Contrary to what you may think, distance learning is not a new term that sprang into existence during the COVID-19 pandemic. For centuries, many people worldwide have been taking courses taught by distance instructors, even before the internet. However, it is essential to note that distance learning has slowly evolved over the years due to new technological advances and educational trends.

In this article, we will discuss the history and evolution of distance learning. Want to explore the development of e-learning special education? Read on to find out more. 

Evolution of Distance Learning 

There are many dissenting opinions on the exact origins of distance learning. However, many sources seem to point to the 1700s when correspondence education — a form of distance education — was rampant. 

Now, if you’ve ever wondered what it will be like to learn at a snail pace, correspondence education was the typical depiction. Students received instructions via mail, sent their responses or assignments back to the instructor, and waited for several weeks for a reply. In 1840, Isaac Pitman further popularized the movement by teaching shorthand via mail. 

However, as time went on, the advent of several technological tools and trends caused a slight shift. The introduction of the radio and television led many universities to begin broadcasting courses and information to students — with Pennsylvania State College and the University of Iowa being the pioneers in the early 90s. With this trend, students and even traditional homemakers could learn without leaving the comfort of their homes. 

After the radio and television, the Internet brought on a new version of distance learning, following the introduction of e-learning online education. The University of Phoenix kick-started this particular trend by launching an online college institution that offered both undergraduate and postgraduate programs. Soon, other colleges followed suit and began to delve into e-learning sites online education. 

In today’s world, distance learning has almost completely morphed into online education e-learning. Many students now prefer to take online courses instead of learning in the traditional classroom setting. 

Distance Education as a Global Movement 

Contrary to popular opinion, distance learning is not restricted to the western world. All over the globe, e-learning school education has become an integral addition to the learning system, and it doesn’t seem to be disappearing off the scene anytime soon. 

In 1996, Jones International University, the world’s first accredited and fully web-based university, was launched. Shortly after this happened, the World Bank pioneered a similar initiative in Africa by setting up the African Virtual University (AVU)

The AVU enables students in specific African countries to access courses and seminars taught by professors and seasoned lecturers from universities in other parts of the world. This makes it easier for disadvantaged students to learn in unconventional settings. 

Although distance learning had already gained significant global popularity by 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic further fuelled its globalization. All colleges and educational institutions around the world were shut down and forced to operate virtually. 

Since then, many schools have realized the potential benefits of distance learning and are now integrating e-learning in teacher education. 

Open Learning in the U.K 

Like many other parts of the world, the UK has fully embraced open learning and distance education. Although both forms of education serve the same purpose of providing quality education to disadvantaged students, the two concepts are slightly different. 

Distance education focuses on access to education for students who aren’t physically present in the same geographical location as their tutors. On the other hand, open learning is a scheme that tries to systematically uproot all possible barriers to learning, including time, space, place, or age. 

In the UK, students who can’t afford to pay for on-campus accommodation or have to combine study with work can still gain access to education, thanks to the availability of open universities and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). 

Over the past decade, more institutions have made provisions for students who prefer open learning to traditional teaching models. For instance, in 2013, the Open University — one of the largest global institutions for distance learning — launched FutureLearn, a UK counterpart that offers free courses from several A-list UK universities. 

So far, it is safe to say that the UK strongly encourages e-learning for special education, especially for people pursuing postgraduate degrees. This way, students can easily acquire university-level knowledge on their own terms without any restrictions. 

Distance Education in the United States 

In the United States, distance learning has morphed from a casual trend into a mainstream movement. More colleges and universities have realized how beneficial the relationship between e-learning and education could be for both students and teachers alike. As such, the online learning industry has grown exponentially and is projected to exceed $370 billion by 2026.

Since most American college students are already familiar with the use of the internet and other technological devices, adapting to distance learning has been relatively easy except for a few minor hurdles. This probably explains the 7% increase in enrollment to online institutions over the past year. 

Although we can’t categorically say that distance education has been a complete success in the United States, it has performed better than other countries. The main reason for this success is that distance learning and e-learning creative education have been a huge part of American culture for decades. 

The COVID-19 Transformation of Distance Learning 

Although distance learning had already been in existence before the arrival of the COVID-19 virus, the pandemic disrupted the educational system and popularized remote learning. 

Schools and colleges were forced to shut down and shift to online learning as a necessity rather than an option available to few students. Even medical students were not left out as the world discovered e-learning in medical education and other practical fields was very much possible. 

In response to the increased demand for online learning tools, several actions were taken to improve and facilitate distance learning. For instance, internet companies and service providers around the world subsidized internet rates for students. Since many students and households were forced to increase their internet usage, it only made sense that the financial implications were reduced. 

However, behind the seemingly smooth transition to remote learning, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed glaring disparities between students from middle-income and low-income households. 

While the former seemed to ease into distance learning, students from low-income households struggled with limited access to the internet and other learning tools such as personal computers. 

What Does the Future Hold? 

The pandemic’s popularization of distance learning will have significant long-term effects in the future. First, the online learning trend will continue as many students will abandon in-class learning for more convenient models. 

As online learning numbers increase, there will be a corresponding increase in cyber threats targeting academic portals. 

If the pandemic continues, students from low-income households will probably drop out in droves due to limited access to distance learning tools.