October 26, 2016

Who are the founding fathers of distance education?

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Steve Wheeler's interview: click on the image to see the vieo

Steve Wheeler’s interview: click on the image to see the video

Steve Wheeler interviewed three old guys, Michael Moore, Sir John Daniel and myself, at the EDEN conference in Budapest this summer, and has posted the video under the title of ‘Learn from three founding fathers of distance education‘.

While it’s very gracious of Steve to lump me in with Sir John and Michael, who have certainly been major movers and shakers in distance education, I don’t think any of us would claim to be a founding father. Although we are all very old, distance education existed long before any of us got involved in it.

So let’s play a little game: who do you think are the fathers (or mothers) of distance education?

I’ll start off by supplying my list and I will be asking Sir John and Michael to add theirs.

1. Isaac Pitman

Pitman as a younger man

Pitman as a younger man

An authority no less than Wikipedia states:

The first distance education course in the modern sense was provided by Sir Isaac Pitman in the 1840s, who taught a system of shorthand by mailing texts transcribed into shorthand on postcards and receiving transcriptions from his students in return for correction. The element of student feedback was a crucial innovation of Pitman’s system. This scheme was made possible by the introduction of uniform postage rates across England in 1840.

In fact, Wikipedia has a pretty good description of the history of distance education, and my second choice is also highlighted in the same Wikipedia entry.

2. The University of London External Program

I am a proud alumnus of the University of London, having done my doctorate in educational administration at the University of London Institute of Education (recently merged with University College London).

Wikipedia states:

The University of London was the first university to offer distance learning degrees, establishing its External Programme in 1828….the External Programme was chartered by Queen Victoria in 1858, making the University of London the first university to offer distance learning degrees to students……This program is now known as the University of London International Programme and includes Postgraduate, Undergraduate and Diploma degrees created by colleges such as the London School of Economics, Royal Holloway and Goldsmiths.

Unfortunately I have no knowledge of the individuals who originally created the University of London External Programme back in 1828. It’s a worthy research project for anyone interested in the history of distance education.

I was once (mid-1960s) a correspondence tutor for students taking undergraduate psychology courses in the External Programme. In those days, the university would publish a curriculum (a list of topics) and provide a reading list. Students could sit an exam when they felt they were ready. Students paid tutors such as myself to help them with their studies. I would find old exam papers for the course, and set questions for individual students, and they would send me their answers and I would mark them. Many students were in British Commonwealth countries and it could take weeks after students sent in their essays before my feedback eventually got back to them. Not surprisingly, in those days completion rates in the programme were very low.

The programme today is completely different,using a combination of study materials and online learning resources designed to foster active learning. There are even university-approved local tutors in many countries around the world. The program has more than 50,000 students enrolled.

Note though that teaching and examining in the original External Programme were disaggregated (those teaching it were different from those examining it), contract tutors were separate from the main faculty were used, and students studied individually and took exams when ready. So many of the ‘new’ developments in distance education such as disaggregation, self-directed learning, and many of the elements of competency-based learning are in fact over 150 years old.

3. Chuck Wedemeyer

In the fall of 1969, I joined the first staff of the Open University, working in offices in an old Georgian building in Belgrave Square, central London. I knew nothing about distance education (I was hired as a researcher) and was advised to go to a talk being given by a slight, stooped American. His name was Chuck Wedemeyer and he was the first to develop a modern pedagogy that was unique to distance education. Here’s an extract from the Mildred and Charles A. Wedemeyer Award site. (I had the honour of sharing the award with Michael Moore in 1995.)

Charles Wedemeyer, W.H. Lighty Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is considered a father of modern distance education.

An enthusiastic instructor, in the early 1930’s Wedemeyer used the University of Wisconsin’s radio station to broadcast English lessons and expand access for those otherwise excluded from the education system. As a World War II naval instructor he created effective teaching methods for thousands of sailors deployed around the world.

