Repositioning and Re-purposing Distance Education for the Future

Table of Contents:

T. Evans and B. Pauling


The previous (2010) version of this chapter was located in an era where diversity, fluidity, and flexibility were its main characteristics (Greenslade, 2007, p. 2; Kristof, 2006). With some contemporary repositioning, these characteristics persist. Some scholars, however, such as Knox (2016), argue that post-humanist practices and consequences are creeping into some large scale forms of distance education, notably, the massive open online courses (MOOCs). Others, such as Mays and others, 2018) argue that the there is a plethora of small single-mode face-to-face institutions that are gradually mutating into being dual-mode institutions using online means, but without the explicit incorporation of distance education s pedagogical, student support, and quality assurance processes. They argue that such poorly grounded mutations posed risks for students, staff and institutions alike.

For us, therefore, a discussion of the future of distance education needs to appreciate such risks and possibilities and to be based on informing good choices to repurpose distance education for its future. We know that the increasing demand for education worldwide will not disappear: it is structured into our future existence. A mass of under-educated people, an expanding population, major global crises, and an expanding knowledge economy all combine to sustain a massive demand for basic, further, higher, continuing, and lifelong education. This demand cannot be met solely in the world’s classrooms; even if there were enough classrooms, many people will be unwilling or unable to attend them to learn. In this sense, distance education is essential for the future, but the fluidity around educational terms and practices means that it is also quite possible that “distance education” — the term and its history — will be lost if it is not repositioned and repurposed for the future.

We consider three key elements of distance education — technology', students and educational institutions — and the educational possibilities that surround them by' reflection on past and present changes. The future of distance education is intimately' connected to broader social, economic and cultural changes. These changes are strongly influenced by the “disruptive” technologies, demographic transformations in the nature of distance learners and the pressures of global techno-capitalism on educational institutions (Hughes & Hillebrand, 2006).


As many distance education writers have noted over the decades, distance education is deeply connected to communications technologies: from writing and correspondence, radio and other audio media, to television and other video media (see, for example, Bates, 1995; Evans & Nation, 1993; Evans & Nation, 2007; Garrison, 1985; Hawkridge, 1976, 1995; Walker, 1993). Correspondence schooling and education changed its name in the 1970s to distance education to reflect its longstanding use of audio, and newer use of video media, to span the distance between teacher and learner. In a sense, nothing has changed: distance education still uses correspondence, audio, and video. What has changed is the ways in which these media are mediated and, in particular, through digitally converged technologies. These technologies enable effectively continuous and instantaneous “multi” media transmission and interaction, not just in education, but to most aspects of human and social activity in the developed world (Pearson, 2000). Digital technology is the enabling mechanism that drives the social, cultural, and economic features of globalization (Bauman, 1997; Beck, 2000; Friedman, 2005) and it is reinforcing tendencies towards “boundary-less” communications media (Bonnett, 1999, p. 2). As we noted above, there is a concern about the post-humanist features of some technological choices in distance education, notably the MOOCs (Knox, 2016). More generally, there has to be wide public concern over the nature and deployment of social media enterprises, such as Facebook and Instagram, in contemporary' society. Nevertheless, careful choices by distance educators in the use of such enterprises in their practices may' produce benefits (see, for example, Akcaoglu & Lee, 2018).

The “traditional” broadcasters, telecommunications providers and publishers that had exclusive control over the creation, aggregation and distribution of their own “product,” are repositioning to play multiple roles as “content” providers: creating content for multiple platforms; content aggregators supplying, content for distribution; and content distributors, providing access to content on discrete or multiple platforms. For example, telecommunications companies are taking multimedia content from a range of providers, broadcasters, newspapers, and libraries, and behaving as aggregators (Spark). Broadcasters are using telecommunications networks to distribute content on web pages that contain print material from newspaper sources as well as audio and video (BBC Online). Publishers are using the Internet to provide digital copies of their print-based product, including audio and video product as accompaniments to their books (Taylor & Francis, Prentice Hall, etc.). Newspapers online versions contain, not just text, photographs, and graphs, but embedded video and audio enhancements taken from broadcast sources (for example, NewsStand, All services are developing digital archives for the storage and retrieval of their material, and providing access to subscribers and on occasion the general public (BBC Archives,The Guardian Archive, etc.). However, the disruptive nature of new technologies is continuing to impact on traditional media with many facing increased financial stress. Newspapers are in decline (30% of US newspapers have closed in the last 15 years (Abernathy, 2018)).Traditional television broadcasters using the free-to-air advertising-supported model are failing (over the ten years to 2018 the percentage of households in New Zealand that tuned into broadcast TV once during a day fell from 83% to 67% (NZ On Air, 2018)). New Zealand TV network, TV3, is up for sale with the threat that if not sold by the end of 2019, the network will close (Grant, 2019). In New Zealand the only two remaining large print media organizations, NZME and Stuff, have twice sought, and been refused, permission to merge. Further, media organizations that did not exist when the first edition of this chapter was published (Netflix, Amazon Prime, AppleTV, Disney Plus, etc.) are flourishing. Noteworthy is that these new industries are increasingly merging the three previously separate activities of content creation, aggregation, and distribution into one organization thus controlling the media “flow” at every stage.

