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Adult Learning Activities | California Distance Learning ProgramCDLP

What is Distance Learning?


History of Distance Learning

Distance education traces its origins to mid-19th century Europe and the United States. The pioneers of distance education used the best technology of their day, the postal system, to open educational opportunities to people who wanted to learn but were not able to attend conventional schools. People who most benefited from such correspondence education included those with physical disabilities, women who were not allowed to enroll in educational institutions open only to men, people who had jobs during normal school hours, and those who lived in remote regions where schools did not exist.

An Englishman, Isaac Pitman, is credited as an early pioneer. He began teaching shorthand by correspondence in Bath, England in 1840. Students were instructed to copy short passages of the Bible and return them for grading via the new penny post system.

American university level distance education began in 1874 at Illinois Wesleyan University where bachelor and graduate degrees could be obtained in absentia. The Chautauqua movement in about 1882 gave the popular push to correspondence education.

The teaching of academic and vocational courses by correspondence became quite popular by 1900 and problems of quality and ethical practice came with the popularity. The National Home Study Council (NHSC) was formed in 1926 in part to address these issues. Accreditation of college and university distance programs fell to the National University Extension Association in 1915.

The invention of educational radio in the 1920s and the advent of television in the 1940s created important new forms of communication for use in distance education. Educators used these new technologies to broadcast educational programs to millions of learners, thus extending learning opportunities beyond the walls of conventional teaching institutions.

The development of reliable long-distance telephone systems in the early 1900s also increased the capacity of distance educators to reach new student populations. But telephone systems never played a prominent role in education until the introduction of new teleconferencing technologies in the 1980s and 1990s. Teleconferencing systems made it possible for teachers to talk with, hear, and see their students in real time - that is, with no delays in the transmissions - even if they were located across the country or around the world.

Distance education increasingly uses combinations of different communications technologies to enhance the abilities of teachers and students to communicate with each other. With the spread of computer-network communications in the 1980s and 1990s, large numbers of people gained access to computers linked to telephone lines, allowing teachers and students to communicate in conferences via computers.

Distance education also makes use of computer conferencing on the World Wide Web, where teachers and students present text, pictures, audio, and video. File sharing and communications tools like email, chats and and audio and video conferencing are integral to the Internet model.

Business and university level learners have used a conferencing method known as one-way video/two-way audio where television pictures that are transmitted to particular sites, where people can reply to the broadcasters with a telephone call-in system. Television pictures can also be transmitted in two directions simultaneously through telephone lines, so that teachers and students in one place can see and hear teachers and students in other places. This video-conferencing technology increasingly uses the Internet and Internet2.

Programs in the United States

In the United States, institutions of higher education, business, and the military use distance education for education and training. Millions of students have enrolled in television courses produced by colleges and universities around the country. Private businesses, including multinational corporations, have operated satellite television networks to deliver vocational training to employees throughout the world. The United States Army offers a wide range of online education programs to its military personnel. See for example the Army Training Requirements and Resources System and eArmyU.

Distance education offered through colleges and universities in the United States provides instruction in a wide range of academic and vocational subjects. The National University Telecommunications Network, (NUTN) based in Old Dominion University, Colorado, offers distance learning and teleconferencing resources for over 50 institutions of higher learning. Over time the technology has moved from satellite and telecourses to the Internet.

University Courses Online

Photo of computer keyboard A growing number of institutions offer complete college degree programs via the Internet. California's Virtual University lists a wide range of community college, college, and university courses offered online. The Western Governor's Association sponsors the Western Governor's University (WGU). It offers online college degrees and courses from multiple universities.

The innovative Open University, started in 1971 in Britain and has been copied around the world. The British Open University offers a master’s degree in the field of distance education to anyone in the world who can access the Internet.

Listings of virtual universities and much more information can be found on the American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC) and the Distance Education Clearinghouse Web sites. Others can be found using routine Internet search methods.