As Director of the University of Wisconsin’s Correspondence Study Program (1954-1964) Wedemeyer and his graduate students initiated a number of research projects on learning theory and the sociology of independent learners. The work advanced a new discipline in the field of education by integrating adult, distance, open and independent learning with instructional systems design, and applications of instructional technology, organizational development, and evaluation.

In 1965, Wedemeyer predicted today’s e-Learning:

“…the extension student of the future will probably not ‘attend’ classes; rather, the opportunities and processes of learning will come to him. He will learn at home, at the office, on the job, in the factory, store, or salesroom, or on the farm.”

“…the teacher will reach students not only in his own state or region but nationally as well, since the media and methods employed by him in teaching will remove barriers of space and time in learning…”

Charles A. Wedemeyer, 1965/1966,
Brandenburg Memorial Essays

4. Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee

Harold Wilson was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1976. Jennie Lee was Minister for the Arts in Wilson’s 1964-1970 Labour government. Between them they were responsible for creating the U.K. Open University.

It may seem odd to credit politicians for the development of distance education, but the Open University was first and foremost a political idea based on opening up higher education to all (it was after all a Socialist government that created it). It was initially hotly opposed by the Conservative Party (one of its senior shadow ministers called it ‘blithering nonsense’), although when Mrs. Thatcher came to power in 1970, she was less hostile and eventually supported it (it fitted nicely with her self-made philosophy – she had taken a University of London External Degree programme).

Harold Wilson had the vision (originally a ‘University of the Air’) and Jennie Lee had the political smarts to drive through all the legislation and planning and ensured that it would be created as a quality university that would strive for the highest standards of teaching and research.

Jennie Lee at the Open University

Jennie Lee at the Open University

5. Sir Walter Perry

Left to right: Mary Wilson, Sam Crooks, Walter Perry, Harold Wilson: they are looking at the OU's course texts

Left to right: Mary Wilson, Sam Crooks, Walter Perry, Harold Wilson: they are looking at the OU’s course texts

I could have included Sir Walter with Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee, but as the founding Vice-Chancellor of the U.K. Open University Walter Perry more than anyone really created the U.K. Open University as it came to be recognised. He never wavered from the vision, and was adamant about establishing the highest possible academic standards for OU courses and programs, but he was also the ultimate pragmatist, able to get things done and make it work.

He had to negotiate with sometimes hostile governments and uncomprehending civil servants (one top bureaucrat questioned the OU’s first budget, asking where the cost of lecture halls was). Perry also had to establish a practical and mutually beneficial relationship with the BBC, and persuade the traditional universities not only to support the OU but also to collaborate with it (the OU made heavy use of contracted faculty from the regular institutions to create its courses).

He also had to work with an unwieldy Senate that included every faculty member and all the regional staff tutors and counsellors. (A visiting American university President said to him after a particularly frustrating Senate meeting: ‘Walt, you have the perfect university: no students.’ Perry replied: ‘ Aye, and it would be a bloody site better if there were no faculty, either.’)

Perry’s ultimate achievement was to get distance education recognised as a high standard, cost-effective, and academically valid way of teaching and learning.

Over to you

That’s my list. There are many others I could have included from the Christian St. Paul for his Epistles to the Corinthians, or J.C. Stobart, who first introduced educational radio broadcasting (accompanied by broadcast notes published with The Radio Times) at the BBC in 1924, or those who set up the University of South Africa in 1945.

Who would be on your list of founding fathers?

(Remember, the statement used by Steve Wheeler was ‘fathers of distance education’, not online learning. Should those who developed the first online courses and programs be considered separately?)

So please send in your nominations, with your rationale.

