The Impact of Web-Based Technology on Distance Education in the United States

James C. Samans

Pennsylvania State University



Distance education was already a mature field when the Internet became public. Its three sub-fields (correspondence, audio-only, and audio-visual) had each developed as a result of specific technologies but were constrained by the limits of those media. The advent of World Wide Web, however, resulted in a means of bridging those gaps, resulting in a drastic restructuring of the field of distance education into two spheres: synchronous and asynchronous education. These are not competing standards but rather distinct approaches which have mutually exclusive goals; consequently, each is particularly suited to specific educational purposes.

Despite its recent publicity, distance education is not a new idea. Though the significant difficulty involved in communicating across distances throughout most of human history has made distance education difficult, the events of the last two centuries provide evidence that educators have, in fact, always sought a means of reaching more students. In 1840, for example, the ìpenny postî made postal service across Great Britain a feasible means of communication; that same year, Isaac Pitman began to offer a shorthand course via correspondence (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). Similar efforts by educators to make use of new communications technologies followed the development of telephone, radio, and television networks. Indeed, the recent interest in expanding distance learning to the realm of the Internet by means of the World Wide Web represents only the next logical step for a profession that has traditionally used any means available to increase the size of its audience.

While online education is a natural progression of the distance learning paradigm, however, the Internet itself has one distinct difference from the other media which have been used for distance education: whereas the other media provide standards for specific forms of communication, the Internet is solely a carrier of data itself and leaves it to the receiving client (or ìhostî) to interpret that data. This significant difference means that the emergence of Web technology is not a new sub-field within the overall field of distance education but rather a force which impacts all previous forms and redefines their limits under a new paradigm. Furthermore, the Web is distinct in that its influence has been limited to these impacts and has not resulted in the creation of a truly separate format of its own. To explore this phenomenon further, it is necessary to consider the effects of the Web as they pertain to the three distinct forms of communication used within any form of human interaction: correspondence, audio-only, and audio-visual.


Because the development of postal mail systems predates the earliest radio or television systems, correspondence represents the first form of distance education to be effectively put into practice. Initially limited to coastal regions in North America, mail service in the United States expanded steadily over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as new methods of transportation combined with a decline in the threat and scope of hostile raids by Indians along the frontier. As in Britain, the earliest course taught by correspondence in the United States was shorthand; by 1891, courses were available in topics as elaborate as mine safety and the International Correspondence School had been formed to cater to both home-based students and railroad workers (Moore & Kearsley, 1996).

Today, correspondence education is still a major player in the field of higher education within the United States. However, it is in the area of correspondence that the influence of Web technology has been most strongly felt. In discussing the role of the Internet vis-ý-vis correspondence courses, it is essential to recognize that such courses make use of only a single aspect of the services offered by the postal system: the ability to transport documents. Accordingly, those aspects of the postal system which the Internet is not capable of duplicating, such as the delivery of large packages or delicate goods, can be disregarded entirely.

The strength of correspondence courses has always been in the ability of a student to study around his or her own schedule, sending assignments back to an instructor for grading. While the postal mail system is more secure today than it has been at any previous time in history, however, it is ultimately limited in its speed by the need to transfer physical materials. The result is a lengthy delay between the submission of an assignment and its return to the student.

The Internet provides a direct equivalent to the postal systemís ability to deliver documents in its most basic service, electronic mail (or ìe-mailî). E-mail has almost every possible advantage over postal mail: it is free, its delivery is nearly instantaneous, and delivery confirmation can be provided on request. Moreover, the sole aspect of communication which e-mail is unable to replicate, the personal aspect of composing a letter, is not a concern for purposes of educational correspondence. As a result, with regards to correspondence courses, e-mail is not merely a supplement for postal mail but a perfect substitute which actually provides better service than its rival.

The effects of the Web are not limited merely to e-mail, however. Building on the advantages of the Web, educators have been able to take correspondence courses one step further to create a greater depth of study in the form of online education. (While there are two types of education which technically fit this title, synchronous and asynchronous, it is the latter whose format and purpose places it within the realm of correspondence; synchronous technology will be discussed later.)

