Online learning has hidden connection to Madison history

Henry Ford is famous for having said, “History is bunk.” As the pre-eminent industrialist of his era, Ford could perhaps be forgiven for thinking the present and future were more important than the past. And if any modern industry were to qualify for an exemption on maintaining an intimate connection with its past, e-learning would appear to be it.

After all, e-learning – a modern form of what has traditionally been known as “distance learning” (think the University of Phoenix or Capella University) – is a cutting-edge industry that has leveraged the Internet and other high-tech platforms in order to widen the boundaries of the classroom thousands of miles in every direction. And it’s vitally important to many of today’s businesses and professionals, for whom continuing education is either a requirement or a key part of keeping pace with the competition.

But if you think that history is unimportant to today’s distance learning industry, you’d be wrong. In fact, in a panel discussion kicking off the 27th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning, which takes place Aug. 3-5 at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, participants will provide historical perspectives and background on the field of distance education, highlighting key concepts and principles for effective teaching and learning. Significantly, much of that history involves contributions that were made by forward-thinking pioneers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Among the panel’s experts will be Jon Aleckson, the CEO of Madison’s Web Courseworks, which creates Web-based training course modules and Internet portals.

According to Aleckson, having a firm grasp on the history of the industry is valuable for anyone in the field of distance learning.

“All the different professions within this booming area of online learning, they’re coming to this conference to learn about ways to teach, ways to manage, ways to develop programs, and a historical perspective is important because it gives them an awareness that a) this didn’t start with the Internet and b) that people have been working on some of the questions they’re asking for many, many years,” said Aleckson. “We’re talking that this goes back before the personal computer; it goes back to when we had television and radio and we thought that was the way we were going to educate people. So the questions remain the same but the delivery method changes.”

Mail-order education

The history of the field actually goes back further than Aleckson lets on. According to William Diehl, executive director of the International Museum of Distance Education and Technology and a participant in the panel, distance learning was originally made possible by a very low-tech innovation: the postage stamp. In the past, he said, distance education was referred to as correspondence study, independent study, and external learning. Today, we use terms like online learning, mobile learning, e-learning, and cyberlearning. But according to Diehl, whatever name was used, people made similar statements about how new technologies would affect education – saying they would “bring a utopian revolution in learning or, on the flip side, that they would bring about the downfall of education and society.”

In general, though, Diehl says that conference attendees can gain a lot from exploring the rich history of distance learning.

“The other thing that I believe that educators can learn is that many of the people who have been involved in distance education have shared the same vision that many do today – to bring educational opportunities to people who have been marginalized by the traditional education systems,” said Diehl. “Also, educators will surely learn as they explore the history of distance education that there is still a great deal of history to discover. We can learn a great deal about individuals, institutions, politics, social movements, technology, pedagogy, theory, and more by studying the history of distance education.”

According to Diehl, Madison actually has strong historical ties to the field of distance learning – a fact that partly explains its distinction as home of the Distance Teaching and Learning conference for the past 27 years.

It all started with former UW president Charles Van Hise, who had been a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, where correspondence study was part of the learning model. Van Hise hired William H. Lighty, who retired from the UW having installed one of the largest correspondence study programs in the U.S. This paved the way for Charles Wedemeyer, who directed the university’s correspondence study program in the ‘50s, and used new technologies such as television, video, audioconferencing, and satellites to improve the school’s distance education programs.

Wedemeyer eventually came to be recognized as a pioneer in the field, and his Articulated Instructional Media program would help shape the Open University of the UK, which in turn was a model for open universities around the world.

A booming industry

So thanks in part to the efforts and vision of the UW’s Van Hise, Lighty, and Wedemeyer, today you’ll find a booming educational model that appeals more and more to tech-savvy young adults as well as older adults looking for continuing education opportunities.

“More adults are returning to school, and the distance education model can fit into their lifestyles,” said Diehl. “I have also seen commercials that target twenty-something students [saying] that they can stay in their pajamas all day while they study at home, and so I suppose that that is a motivation for some people.”

Indeed, demographic shifts and the heightened prestige of many online schools have contributed significantly to the industry’s growth as of late.

“When you have people texting each other and communicating on Facebook via text, those individuals are much more likely to get as much or more from an online course where you’re depending on discussion threads that are basically text,” said Aleckson. “So a) the learner likes it and b) they’re actually getting something out of it because that’s how they communicate generally. It’s making that discussion thread much more effective than it has been in the past. …

“So what we can do online now is we can duplicate a video lecture and we can duplicate the discussion thread, and in many cases, the discussion thread is superior to a classroom discussion because many people that were not comfortable speaking out in the classroom can now be very comfortable writing out their thoughts. So you actually have the potential for an improved discussion, or at least a larger number of people within that online class getting something out of it compared to an in-person class.”

Clearly, the industry has come a long way since the University of Wisconsin helped nurture its roots in the early part of the 20th century. And it goes without saying that there will be more to talk about at the conference than history. The opening-day panel discussion will also provide best practices in the areas of design and development, teaching online, workforce development, and blended and virtual K-12 education, and keynote addresses will address topics such as “Education in the Age of Disruptive Innovation” and “Emergence: Meaningful Learning and the New Technologies.”

But while there are plenty of conferences around the country that focus on e-learning, Aleckson says Madison has a right to be proud of its role as host of this one.

“Every other week there’s a conference on something, and it’s important to attend these to get exposed to the innovations,” said Aleckson. “But what I particularly like about the one in Madison is, it still requires that a paper be written, so the speakers have put thought into what they’re saying. … It’s still got that intellectual rigor.”

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