Online learning for beginners: 10. Ready to go

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Click on image to see book

Essential reading for online instructors

This is the last in a series of ten blog posts aimed at those faculty and instructors in higher education new to online teaching or thinking of possibly doing it. The previous nine are:

What you’ve learned

If you have read all previous nine posts in this series, you should now be aware of the following:

  1. Online learning can be done well, or it can be done badly.
  2. Online learning is a professional activity, with evidence-based best practices. You need to be aware of these best practices if you want to succeed in your online teaching.
  3. There are certain conditions where online learning is likely to work, and others where it will be difficult to succeed.
  4. You need then to choose the appropriate mix of online and face-to-face learning, dependent on the context in which you are working.
  5. There are many different approaches and technologies that can be used in online learning. The best choices will depend on your specific learning context but you need to be aware of the choices.
  6. Moving to online learning opens the opportunity to rethink the design of your teaching; indeed you will need to change from a lecture-type approach to a more interactive learning approach if you are to succeed online.
  7. It is important to work with professional instructional designers and media producers if you want a high quality online course or program.
  8. The technology, and to a lesser extent, the pedagogy of online learning continues to evolve.
  9. Thus although, at least in the beginning, it is important to follow best past practices, you also need to be aware of new developments and the potential for innovation in your online teaching.
  10. Really, in the future, online learning will not be considered different or separate from ‘teaching’. It will be an integrated, normal component of all teaching. So you might as well get to learn to use it well as soon as possible. Start now!

Additional resources

Although I hope these posts have helped you decide to teach online, there is always more to learn. Therefore the following additional resources can contribute to your development as an online instructor.

  1. Read Teaching in a Digital Age. This free, online textbook is designed to help you develop the knowledge and skills your students will need in a digital age. It could be read from cover to cover, but it’s more likely to be useful as a resource to be dipped into as and when needed. The book covers:
    • the types of knowledge and the skills students need in a digital age,
    • how online learning can help develop these skills,
    • different approaches to teaching online,
    • how to decide on the right mix of online and face-to-face teaching,
    • how to find and use open educational resources,
    • how to choose between different media,
    • nine steps to quality online learning,
    • organizational requirements for effective online learning,
    • how to creative an effective online learning environment.
  2. Take an online course on how to teach online. This will not only provide you with the knowledge and techniques you will need, but will also give you the experience of what it feels like to study online. Look for programs that allow you to take (and pay) for one course at a time, such as UBC’s Master in Educational Technology. For a list of online programs that will provide you with a good foundation for teaching online, see: Recommended graduate programs in e-learning.
  3. Follow regular online publications written in non-technical language aimed at those teaching online, such as:
  4. For a list of the main journals on research and development in online teaching, see: E-learning journals, and/or the American Association of Computers in Education’s LearnTechLib. I recommend particularly:
  5. At the risk of repeating myself, work with your local Centre for Teaching and Learning, or Centre for Learning Technologies, or Centre for Distance Education, and attend any faculty development workshops on online learning. There is more to learn all the time.

The end

So good luck with your new adventure in teaching at least partly online.

If you have found this series useful, please pass it on to colleagues who you think may also benefit from it.

I’d also be interested in hearing from you of your experiences as newcomers to online teaching.

The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2015

The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines
Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2015

Online learning for beginners: 6. How do I start?

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Seek professional help from your institutional teaching and learning support staff

Seek professional help from your institutional teaching and learning support staff

This is the sixth in a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The other five are:

Warming up

If you have been following this series of blog posts, you have already started. It shows that you have an interest. However, you should see these blog posts more as a warm-up than the real game. Warm-ups are valuable. They save you getting hurt when you start playing, but they are not the real thing. So here are at least two quite different strategies for getting started into the real ‘game’ of teaching online.

1. The professional strategy

I have outlined these as a series of steps, but some of these can be taken concurrently; they are more in order of importance than in sequence.

Step 1: Contact the professionals

There should be in your institution a group of people who specialize in supporting online learning. There may be a unit in your faculty or department, or a central unit, with a title similar to ‘Centre for Teaching and Learning’ or ‘Centre for Learning Technologies.’ However  the people with the real expertise are often found in Continuing Studies or Extension departments, under such names as the Centre for Distance Learning or the Centre for Digital Learning. This is because historically such units were responsible for the design, development or delivery of distance learning, but as a result they were often the first adopters of online learning. They often work with faculties in helping develop for-credit online courses as well as non-credit courses.