Asynchronous education is what most people envision when they imagine online education. It is a concept which came into wide acceptance only within the last decade; even so, it remains an evolution of the world of correspondence courses and not a new concept unto itself. As an evolution, however, asynchronous education improves upon every aspect of its predecessor. An asynchronous learning environment is structured as a ìvirtual classroomî, with pre-written lessons presented in defined units and bulletin boards taking the place of mail as a means of providing threaded written interaction that offers a greater depth of discussion than the simple passing of letters. Instructors can also make use of additional technologies, such as packaged presentations and Web hyperlinks, to increase the depth of instruction in each lesson beyond what would be feasible by mail. (Asynchronous courses may also include downloadable video lectures; these will be discussed later, as they are a form of audio-visual media.)

Some asynchronous courses remain purely true to the vision of correspondence and allow the student complete freedom in determining his or her own pace for the lecture. Most often, however, courses are ìpacedî, meaning that units are covered within a particular time frame, typically one week. The advantage of this approach is that it allows a course to include multiple students. Each student is free throughout a given period to study at times that meet his or her own scheduling needs, yet each remains a part of a class and can interact with other students as well as with the instructoróa key aspect of face-to-face education which correspondence education at its inception was unable to replicate.

Of course, asynchronous classes do have drawbacks. The largest potential problem is one which is inherent to correspondence courses in general: the level of freedom given to each student in terms of scheduling necessitates that a student have a significant motivation to learn and to hold him or herself to a schedule in order to avoid failure. However, online learning also introduces a new pitfall in the form of technological requirements. That a student must be reasonably computer-literate to successfully navigate the Web is perhaps axiomatic; a less controllable variable is the reliability of that studentís connection to the Internet. Short (2000, September) suggests that a dial-up connection provided even by a new 56K modem may be unreliable, as ìsome of the small, local ISPs have a policy of placing clients in queues for access to the Internet and bumping other clients who have been online for a pre-set amount of timeî (p. 56).

To address this concern, Short (2000, September) recommends turning to one of the larger providers, which have more connection lines and are thus less likely to resort to such practices. Recent improvements in the availability of digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable modem technologies to provide high-speed, continuous service in many parts of the country offer an even better solution for the serious online student (McKean, 2001, January). As these efforts move towards their logical conclusion of providing high-speed access throughout the United States, the issue of connectivity will wane in importance and eventually disappear entirely.

More than countering this waning disadvantage is evidence that asynchronous education may actually be superior to traditional classes in some ways. According to findings by Sannomiya and Kawaguchi (2000, August), students tend to learn superior planning skills as a result of working with asynchronous methods. Because of its compatibility with busy schedules, meanwhile, asynchronous education is also seen as a tremendous asset for the increasingly large number of adult learners seeking to increase their employability through the pursuit of an advanced degree. With numerous top-tier schools now offering online education, and with business, legal, nursing, and even medical programs offering or preparing to offer significant portions of their instruction online, asynchronous education has proven itself to be the correct medium to bring distance education to the general publicóthe true successor to the tradition of correspondence courses.


Because of the primacy that oral communication enjoys in human society, audio-only education represents a more natural derivative of traditional, face-to-face learning than correspondence; courses presented in classrooms are, after all, originally given in vocal form. True, there are aspects of some courses which involve diagrams and other sight-based instruction. For the most part, however, these are supplementalóand because they are mere references, it follows that even if they are essential, their distribution by other means would not disrupt the validity of a lecture. If it were possible, therefore, to record such discussion and distribute it, students would have the advantage of experiencing a class lecture almost exactly as it had been given. This simple desire represents the driving force of audio-only education.