Distance education cannot escape the uncertainties created by the so-called disruptive technologies given its longstanding and fundamental reliance on technologies. Earliest distance education relied on the writing and print technologies, and mechanized transport for distribution. While higher education, generally, eschewed the mass communication technologies of radio, television, and cinema, elements of distance education engaged them. (Although schools, especially since the 1950s, had used educational radio and (later) television broadcasting to enhance their provision.) For example, both China and Japan instituted “radio and television” universities. However, perhaps the most iconic incorporation of radio and television in distance education occurred within the origins of the UK Open University and its relationship with the BBC. Initially much of the programming was supplementary to the printed course material. Television was described as “chalk and talk on the screen” and radio as a “read lecture.” Although not without its tensions, the influence of the BBC saw a steady improvement in the production values of the radio and television programmes (Perry, 1972,1976).This audio-visual material grew to become a key component, especially of the mass-enrolment foundation courses. These skills were transferred and further developed as digitalization provided opportunities to include email, the Web, CDs, DVDs, teleconferencing, and videoconferencing.

From the late 1980s, education in general began to engage with digital technologies to a level and in a manner not previously seen with any other technology since the advent of print. Classrooms were equipped with digital displays and, higher education in particular, engaged with digital content management systems, used digital technologies to distribute, store, and manipulate data, and increasingly added audio-visual content to classroom teaching.

In March 2008 the Australian Communications and Media Authority identified six “top trends” for the next ten years:

  • 1. An accelerating pace of change driven by overlapping developments in technology, and connections between people, databases and objects.
  • 2. Diversity in the development of physical infrastructure including broadband, digital broadcasting, smart radio systems, sensor networks, mesh networks, efficiency techniques in multimedia transmission, location sensing and context-aware technologies, intelligent transport systems and satellite services.
  • 3. Continuing spread of distributed connectivity through the integration of information processing beyond the desktop into everyday objects and activities.
  • 4. Enhanced content and network management capabilities driven by developments in deep packet inspection and content filtering technologies, coupled with the need to improve e-security, identity management, intellectual property protection and energy efficiency.
  • 5. The emerging social web acting both as a platform and database, enabling innovation and creativity by users and service providers.
  • 6. Continuing scientific and technological innovations which, in combination, are driving advances in computing power, display technologies, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. (ACMA, 2008, p. 1)

Effectively distance education, and higher education generally, are entangled in a double helix of spiralling technological change linked with perpetual obsolescence as the “continuing scientific and technological innovations” (No. 6 above) create discontinuity, uncertainty, and risk in what is becoming an increasingly technologically dependent sector. These circumstances create potentially profound implications — both positive and negative — for teaching and learning. These also affect the management of educational organizations, not just in higher education, but in all educational and training circumstances.

Web 2.0 has seen the burgeoning of social networks (No. 5), and some educators argue that virtual worlds, such as Second Life, “substantially enhanced the quality and experiences of student learning” (Jarmon et al., 2008, p. 157). Teachers are using virtual worlds to “develop educational activities across many disciplines” (Wankel & Kingsley, in press). However, others wrestle simultaneously with issues of whether education should occupy such “disintermediated” worlds (Aldrich, 2007). But the developing“lnternet ofThings” (Nos. 1 & 3) which enables the Internet to extend into the physical world using short-range wireless communications, real-time localization, and sensor networks (No. 2) foreshadows an even more complex world (ITU, 2005). Here the virtual and the “real” interact using 3D vision, animation, and holographs to provide the platform that eventually becomes the hyper-reality that Tiffin (2001) saw as revolutionizing both classroom and distance teaching of such complex curricula, such as science, engineering, and medicine. Sophisticated blends of digital technology, bio-technology', and nano-technology (No. 6) will produce environments for informing, entertaining, and learning that could be reminiscent of current science fiction.