Be careful, though. Some faculty development offices are staffed entirely by people who are experts in face-to-face teaching, but have no experience or may even be hostile to online learning – so make sure they do have the expertise. If not, some other steps are suggested below. Similarly, some IT support groups may have expertise in online learning, but others may do no more than provide training in the use of a learning management system or lecture capture system. You will need more assistance than that, although learning how to use the technology is important.

The reasons for contacting the professionals are obvious but still worth stating. First they may have access to money to provide release time for you to spend the necessary time to develop your first online course. Second, they should have instructional designers who can walk you through all the necessary steps to ensure a high quality online course. These professional departments should also have technical support staff who can help with the use of specific online tools, such as a learning management system, video recording, wikis and blogs, and web design.

When you first approach them, tell them of your interest. The first meeting needs to be an open, exploratory discussion between you and someone from the support unit. Keep an open mind. Listen to what they suggest and what they can offer, and whether this fits with your interests and needs. (Reading these blog posts and dipping into ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘ would be a very good preparation for this initial meeting.)

Step 2: Get your department onside

Talk to your department head about what you are thinking of doing, and find out if there are colleagues in the department who are already doing online learning in some form or other. It will be much easier for you to get help and encouragement if the academic department already has a strategy or plan for online or flexible learning. Indeed, academic departments should be thinking about online learning at a program level. How much online learning should there be at each level as students progress through a degree program? Where would your course fit in this plan?

Unfortunately, academic departments often don’t have such a plan or strategy. But once you start moving into online learning, you should have a voice in initiating or shaping such a plan. The earlier you make contact with your department head and colleagues and let them know of your intentions, the better.

Step 3: Think about what kind of online course you are interested in

In the first and fourth posts in this series, I described a number of different types of online course, from blended, to hybrid to fully online, using recorded lectures (not recommended) or an instructional design approach (highly recommended). Also think carefully about the needs of your students as well as the pedagogical reasons for going online. What type of online learning will best suit your students? Teaching in a Digital Age will be particularly useful in helping you make these kinds of decisions (see Follow Up below).

However, in your context, whatever I may personally recommend, which makes the most sense to you in your context? For instance, if you are unfortunate enough to be in an institution where instructional design support is not available to you, then recorded lectures may be a better option.

Also, NOT doing online learning, because the support is just not there, should also be an option. Better not to do it than to do it badly. But make sure you have explored all the possibilities before coming to this decision, and let your head of department know why you are making this decision.

Step 4: Develop a work plan

All teaching, face-to-face or online, needs careful thought and preparation, but moving into teaching online for the first time is particularly demanding. Depending on whether there is already a curriculum and learning materials in place or not, it can take up to nine months preparation before an online course opens. If the course is to have a substantial amount of online work for students, then they need to know well in advance before enrolling. Students also need to be prepared for online learning (covered later in these posts).

This is where having instructional design support becomes particularly valuable. A good instructional designer will walk you through the process and guide you on what and when you need to prepare. But even if (or especially if) you don’t have instructional design support, a flexible but detailed plan of what you will need to do is essential. And give yourself plenty of time to get all the ducks in line.

2. The amateur strategy: just do it!

Your institution may not be able to provide you with any support or all this might seem too much or unnecessary or you just want to get on with it, in which case, just go ahead. However, this should be a fall-back position out of necessity, not a first choice.

If you do decide to go it alone, I do strongly recommend you read Teaching in a Digital Age before starting, so you have some idea about what the possibilities are and some of the dangers. In particular, read Chapter 11, ‘Ensuring quality teaching in a digital age’, which includes nine steps to quality teaching, and Appendix 1, Building an Effective Learning Environment. This is not enough, of course, but better than doing nothing in the way of preparation.


