The Three Waves of Distance Learning

Distance Education and Extramural Studies from the 19th to the 21st Century

Essay, 2013
11 Pages, Grade: 1,3


The Three Waves of Distance Learning:

Distance Education and Extramural Studies from the 19th to the 21st Century

Apart from health and income, the subject matter of education serves as one of the principal indicators for modern social science. The internationalization of higher education is directly connected to the evolution and revolution of interconnectivity. This essay seeks to examine the development of different distance learning practices from the nineteenth century until present day. The terminology of the matter is to some extent irregular, wherefore the defining of semantics is part of this essay, too. As it can be derived from the title, at least three definitional terms are involved: distance learning, distance education and extramural studies. In order to shed light on these terms, similar developments in different contexts have to be taken into account. Therefore, it is impossible to give conclusive definitions already at the beginning. Rather, this essay follows the method of process tracing, outlining ‘three waves’ of distance learning.1 As a consequence, this essay is structured in a threefold manner: First of all, the ‘first wave’ of distance learning is introduced, giving first definitions of the term and outlining first proceedings in the active acquisition of education over long-distances in the nineteenth century. Afterwards, demarcating the ‘second wave’, the view is turned to distance education in the twentieth century, featured by a rapid advance of electronic media. Lastly, a picture of today’s distance-learning infrastructure is drawn, paying special attention to the accelerated progress of internet-based teaching and learning. Throughout the examination of the topic, aspects of power transition and diffusion are problematized.2

Pioneers of distance learning: the first wave

Before landmarks of first distance learning activities can be outlined, it is necessary to approach the term, forging a preliminary definition by subsumtion. Taking a broad stance, distance-learning can be dated back to the first writs of the New Testament, as it is the first “presentation of something meant to be learnt” (Holmberg, 2005, p.13). This essay, however, is concerned with various types of distance education, provided by a registered institution, following a structured and systematic conduct with the final aim of obtaining or preparing a degree or diploma. Consequently, Battenberg’s (1971, p.44) notion of a private art’s class through letter-based instructions, as advertised in the Boston Gazette of March 20th 1728, also falls out of the scope. According to Guri- Rozenblit (1993, p.289), main attributes of distance education “involve the physical separation of learner and instructor (…) at least at certain stages of the learning process.” Therefore, the creation of well-structured and reliable postal services added to the development and feasibility of distance- learning facilities. In this context, Logan et al (2002) point out “mailed correspondence courses” as valid pioneers of today’s distance education. As the first institution of this kind, Holmberg (2005, p. 13) identifies the British “Sir Isaac Pitman Correspondence College” of the 1840s, where the name giver administered correspondence courses in shorthand. Only after a few years, Pitmans concept attracted “a legion of far-flung learners” (Phillips, 1998, p.41).

Meanwhile in Germany, in 1856, Gustaf Langenscheidt founded the first letter-based language course, out of which one of Germany’s biggest publishers of educational textbooks and dictionaries evolved (Schill, 2007, p.17).

However, all of the above mentioned courses were not affiliated with any authentic university, ergo no reputable university degree could be obtained. This is where I differentiate between distance education and extramural studies. As an example for the first provision of extramural studies serves the University of London. Since 1848, it was granted by Queen Victoria that non-university institutions have the right to carry out London University examinations, notably examinees which were not registered with the university (University of London, 2013). This new development “proved [to be] very important for the development of distance education (…)” and laid the fundament for further British pioneering organizations like Skerry’s College, Edinburgh (1878), Foulks Lynch Correspondence Tuition Service, London (1884), University Correspondence College, Cambridge (1887), and the Diploma Correspondence College (later called Wolsey Hall) in Oxford, established in 1894 (Holmberg, 2005, pp.13-14). Since British correspondence courses were administered by public university entities on British soil, neither power diffusion, nor transition can be observed in this area.

However, at the end of the 19th century, first efforts for the establishment of extramural studies were also made across the Pacific. The Chatauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) established a four-year correspondence course in 1878, “one of the first attempts at distance learning” in the United States of America (Chatauqua Institution, 2012). In 1881, its School of Theology received a charter from the State of New York, authorizing it to grant both graduate and undergraduate degrees as well as doctorates (Pittman, 2001, p.14). The CLSC not only represents the first state-approved distance learning facility in the United States, but also a first example of soft power diffusion from public to private authority. Apart from those important institutional developments, private organizations like the “International Correspondence Schools, USA, founded in 1891, Wolsey Hall, England (1894), the American School, USA (1897) and Hermods, Sweden (1898)” are identified as veridical “pioneers of modern distance education” (Holmberg, 2005, p.32).