Examples of recent or nascent technologies include:

  • • The Grapefruit Cam, a geodesic streaming video dome camera the size of a grapefruit with 11 lenses that films 360 degrees and permits the viewer to use the “mouse to move where the spinal column can’t” (, 2008), thereby providing enhanced content (No. 4). It not only' re-maps the world (see Google Street View) but provides new ways of viewing and exploring in geography, oceanography, and most disciplines that rely on visuals to communicate (No. 6).
  • • Ultra high-speed Internet (No. 5),as demonstrated by the latest Internet technologies linking 100,000 desktop computers to the CEKN Large Hadron Collider. This provides download and upload data speeds 1000 times faster than publicly available in 2008, but is predicted to “revolutionise the speed at which information is downloaded to all personal computers” (Ahmed, 2008).
  • • Flexible and mobile screen technologies (No. 6) that permit high-def-inition 3D reception and projection, and enable sophisticated interactive responses to bring the teacher and the classroom ever closer for the distance education student (Troy, 2008).
  • • Three-dimensional imaging and holographic technologies used in the classroom with the potential to “save millions in unnecessary costs” and provide students with real-time access to “top professors” using “virtual and augmented reality” (Winslow, 2007).

In 2019 Forbes magazine (Vigo, 2019) added further to the list of technologies to watch:

  • 1. AI-as-a-service. Artificial Intelligence is argued as being “one of the most transformative tech evolutions of our times”
  • 2. 5G data networks
  • 3. Personalized and predictive medicine
  • 4. Computer vision
  • 5. Autonomous driving
  • 6. Extended reality
  • 7. Blockchain technology.

Each of these will impact on distance education in some manner. For example, Microsoft’s Vl< system can transport a 3D image of a speaker into any reception capable environment and have the avatar speak in his/ her own language but be heard, instantaneously, in the language or (multiple languages) of the listener/s. (Demonstrated at Consumer Electronics Show, Las Vegas, January 2019).

How these technologies will be used can only be speculation at this stage. However education, and especially distance education, increasingly relies on visual communication, email, and the Internet to deliver teaching and learning. Therefore it is not difficult to imagine ways in which these and other technologies may affect educational processes.

An important technological platform of significant importance to distance education is mobile telephony, especially when this is linked with multimedia devices, such as iPhones. As mobile telephony becomes almost ubiquitous in the developed and developing world, services other than phone and text have migrated to mobile platforms. Mobile TV and video services have proliferated in developed nations — especially around live sports and gambling.The deployment of 5G services will encourage these trends. This permits two of the largest digital industries — mobile connectivity and entertainment — to merge to create a new audience. By early 2008 it was claimed that in the US three out of ten adults watched some media content on their mobile phones (Accenture cited in Troy, 2008). By 2019 more than half of all video streaming came from or to a mobile device and in the US consumers spent 90 percent of their mobile time on apps, not on phone calls (

The evidence suggests that mobile devices are increasingly being used in a laptop computer manner as a source for all media activity, such as YouTube, Instagram, Google, and Amazon. GPS compatibility, integration with voice recognition technology', and movement sensitive screens are all available. One key element will be the ability of the mobile device to “sense” or understand the world around it and respond to it providing seamless access to a range of devices, networks and services and with an “intelligence” that understands and anticipates what the user wants it to do (No. 3) (ITU, 2005). Mobile devices and their corresponding media technologies are playing an increasing role in the everyday lives of millions of people. Already “personal assistants” like Siri and Alexa are “learning” to anticipate and predict environments from interacting with users

Mobile technology is being adapted for educational purposes in several developed (for example, Canada) and developing (for example, Egypt) nations. Mobile learning (m-learning) takes advantage of opportunities offered by mobile technologies to deliver “across locations,” thus reducing the barriers of place and reliance upon fixed services by creating a mobile “always on, always available, anywhere” service. For example, educators are using m-learning to “connect” young people who are “disconnected” from school, and examination results are “messaged” to mobile phones by some universities and examination authorities. One of the authors has been involved a project using mobile telephony to assist people to learn about and use action research to address gender inequity in remote communities in Papua New Guinea (Evans, Casey, & Paraide, 2018).