  1. Teaching online is a professional activity with a strong knowledge base. It is not something to be done lightly or without proper preparation.
  2. In most cases, there should be professional help available. Seek it out and listen to what they have to say. If there is none in your institution, perhaps it’s better not to go down this route.
  3. Your online teaching strategy should really be part of a wider strategy for teaching and learning within your academic department. Your first online course should fit within this strategy; if there is no strategy or plan for online learning, get involved in creating one.


Hard to know where to begin here, other than read through ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ In particular read:

Contact Uncle Tony

As a last resort, if you have tried to follow all the steps in this post, but still have problems, drop me a line at tony.bates@ubc.ca. I will need to know about the context you are working in, the particular problems you are facing, and why you can’t get help in your own institution or locally. I will then do my best to advise you.

Up next

‘Why not just record my lectures?’

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

Online learning for beginners: 1. What is online learning?

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Student at computer at home 2

Getting started in online learning?

Every day, someone new either thinks about doing an online course, or is pressured into doing one. You may have quite a lot of prior knowledge about online learning (or think you do), or may have no knowledge at all. The most important thing to know though is that you probably don’t know enough about online learning, especially if you are just starting out (which defines you as wise, according to Socrates).

I have been teaching and researching online learning for nearly 30 years (yes, online learning started that long ago). Over that time, a great deal of research and evaluation of online learning has been done. Although much more could be done, and not all the work has been of high quality, nevertheless there is a great deal now known about what works and what doesn’t in online learning. Learning by experience is often a good way to learn, but it can also lead to frustration and, more importantly, students may suffer from the instructors’ lack of experience or ignorance. Thus at least knowing the basics before you start can save you not only a lot of time, but also will help you develop better courses from scratch.

I have written a 500 page, free online open textbook on Teaching in a Digital Age, which draws extensively on the latest research into online learning, and is meant as a guide for practitioners. Unfortunately, though, there are very few short guides to online learning, to help you make the decision about whether you should make the effort to do it properly.

So this is the first in a series of blog posts aimed at those new to online learning, particularly but not exclusively for those in the post-secondary education sector. I am hoping that these blogs will not only provide some of the basic knowledge you need before starting, but will also lead you to go further by digging into the parts of Teaching at a Distance that are relevant to you at any particular time.

Online learning: a definition

There is no Academie Française or Academy of Science or Technology that provides an ‘official’ definition of online learning. It is what people say it is, so I can only give you my personal definition, which is as follows:

Online learning is any form of learning conducted partly or wholly over the Internet.

The continuum of online learning

I have deliberately chosen a very broad definition of online learning, because it comes in many different varieties (there will be another blog post on the different varieties of online learning). My definition means that learners will use a computer, tablet or some other device for their learning, and it also means that at some point in their studying they have to go online – through the Internet – to access information or communicate with an instructor or other learners.

I therefore see teaching as a continuum:

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

  • at one end, there is teaching with no use of technology, which therefore is NOT online learning, but ‘pure’ face-to-face teaching. However, teaching without any technology is very rare these days, at least in formal education;
  • then there is the use of technology as a classroom aid, which may or may not be online learning. For instance an instructor using a projector and Powerpoint slides would not be using online learning, but students being directed to use a device such as a laptop, tablet or mobile phone to look at a web site during a classroom lesson would be a form of online learning, but the classroom would remain the main means of delivery. However this could be considered a sub-branch of online learning, called blended learning;
  • so, as with most continua, we get to a point where definitions become a little less precise, and this is blended learning, which again can mean a number of things, but in general means a combination of face-to-face teaching and a significant use of online learning, especially outside the classroom. This can take a number of forms:
    • a flipped classroom is one where student do preparation online before a classroom session (for instance watching a pre-recorded video lecture, and/or online reading);
    • hybrid learning is one where the whole classroom experience has been redesigned to focus on what the instructor thinks is best done online and what is best done face-to-face; in hybrid learning students may spend 50 per cent or more of their time learning on line;
  • lastly, fully online learning, where students do not come to campus at all, but study entirely online, which is one form of distance education.