Reaching that goal, however, was beyond the means of the first distance educators. For technological reasons, the postal system was the first medium of long-distance communication to be perfected; the development of the telegraph, despite its connection to sound waves, proved to have more in common with the post than with audio recordings. The first true breakthrough in audio communication came with the development of the telephone. The radio followed soon after, though, and for cost reasons, it was the latter that was first envisioned as a means of education; between 1911 and 1922, Pennsylvania State College was among the first schools in the United States to begin general broadcasting (Moore & Kearsley, 1996).

Despite the early excitement, however, the role of radio in the history of United States distance education has been mediocre. The need to provide supplemental materials for early courses by postal mail made radio courses little more than enhanced correspondence courses. Before the innovation of this idea could be exploited fully, the development of educational television in 1934 rendered radio in education obsolete in the eyes of many educators. Simultaneously, advertisers who saw the value of radio as a means of promoting their businesses addressed the issue with more enthusiasm, and the result was a drastic shift away from audio-only education in the United States.

In 1965, the University of Wisconsin decided to take a second look at radioís predecessor, the telephone, and set up the Educational Telephone Network (ETN) to provide continuing education for physicians. Over the next three decades, the system expanded steadily, with more than 100 programs every week used primarily by doctors, lawyers, nurses, engineers, and ministers for the purpose of continuing education.

The introduction of Web technology to the world of audio-only education had a significant and severe effect in the United States. As with correspondence courses, educators saw a means of improving audio education using Web enhancements. However, these enhancements invariably involved a shift away from audio-only and into the realm of audio-visual communication; the ETN, for example, was discontinued on June 1, 2002 in favor of a new teleconference service (ETN, n.d.).

Audio-only education is not entirely dead. Largely abandoned by educators in the United States, some instructional trainers offer their audio courses in the form of Web-based streaming audio files that take the place of audiocassettes. The development of portable players for MP3-format music may eventually lead to the availability of audio books in this medium as well. Radio-based education is also still popular in its original form in many developing nations, where geographic and political divisions prevent students from gathering in a single area for classes. As a tool of academic education in the United States, however, audio-only is an idea whose time has passed.


Face-to-face classes are audio-visual experiences. If both audio and video could be simultaneously viewed exactly as they occurred in class, a student using such materials to learn would be on a truly equal level vis-ý-vis his or her classmates. For this reason, audio-visual capability has been a goal long pursued by educators.

The State University of Iowa is credited with the first broad use of television as a means of providing audio-visual courses in 1934; Moore and Kearsley (1996) write that, ìby 1939 the universityís station had broadcast almost 400 educational programs (Unwin & McAlesse, 1988)î (p. 27). In the decades after World War II, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of grants from the Ford Foundation and other private investors poured into televised learning, and the availability of such courses continued to expand with the beginning of the cable television network in 1955 (Moore & Kearsley, 1996).

Despite the overwhelming funding allocated to televised learning, however, there remained one key flaw in the system: whereas true face-to-face courses allowed students to interact with their teachers, televised courses were static systems. This limitation meant that, while students could hear any questions that might be asked by a live audience, those who had questions not covered in the lecture were left without any realistic means of obtaining an answer. An extension of this lack of interaction was that testing was not feasible in televised classes without resorting to a correspondence format. Even as the development of the video cassette recorder (VCR) allowed pre-recorded class sessions to be distributed on an even wider scale, the lack of interactivity remained a crucial problem.

The first serious attempt to circumvent this problem came in 1977, when a special keypad was made available to allow students in Columbus, Ohio to respond to test questions (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). Because the equipment was highly specialized, however, this was a solution usable only in the most limited of settings, such as a satellite campus already built and maintained by the school itself; for the wider audience of students studying on broadcast networks or by videotape, the only solution was to have students complete tests by mail or travel to a central location to complete them in a proctored setting. Both were workable solutions in a pinch but served to limit the versatility of an otherwise-powerful technology.

