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.


  1. Ah well, I did say founding fathers of ‘modern’ distance education in my video introduction. Nice list, Tony – and reflects a chapter I wrote for a compendium several years ago edited by Mike Simonson. I also mentioned Saul of Tarsus (otherwise known as St Paul – who around AD 70 developed a correspondence course for the fledgling Christian Church (known as epistles) which were delivered by courier to Asia Minor. Thanks for starting the discussion!

  2. Stephen Downes in his post on this topic [] raises a really important question:

    ‘What role would make a person a ‘founder’ – the builder of the technology, the person who writes about the theory, the experimenter who verified it works, or the directors and politicians who institutionalized it? Bates’s list runs to the last, while my list would almost certainly priorize the first.’

    In response, I would say that DE is not about any specific technology. Many technologies have been used, and on their own they do not automatically lead to distance education. So it would be more those that experimented with a technology then established its use for DE who would in my view be ‘founders.’ This would include for instance those who developed the Australian rural radio schools and the Latin American ‘radio escuelas’.

    There are certainly those, such as Burkhard, who strongly support those who write about or offer a theory of DE, such as Otto Peters and Borje Holmberg (and to these one could add Desmond Keegan). However, writing about it and doing it are different. Although theory (and research) are important, they alone will not ’cause’ DE to happen, at least not on their own. Those who write about theory are important in giving ‘respectability’ and validation, but we need the ‘do-ers’ as well. Probably where I disagree with many of the theorists of distance education is that I see it as primarily a delivery system, not a specific pedagogy or ideology, even though it is traditionally associated with increasing access. Indeed distance education is capable of handling many different pedagogies and ideologies.

    So I stand by my emphasis on those that have institutionalised distance education. Most definitions of distance education talk about a system, a variety of elements that need to be brought together. That’s what institutions do well. There are all kinds of problems with institutions, as we know, but they can provide a very useful way to organise and deliver services. Within those institutions of course people are critical, but getting a system of distance education established has in the past required both political action and the establishment of an organisational infrastructure.

    Lastly, probably no ‘profession’ is so disrespected these days as politicians. Nevertheless there are countless examples in history of politicians who have not only gotten good things done, but who have enabled major innovations and developments to happen. This was certainly the case with the UK Open University. So politicians need to be considered when we look at the foundations of distance education.

    The important point of course is that distance education has a rich and complex history. There are no single founders, but a huge number of often unsung and now forgotten people who in various ways, in many different countries, have contributed to the development of distance education. In this sense, it is the opposite of Isaac Newton’s statement: ‘we stand on the shoulders of giants.’ We stand on the shoulders of thousands of unrecognised individuals who collectively have created a very important mode of education.

  3. I like this list but it is interesting that all are located in the correspondence model of distance education. For myself distance education as it has moved into online learning has deep foundations in critical education models that challenge the role of the teacher and the learner in the classroom and promote learner autonomy etc. I wonder where the following thinkers would fit on the list?

    1. Lev Vygotsky for his views on social constructivism. His ideas sees at the core of our approaches to knowledge construction online

    2. Ivan Illich for his views on deschooling, building learning webs and knowledge networks


    • Good point, Joanna, but it wasn’t my title but the one that Steve Wheeler used. Also I did ask about the mothers as well as the fathers in my post.

      As for other women, it’s easier to think of founders of online learning rather than DE, such as

      Roxanne Hiltz, New Jersey Institute of Technology: first online use of computer conferencing, 1978 (with her partner Murray Turoff)
      Robin Mason, UKOU; Linda Harasim, OISE, Toronto (then), SFU (now); and Elaine McCreery (University of Guelph, which developed CoSy, an early software platform for Internet-based learning) in the 1980s
      Kathleen Forsyth, Knowledge Network and Carol Haslam, BBC/Open University/Channel 4 for use of television (the MOOCs of the 1980s).

      I think why it is easier to identify women as founders of online learning rather than DE is that DE is much older and there has been considerable progress in women’s equality since the 1920s, when ‘modern’ DE began to develop.

      But as I said in an earlier comment, and partly why I was a little uncomfortable about the three old guys being interviewed by Steve, so many different people have contributed to these developments that it is invidious to select just a few. On the other hand, everyone likes a little bit of public recognition when they can get it – including me!

      • Thanks very much for your reply, Tony and for the references! I found the information about the Society to Encourage Learning at Home (in your second response) very moving, again making me think about the concept of distance learning and how many different ways it can manifest itself.

        I think that titles can be easily be immediately welcoming or off putting and, even though it was from another person and had a back story, to a lay person like me, it falls in the latter category . Thanks again, Joanna

  4. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for asking! If we could expand the scope of founding parents to those who played/have played a relevant role in making modern distance learning what it is today, I would add a father and three mothers who -I believe- are highly relevant in the Spanish-speaking world, :

    Lorenzo Garcia Aretio, for his role in the dissemination of Distance Learning in Spanish language, from Spain. From Argentina, I would add Beatriz Fainholc, for introducing the socio-cultural dimension in her construct “Appropriate and Critical Educational Technology”; Marta Mena for adapting management of distance learning institutions to the unique characteristics of the regional context and promote distance learning in Latin-America, and Edith Litwin for creating a pioneer 30-year-old entrance distance program for University of Buenos Aires.


    • Many thanks, Nora, for this wonderful comment. I agree that they have all made a very important contribution, especially in the Spanish-speaking world.

      For the Spanish-speaking world I would also add Dr. Gabriel Ferraté i Pascual, the founder and first Rector of Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, probably the first ever fully online public university, which started in 1996, offering programs originally in both Catalan and Spanish (and now also English).

      We should also probably include the founding mothers and fathers of UNED in Spain and Universidade Aberta in Portugal – but then what about Fernuniversität in Germany and the Open University of the Netherlands, or the Open University of Indonesia (which currently has a very distinguished woman president, Dr. Tian Belawati), all of which have relatively long histories?

      This just reinforces the point I made in an earlier comment that there are many hundreds if not thousands of founding mothers and fathers of distance education who all deserve credit.

  5. I would think that someone might have mentioned St. Paul, who was heavily involved in distance education in the first century. William Bathe, an Irish Jesuit monk working in Spain in the h century preceded Comenius in writing one of the first textbooks, enabling distance education. I did notice that the three experts were considered founders of modern distance education. I would think that modern would be online education, which I believe was led in the mid-19 with women like Linda Harasim, who taught the very first fully online course and Marlene Scardamalia with CSILE both at OISE and Robin Mason at OUUK.
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  6. 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.


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