If a tree falls in the the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a century of practice and research on distance learning is around and no one reads it, does it exist? I’ll confess that this is a persistent challenge and personal frustration when discussing distance learning and the 25-year-old sub-category of online learning. There continue to be people thinking that the MOOC developments of the last five years represent the birth of online learning, when it is a field that goes back to the early 1990s. Even prior to that we have a century-old field of study dedicated to research on the effectiveness of distance learning as a whole. Yet, people new the field frequently critique online learning without taking the time to review the rich, growing, and long-standing body of literature in a field that is older than some academic disciplines or sub-disciplines taught by some of the critics. Consider the following select facts (far from exhaustive, leaving out many other significant developments between each of these items).
- 1858 – The University of London established one of the first initiatives that provided University degrees through distance learning.
- 1873 – The Society to Encourage Studies at Home was established in the United States (founded by an historian and Harvard professor). This is only 13 years after the establishment of the Pony Express.
- 1881 – William Rainey Harper, first president of the University of Chicago, was designing and offering correspondence courses (this is almost a decade before the founding of the University of Chicago.
- 1915 – The National University Extension Association was established, facilitating research and collaboration among those committed to best practices in distance learning and extension education in Universities throughout the University states.
- 1916 – The University of Iowa started offering distance learning courses.
- 1968 – The University of Nebraska Lincoln started offering the high school diploma via distance learning.
- 1992 / 1993 – The Online Learning Consortium (previously Sloan-C) was established, an associated committed to promoting quality in online learning.
- 1993 – Jones International University became the first regionally accredited online University.
- 2001 – Thomas Russell of North Carolina State University published the fifth edition of The No Significant Difference Phenomenon, documenting no significant different on student outcomes based on the mode of delivery. This includes an analysis of 355 studies showing no significant difference.
- 2001 – The first issue of the American Distance Learning Journal was published.
- 2015 – The number of research journals focused on the study of distance learning exceeded 50.
My point is simply that distance learning (and online learning) is not new. There is a longstanding tradition of philosophy, theory, empirical research, and codifying of best practices. We have a solid base of research that is as or more robust than many unquestioned and widespread practices in traditional classroom education. Yet, there continues to be a level of scrutiny and critique that far exceeds untested and largely unquestioned practices in face-to-face instruction.
I welcome the challenge and strong critiques. Yet, it seems to me that these critiques are best accompanied with a willingness to study the large body of existing literature. After all, distance learning practices are older than many standard educational practices in schools throughout the United States and beyond. Distance learning is older than the use of multiple choice tests, the Carnegie Unit, the use of behavioral learning objectives, or the widespread use of academic standards. Of course, just because something has been around for a hundred years doesn’t necessarily mean that it works, but it probably calls for us to approach the subject with a recognition that we are exploring a 100-year-old practice informed by a formal body of research that goes back decades.