Note though that online learning can include learning with or without an instructor physically present, and that a computer lab where everything is already pre-loaded on the computer would not be online learning. (This form of learning is still found in some countries with poor or no Internet access).

The important thing to remember is that online learning is primarily a mode of delivery, a way of delivering education to learners, NOT a particular method of teaching. Online learning can support a wide range of teaching methods. For instance lectures can be delivered in class (face-to-face) or over the Internet, as can experiential learning, constructivist approaches and many other teaching methods. This will be a topic of later posts.

We shall also see that online learning, like face-to-face teaching, can be done well or it can be done badly, but that too is a topic for another post.


With the increased use of online learning, every instructor now has to ask themselves two important questions:

  1. Where on the continuum of teaching should my course be, and on what basis should I make that decision?
  2. How do I decide, in any form of blended learning, what is best done online, and what is best done face-to-face?

Teaching in a Digital Age attempts to help you answer such questions, but in order to answer those questions well, you will need to read a lot of the book.


So in the meantime, if you want to know more about what online learning is, here is some suggested further reading (no more than an hour). Just click on the link:

  1. From the periphery to the centre: how technology is changing the way we teach, Chapter 1.7, Teaching in a Digital Age
  2. The continuum of technology-based learning, Chapter 9.1, Teaching in a Digital Age.

Up next

‘Isn’t online learning worse than face-to-face teaching?’ (to be posted in the week July 18-22, 2016)

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or just plain disagree, please let me know.

Students in small group online 2

Getting faculty and instructors into online learning

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Online learning: easier than assembling a BBQ! Image: Professional Assemblers

Online learning: easier than assembling a BBQ!
Image: Professional Assemblers, 2016

I mentioned in an earlier post that we don’t always do a very good job in helping people new to the field of online learning to understand what is already well known in the field. As a consequence, errors are made and wheels are re-invented or discovered. To some extent, this is inevitable. We learn better by doing than being told, but it can also lead to frustration or people just giving up. (“I tried online learning once, and it was terrible.”)

Now the best solution of course is to get them to read my online, open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, which is a guide to teaching and learning online. But it’s over 500 pages long, so how to get them started in the first place, how to help them get rid of the hoary old myths, so that they are interested enough to take it seriously and start learning properly about online learning?

To do this, I’m going to run a series of short blog posts which I was tempted to call ‘Online Learning for Dummies’, after the very successful series of ‘how to’ books. However, I don’t think this title would go down well with faculty and instructors, so I’m going to call the posts ‘Online Learning for Beginners.’ Think of it as similar to Playboy or 50 Shades of Gray for teenagers, to be read and hidden under the bed before they go on a real date. (Although I promise you, these posts won’t be nearly as much fun).

Each post will be short – less than 800 words – and can be read in less than 10 minutes. But there will be quite a lot of them:

  1. What is online learning? (A definition)
  2. Isn’t online learning worse than face-to-face teaching?
  3. Aren’t MOOCs online learning?
  4. What kinds of online learning are there?
  5. When should I use online learning?
  6. How do I start? Who can help me?
  7. Why not just record my lectures?
  8. But won’t online learning be more work?
  9. What can I do for myself? (Each a separate blog)
    • get help from professionals/experienced colleagues
    • sources (books, journals, conferences)
    • courses
    • start small (blended)
    • nine steps to quality online learning

You could call this the nine or ten myths – or mythteries – of online learning. I know this kind of thing has been done before (but not by me) but it probably needs to be done over and over again as new people are always arriving at the door.

Now for most of my regular readers, this will be boring stuff, things you already know, but what I’d like you to do is to gently direct these posts in front of faculty or instructors who are currently hostile to online learning or are nervous about taking the plunge, and especially to those who have already jumped in without their shorts on. And I suggest you don’t pass on this particular post to faculty!

However, as always, your advice, suggestions and downright criticisms are always welcome.

Image: Used.ca, 2016

Image: Used.ca, 2016