By David Wells, editor at Surviving the OU

So we have finally made it. The final post in our five-part mini-series on distance and digital learning. In our final article we shall do the obvious thing and start from the beginning! Yes it’s time to travel back in time and delve into the archives to look at online learning through the ages and where the highly-digitised version we enjoy today sprung its roots from.

The concept of online education seems only to be an idea formed in recent decades (think the original Open University and university of the air etc) but the roots, however, go right back to the 1800s when initial attempts were made to educate without being physically present in a set location. The first attempt was made by Sir Isaac Pitman in the 1840s, when he taught a shorthand system by mailing texts on postcards. The correspondence was made with transcriptions and this attempt proved to be extremely successful, leading to the establishment after three years of a Phonographic Correspondence Society.

Phonographic Correspondence Society

Actual proper degree programs for distant learners was first initiated by the University of London in 1828. The concept of Open University was later initiated in United Kingdom by the Labor Party, as we touched upon earlier. Nowadays the Open University is one of the biggest research institutions that accommodates distant learners for undergraduate and postgraduate education. It offers off-campus study of all types of courses. Postgraduate and undergraduate degrees sit alongside short courses, certificates and diplomas while continuing education units are offered in this highly developed online research network.

There are different broad classifications of online educational learning. First of all, they can either be a blended/hybrid model of whole instruction or simply blended. Blended/hybrid learning is the type where a student acquires formal education by receiving content delivery via digital media. However, he/she has control over time choices, place, path and locations. Computer-mediated activities are merged with face-to-face interaction with an instructor. The blended type meanwhile is popular among professionals for training settings and development.

Within the past few years, unlimited information has been stored across the internet and more recently on the virtual cloud

Almost all major universities in first world regions like United States, Britain, France, Canada and other European countries have successfully developed a well-versed online curriculum which is as competent as a traditional course outline. Online education technologies have been divided in two major delivery modes: asynchronous and synchronous learning. Don’t get put off by the terminology as we will look at those terms now.

Synchronous learning is more like a traditional but virtual classroom sort of learning because all participants of a particular program are present at one time to engage in discussion. A strict timetable is followed for synchronous learning because communication is done on lecture basis via videoconferencing, educational and instructional television and web conferencing. Synchronous learning requires a fast internet connection, alongside conferencing software like Zoom Video Conferencing or Adobe Connect to ensure clear video quality for better learning and virtual interaction.

Asynchronous learning is more common among those who take online courses as a part-time learning hobby. In this type of learning, participants have the freedom to access course materials according to their own timetable. One-on-one interaction between student and instructor can be done via mail correspondence, audio recording, email or occasional video chat. Asynchronous online learning doesn’t require the presence of all participants at the same time in a virtual classroom.

Open University Classroom

Recently, increased use of the internet has led to development and progress in virtual colleges, universities and schools, which have in turn greatly helped developing world countries in spreading education to remote areas. New ways of online distance education has been introduced, which has made socialization possible – an aspect highly criticized previously against virtual learning. Distant learning is also a final harbour for many students who are unable to enroll themselves in good institutions as well.

—> You may also enjoy one of our previous articles on the purpose and aim of distance education. <—

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