Terms like distance learning and distance education are largely associated with recent developments in computing—specifically the growth of the Internet and World Wide Web, but the reality of distance learning is much older. Isaac Pittman taught shorthand by mail as early as the 1840s. In 1858, the University of London had created an external degree program using the mail as a means by which students and teachers could exchange materials. Modern distance learning and education has its origins in the beginning of the twentieth century and the pioneer efforts of the French educator Célestin Freinet and Italian educators Mario Lodi and Bruno Ciardi.
Freinet started his teaching career in 1921 in a small village in the coastal Alps near the Mediterranean. In October 1924 he introduced the “learning printing technique” into his class. It was a process where the pupils used a printing press to reproduce texts and projects they had created freely based on personal experience inside and outside the classroom. Later these texts would be compiled as a class journal and a school newspaper.
School printing to reproduce pupils’ texts was already used by several teachers in the nineteenth century. In 1926, Freinet began regular exchanges of his class productions, especially the school newspapers, with other elementary school classes in France. He called it the technique of “school correspondence,” whose purpose was for students to practice critical literacy skills by comparing worlds and realities. This technique later spread throughout other European countries, as well as in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Mario Lodi’s and Bruno Ciardi’s elementary school classes collaborated on various student journalism projects although the classes were hundreds of miles apart. The teachers taught their students how to use the printing machinery, but the students did more than that. They wrote, edited, and published Il Mondo (“The World”) and Insieme (“Together”) as nearly everyday newspapers and had a readership of fellow students, parents, and even subscribers in ten countries for years. The goal of Lodi and Ciardi was to adapt Freinet’s pedagogy to the Italian schools.
Film, radio, and TV made possible new approaches to distance learning during the 1960s and 1970s. The Internet, however, transformed the field. In 1991, when the first Internet search and navigation tools were released, the Internet began to be widely used in distance education.
Today, Internet-supported or -supplemented teaching is widespread. Distance education is now practical on a wide-scale basis. Distance education programs are increasingly found in K–12 settings, higher education, business and industry, and the military and government. Individuals who are geographically isolated can have regular instruction provided to them, as can individuals who are homebound because of illness or family needs. Instruction can occur in real time, or at the convenience of teachers and learners, who communicate through the exchange of e-mails or other electronic media.
Freinet’s dream of technology extending the reach of the classroom throughout the globe is a reality. As new and more efficient technologies come into wider practical use, such as streaming video and real-time net casting and texting, educational institutions will increasingly function in cyberspace. In doing so, the nature of instruction at all levels from K–12 to university and college, will inevitably be profoundly changed and redefined.
- Cummins, J., & Sayers, D. (1995). Brave new schools: Challenging cultural illiteracy through global learning networks. New York: St. Martin’s.
- Moore, M. G., & Anderson, W. G. (Eds.). (2003). Handbook of distance education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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