It should be noted that the adoption rate of mobile phone technologies is the fastest of any new technology to date. Its impact is demonstrated by the phenomenal uptake (90% penetration in some markets) and the thousands of applications that have been created for mobile devices, turning what was once just a mobile phone into an object equipped with services many of which have prospective educational uses. While these uses are highly appropriate for many contemporary learners — especially for those who are “addicted” to their “devices” — there are limitations, as with any technology. The best uses are probably those that complement other forms of education as the following discussion shows.

One feature of technology that has significant implications for all users of devices is face recognition. The application of this technology in distance learning would seem beneficial, other applications less so.

One indication of the ascendancy of m-learning was the decision of the UK Open University to cease BBC television broadcasts and replace them with DVDs and podcasting. Brabazon (2007, p. 20) uses this shift as evidence that universities have “tropes” and that these have moved from the “empowerment” of the 1970s, “student-centered learning” in the 1980s to “flexibility” in the ’90s and now “mobility” in the 2000s. Previously the educational value of mobile technologies was thought to be the “delivery of content” to mobile devices, de Freitas and Levene (2003) argue that m-learning can be used in three ways, for the delivery of lectures over mobile devices, for the augmentation of the physical campus with a virtual and mobile component, and for the use of mobile devices in field studies. However, the emphasis appears to be changing. Its focus now is on the capabilities that enable users to create and share their own learning, thus moving students from being “consumers” of content to “creators” of content. This captures the skills of the “digital natives” and their ubiquitous mobile appliances to offer an “immense potential for teaching and learning” (IADIS, 2009).“Mobile phones, PDAs, Pocket PCs, and the Internet can be blended to engage and motivate learners, any time and anywhere” (, 2008). Not only does this create on-the-move learning opportunities, but perhaps further, it also incorporated Brabazons aforementioned “tropes,” thereby providing a learning environment that is not just mobile but also, student-focused, empowering, and flexible.

Some have argued that there is a progression of learning technologies (Conde et al., 2008). E-learning is generally defined as the use of Internet technologies for the purposes of teaching. Conde and others (p. 61) argue that e-learning has reached “maturity as a learning method” and that any further developments will “evolve alongside the technology that made it possible,” M-learning arises out of the universal acceptance of mobile devices which provide the opportunity for an “evolution of e-learning” with students able to make use of their devices to support their learning, especially though web-based uses and the “always on” nature of the technology. The ultimate development of technology-based learning, according to Ramón (cited in Conde et al., 2008, p. 61), is “u-learning (ubiquitous learning) — a set of formative activities, supported by technology, that are readily accessible in any place.” Of course, to the distance educator, ubiquity was afforded from the earliest days of correspondence, assuming that everyone was within the reach of a postal service. However, subsequent technologies, such as radio and television, or audio and video cassettes, always challenged distance educators about the ubiquity of access — especially in large, geographically, and dispersed nations, such as Australia or Canada, or in developing nations, such as Nigeria and Papua New Guinea where broadcast reception and even electricity could not be assumed as ubiquitous. Given the development of photovoltaic (and other independent) power generation and battery storage, and satellite and microwave transmission, technically even the most remote inhabited parts of the globe have access to learning. Although, one could argue this was almost the case for postal-based distance education, the difference is that u-learning not only covers the distances, it does so simultaneously.

Jorma Ollila, chairman of the Nokia Corporation (cited in Rossiter, 2003) envisioned a form of u-learning in his discussion of the three “technology pillars” that are reshaping society — digital convergence, Internet protocol, and mobility — which form “a networked and mobile information society.” Hence, as Slaughter suggests, “the future of education is a network, and not a place” (2007, p. 113). Arguably, this is not new for distance education which has often “networked” its students and tutors through face-to-face, telephone, contact lists, or online study groups. For “traditional” classroom education it represents a much greater disruptive force, as both its physical infrastructure and organizational culture — not to mention its business model — are threatened.

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