In 1987 Contact North/Contact Nord was set up by the Ontario government to facilitate access to all formal levels of education to northern Ontario government to facilitate access to all formal levels of education to northern Ontario residents. It did this through an audiographic network that serves numerous community learning centres. Other networks were established in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the Franco-Ontarian Network in Ontario, and CANAL in Québec. These varied in infrastructure from the use of satellite or microwave to broadcast video programming in Saskatchewan and Manitoba to the use of telephone lines for audio, audiographic and video-conferencing in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. All of the networks adopted a flexible approach to technology that is consistent with learner needs and financial resources.

In the 90s, the development and widespread use of the Internet had a major influence on the provision of distance education (see INTERNET). Learners had ready access to enormous information sources, to conversations with other learners and experts in the field, and to resources far beyond those of any single institution. Universities, colleges and technical institutes all sought to reach their learners through use of computer conferencing and subsequently learning management systems. Today, most universities and colleges offer distance learning and blended learning options to their students. Universities moved to provide online learning at first through computer conferencing and then using learning management systems. Colleges formed provincial consortia to share the costs of development and provision and aid innovation. The earliest, OntarioLearn (1995) has pooled resources from 24 colleges to become the largest college level course provider in North America. Others were Campus Manitoba (1998), BCcampus (2002) and eCampus Alberta (2003). These organizations often host the colleges’ Internet provider, offer course development assistance, provide single source access and do extensive marketing.

It is estimated that each year at least a million people in Canada study through distance education from those unable to attend an institution, such as students confined to hospitals and persons with disabilities, to those who choose to or for whom it is necessary to study independently, eg, working adults. Programs and courses are available from primary schooling to post-secondary education, with many more offerings that are noncredit. Many government departments and over 40% of large companies in Canada are already using some form of distance education. Commercial suppliers as well as industrial, trade and professional organizations are also providing distance learning courses and resources.

Recent Developments

The Internet has become the major technology for distance education and its immediacy has placed greater emphasis on online learning as the major mode for distance education. The rationale for online learning has moved from access to flexibility and is increasingly driven by student demand and technology developments. One such is mobility with more people now accessing the Internet by mobile (phones, laptops, ipads, tablets) than by desk computers.  Another trend is openness. Open Educational Resources (OERs) are essentially content and resources, including course materials and e-texts, available for use under a Creative Commons licence. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) provide free and open access to course content. Sites like UTube and iTunesU provide ready access to video resources, and online gaming has created new designs for learning.

Because learners have immediate access to online resources they have moved increasingly to just-in-time learning through short courses or modules. Providers range from professional associations and academic publishers to newspapers and fashion houses. Social media technologies (blogs, wikis, Twitter, Facebook) provide access to learning through interaction with others.

New forms of assessment include learning analytics and prior learning assessment reviews (PLAR). Analytics provide learners and instructors with feedback on progress while learning while PLAR provides an evaluation of various learning opportunities against a formal credential such as a degree. All these trends will impact online learning of the future.

Canada is the administrative headquarters for the COMMONWEALTH OF LEARNING based in Vancouver, which organizes the sharing of distance education expertise and resources throughout the member nations of the Commonwealth.