Distance learning in the 20th century: the second wave

With the beginning of the 20th century, moderately educated people acknowledged their possibility to reach new levels in work and society by self-improvement through distance education (Curran, 1997, p.335; Holmberg, 2005, p.19). Notably, it was the Soviet Union, which implemented widespread correspondence course-based distance education by 61 universities in the 1920s; the later Soviet-supervised German Democratic Republic adopted these efforts and dedicated approximately one quarter of its higher education to distance teaching (Curran, 1997, p.336).

With the invention of radio broadcasting and television in the 1920s and 1930s, distance education reached a new level of velocity. In 1921, the Latter Day Saints’ University of Salt Lake City was endowed with the first educational radio license (Moore and Kearsley, 2011, p.29). However, the “lukewarm interest shown by the university faculty” in connection with “amateurism of those few professors who were interested” did not let the radio education wave live up to its expectations (p. 29). In addition, the commercial interest on the medium soon ousted educational radio ventures (p. 30). At this point, a correlation between the effectiveness of radio-broadcasted education and commercial competition in the field becomes apparent. Nowadays, radio broadcasting for educational purposes is almost exclusively used in Latin America, where commercial interests are not as prevalent as in North American or Western European countries (p.30).

At the end of the 20th century, Moore and Thompson (1990, p.1) gave the following definition for distance education at that time, taking into account its most notable attributes, such as:

(…) communication between learners and teachers (…) through print and writing or by electronic media such as broadcasts, recordings, narrowcasts by cable, satellite, ITFS,3 and fiber transmission, interactive telecommunication by computer, audio and video teleconferences or, as is increasingly common, combinations of these media ”

Here, a significant focal shift to electronic media becomes apparent. Although the second wave of distance learning ‘washed up’ a large number of new journals into the shelves of university libraries (e.g. Open Learning, American Journal of Distance Education), the tide was turning towards cyberspace.

Distance learning in the 21st century: the third wave

During the climax of the Cold War, in 1969, US President Kennedy obliged the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA), a military organization, to design the first de-centralized communication network, the ARPANET. Until 1972, this system was subject to extensive military research in order to guarantee military communication in case of a nuclear attack. However, the same year marks the date when the subjectivity should change: the internet was about to become a tool, not merely a subject of research.

The establishment of the British Open University (OU) in 1969 represents the first step towards third wave extramural studies. The approach adopted by the OU was highly innovative: in its exclusive focus on distance teaching, in the scale of its commitment to widening access for mature adults to university degrees, in its innovative and mixed-media approach to teaching, and in its “characteristic open-ness” (Curran, 1997, p.336). From inception, the OU served as a major gate on widening access to higher education within the UK, enrolling an initial cohort of 19,581 students in 1971, which, two decades later, had increased fourfold to 81,575 (Open University, 1993).

Early followers of the British Open University were the FernUniversität in Germany, Open Universiteit in the Netherlands, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia in Spain, the Open University of Israel, and the Universidad Nacional Abierta de Venezuela (Holmberg, 2005, p.21).


1 The use of the term ‘wave’ intentionally resembles to Samuel Huntington’s ‘three waves of democratization’ (1991), however here corresponding to developments of the 19th, 20th and 21st century.

2 In the context of this essay, ‘power transition’ means the shift of soft power in the shape of knowledge from one state to another. ‘Power diffusion’, however, is concerned with a vertical power shift from public to private spheres.

3 The Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS) is a band of twenty microwave channels available to be licensed by the FCC to local credit granting educational institutions. It was designed to serve as a means for educational institutions to deliver live or pre-recorded video instruction to multiple sites within school districts and to higher education branch campuses.

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The Three Waves of Distance Learning
Distance Education and Extramural Studies from the 19th to the 21st Century
Education and Communication in International Relations
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Distance Learning, Extramural studies, Distance Education, internet-based teaching, MOOC
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Alexander Tutt (Author), 2013, The Three Waves of Distance Learning, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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