The Virtual School

Several states have introduced virtual high schools and virtual schools. A 1991 WestEd study defines the virtual school as "an educational organization that offers K-12 courses through Internet or Web-based methods." The statewide Florida Virtual School probably is the most notable because of its breadth and depth. The Massachusetts nonprofit VHS Inc. creates collaborative partnerships with schools. Other virtual schools are locally based or created via charter schools. The University of California Santa Cruz's University of California College Prep online (UCCP) began as an online program to provide advanced placement courses to small and middle size high schools. It has expanded to include core academic courses.

The California Adult Basic Education Experience

California provides adult education and literacy services through a multi-provider system. The bulk of the state and federal resources go to the K-12 adult schools. Community colleges offer basic education services through their noncredit programs on some 9 campuses. Library literacy programs and community based advocacy organizations also offer very important literacy, basic education and ESL services, though in limited numbers.

There has been little motivation for the literacy and community based organization programs to experiment with distance learning. The federal English language/civics (EL/Civics) grant programs initiated in 2001 included a distance learning emphasis though there was little provider interest.

The California Adult Schools

California’s efforts to provide adult basic distance learning services are recent. Adult schools can offer distance learning through two funding mechanisms - apportionment and fee based. Currently there are two apportionment delivery options - independent study and Innovation Programs.

High school subjects can be offered through "independent study" programs. Adult learners enter into agreements with adult schools to carry on independent learning in an approved adult high school subject. The learner and instructor meet periodically to review assignments, progress and concerns. The modality in which the independent learning occurs does not matter and distance learning is a very appropriate tool. However, distance learning course materials are presently limited, and most independent study occurs in learning centers or on a materials checkout basis.

In 1993 legislation was passed permitting adult schools to use up to 5% of their block entitlement for innovative programs, all of which have been distance learning in nature. Innovation Programs programs can be offered in the authorized areas of instruction including English as a second language (ESL), adult basic education, GED preparation, parent education and short term career education training.

The Innovation Program application and provider information can be found at the Adult Education Office's Innovation Program site. A more detailed discussion follows in the California considerations module.

Role of the Instructor

All California adult education apportionment programs administered by adult schools must have an instructor assigned to manage the instruction. This function cannot be delegated to second parties. Instructional strategies that include distance learning must clearly define how the learner and instructor interact and communicate. Approaches that optimize the communications are important.

Substantial anecdotal information in California supports the perspective that the distance learning intervention creates a unique and beneficial one–to–one relationship between teacher and student that is not as common in a traditional teacher–directed classroom. Distance learning teachers report that a more direct and immediate connection is formed between teacher and student through regular meetings to review progress.

Instructional Design

The delivered instruction must fit into the approved curriculum outline that the adult school uses. The 2005 – 2006 media distribution favored video based learning. Normally work books or study packets accompany the video, broadcast, and audio based courses.

Bar Graph


California reimburses adult schools for student participation based on "seat time." Records are kept of attendance and the schools reimbursed. The Innovation Programs base their reimbursements on learning outcomes. When a unit of instruction is completed, and the learner passes a unit quiz; then reimbursement is claimed. The value of a unit of instruction is based on the hours associated with a similar unit of classroom instruction.


Distance learning in adult basic education is still in its infancy. However, in fiscal years 2004 - 2005 over $23 million was budgeted for innovative and distance learning through some 81 California adult schools. In the 2003 - 2004 slightly more than 50,000 unduplicated learners were served. The graphic shows the growth in the adult school distance learning.

Bar graph showing unduplicated learners


Annual reviews of the Innovation Programs' statewide standardized program, student, and testing data continue to show the utility of distance learning. When comparing classroom data with the Innovation Programs, it is clear that the distance learning programs are particularly successful in providing English as a second language (ESL) learning opportunities. Local research data on student persistence and retention support these findings.

The Innovation Programs meet the three crucial benefit–cost criteria necessary to be accepted by adult education providers and the California Department of Education. These programs are effective, efficient, and equitable. The annual research can be found on the California Distance Learning Project's Web site. Click on "For Adult Educators" and then "Research."

Next Steps

There will be a slow increase of Internet centered instruction as teachers become more comfortable with the curricula and management systems and as more course length curricula become available.

California Considerations >