The expansion and subsequent public availability of the Internet during the early 1990s represented the solution to the problem of interaction. Web-based ìchat roomsî offering users the ability to interact with one another in real-time began as simple text interfaces but slowly became more elaborate to meet corporate and educational demands, resulting in the capability for synchronous education. Initially, these interfaces encountered the same problem as the earlier keypads in terms of requiring expensive satellite campuses. The price wars of the late 1990s, however, saw previously expensive equipment such as digital video cameras (or ìwebcamsî) and high-performance sound cards with microphones drop drastically, eventually resulting in prices that were reasonable for the average consumer.

A modern synchronous classroom includes support for streaming video and audio. The bottleneck for such communication has always been and still remains connection speeds; transmitting audio-visual signals over a 56K modem results in significant distortion due to delay. Moreover, the nature of the Internet means that most transmissions are from the Web to a client (called a ìdownloadî). As a result, even high-speed services like DSL and cable typically offer slower speeds on transfers made in the opposite direction (called an ìuploadî; the reason for this difference in transfer rates is a complex networking concept outside the scope of this paper). Academic institutions are able to avoid this problem by building satellite campuses linked by fiber-optics and other expensive technologies, but such means are outside the budget of virtually all students.

Fortunately, innovation has compensated well for this technological barrier. Mathematical compression techniques have resulted in video signals that are significantly smaller in size than just a few years ago, resulting in faster image transfers. Many schools also take advantage of the disparity between upload and download speeds by having the professorís voice sent along with his picture as a full audio-visual signal, while pulling only video images from the students and having them ask their questions using text-based chat messages whose transfer time is insignificant. While these measures cannot entirely erase the delays in transmission, they do result in reasonably effective transmission speeds and help to make home-based synchronous education a reality.

Of course, the interactive benefits of synchronous education come at a cost: every student must ìattendî the virtual class at a pre-determined time in order to be a part of the lecture. It is this scheduling issue which results in the significant divide between the realms of asynchronous and synchronous education: the former accords its students flexibility of scheduling, while the latter is more rigid. Some asynchronous programs opt for a ìbest of both worldsî approach by including pre-recorded audio-visual lectures as supplements or replacements for written course lessons (Pival & Tunon, 2001). However, this decision should not be misinterpreted as a superiority of asynchronous learning; rigidity is not inherently a flaw in the system, and can in fact be an asset depending on the audience.

As was mentioned previously, successful asynchronous learning requires extremely strong personal motivation and discipline; for this reason, it is an ideal medium for higher education opportunities offered to working adults. Synchronous education, however, helps to reinforce the class experience by holding its students to a schedule. Because a teacher can ìseeî whether or not a student is attending and participating in class, he or she can better appraise whether or not the student needs additional help. These strengths make synchronous education the preferred medium not only for highly focused corporate training programs but also for secondary education programs offered to students whose circumstances make traditional learning difficult. Berman and Tinker (1997) express significant optimism about the potential that virtual high schools have in teaching students about an increasingly high-tech world; Duke (1999, January) goes so far as to suggest that they may form an integral part of a widespread effort to reform the American public school system.


Before the Internet became public, distance learning was already a mature, established field. However, it was split into three different sub-fields, each of which was set apart from the others by the technological limitations of its respective medium. The introduction of Web-based technology into the field provided a means by which the best aspects of each sub-field could be incorporated into a larger, more inclusive system of distance education. The resulting system includes only two spheres, those of asynchronous and synchronous communication.

Moreover, while these spheres are distinct and necessarily separate, their differences are not technological in natureóindeed, both use the same technologiesóbut are rather the result of different priorities (freedom of scheduling vs. real-time interaction). Because these priorities are also diametrically opposed given any technological system currently feasible, they can therefore be viewed as divided not by technology but by logic; these are not competing standards but distinct approaches which lend themselves to different situations. Accordingly, it follows that (barring a drastic paradigm shift produced by a technology whose nature is not currently feasible) future developments in the field of distance education will focus on improving the methods by which the overriding goal of each sphere can be maximized. Because the predominant technologies on which both asynchronous and synchronous education technology depend are Web-based, it can therefore be further concluded that the capabilities of distance education will expand in a manner consistent with the expansion of the Web itself.


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