Historical Importance of Education
Education is a vital concern throughout Britain because a highly developed
nation depends upon educated professionals and a skilled workforce. The literacy
rate in Britain is one of the highest in the world at over 99 percent. p2b22bm
Britain’s first education act, in 1870, was inspired by the pioneering
example of mass compulsory education in Germany and provided for state-financed
primary education. Another major education act, passed in 1902, established
local education authorities (LEAs) that were responsible for providing schools
and education in their areas. The act also authorized LEAs to use public funds
for church-affiliated schools. This policy was severely criticized by people
whose children attended state schools because their taxes were used to support
church schools. The 1902 act also established scholarships for secondary education.
An education act passed in 1944 and administered by the newly created Ministry
of Education established free and compulsory secondary education up to age 15;
this was increased to age 16 in 1973. An education reform act in 1988 allowed
individual schools to control their own affairs and budgets, free from LEAs,
and to receive grants directly from the government. It also established a controversial
national curriculum, which was simplified in 1994 after complaints about its
complexity. Legislation pertaining to education is laden with controversies
because of education’s importance in Britain.
Contrasts with American Education
Compared to the United States, fewer people go on to higher education in Britain,
and there is more emphasis on segregating pupils at the lower levels on the
basis of ability. Most British schools are funded by the central government,
with local governments providing supplemental funding. England and Wales have
a national curriculum of core courses for students 5 to 16 years old, and schools
are inspected by the Office for Standards in Education. National tests at the
ages of 7, 11, and 14 assess students’ progress. Schools must provide
religious education and daily collective worship for all pupils, although parents
can withdraw their children from these. Full-time school begins at age 5 in
Great Britain and at age 4 in Northern Ireland. In addition, about half of 3-
and 4-year-olds are enrolled in specialized nursery schools or in nursery classes
at primary schools.
In Britain, the term form is used to designate grade; old boys and old girls
refer to people who have graduated from a school. Private schools or independent
schools are called public schools, a term that means just the opposite in the
United States. What are called public schools in the United States is called
state schools in Britain. When a person is sent down from school, it means he
or she has been thrown out. Grammar schools are university preparatory schools,
most of which have been replaced by comprehensive schools catering to students
of all academic abilities. Secondary modern schools provide vocational education
rather preparation for university entrance.
Types of Schools in Britain
The most famous schools in Britain are private boarding schools, such as Eton
College, Harrow School, Rugby School, and Winchester School. These famous private
schools, founded during the Middle Ages, are theoretically open to the public,
but in reality are attended by those who can afford the fees. Many of Britain’s
leaders have attended these private schools, which cater to the wealthy and
influential but also offer some scholarships to gifted poorer children. Local
authorities and the central authority also provide assistance to some families
who are unable to pay the fees. Only a small percentage of the population can
attend these ancient and highly prestigious schools. A variety of other schools
are also private, including kindergartens, day schools, and newer boarding schools.
Private schools that take pupils from the age of 7 to the age of 11, 12, or
13 are called preparatory schools. Private schools that take older pupils from
the age of 11, 12, or 13 to 18 or 19 are often referred to as public schools.
Only 7 percent of British students attend private school.
In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the education systems are similar.
The majority of the students attend schools wholly or partly supported with
public funds. These include state schools owned and funded by LEAs; voluntary
schools established and funded mostly by religious denominations; self-governing
or grant-maintained (GM) schools that receive funds directly from the government
rather than local authorities; and specialist schools that are connected to
a private backer. Most pupils attend LEA schools. About 15 percent of secondary
schools are GM schools.
In Scotland, educational authorities are largely independent of those in the
rest of the United Kingdom, although reforms, such as rising the age at which
students may leave school, are similar. Nearly all-Scottish schools are comprehensive,
meaning they serve students of all abilities, and school boards involve parents
and professionals. Recent reforms introduced local management of schools and
allow state schools to become self-governing if voters approve the change in
an election. The school then receives funds directly from the central government
instead of from the local authority.
In 1997 Scotland elected to form its own legislature, separate from the Parliament
in London. As a result, education in Scotland may change significantly due to
Scotland’s 1999 parliamentary elections. Through its parliament, Scotland
can address its own educational issues and create its own educational authorities.
These authorities have the responsibilities once handled by the secretary of
state for Scotland and other non-Scottish educational organizations. Wales also
elected its own governing body, the Welsh Assembly, with the power to make similar
decisions regarding the Welsh education system.
In Northern Ireland the schools are segregated by religious affiliation. Local
education authorities provide for schools, but nearly all-secondary students
in Northern Ireland attend voluntary schools—church schools maintained
by either the Catholic or the Protestant church. In an attempt to break down
religious segregation and provide integrated education, the state established
a number of integrated schools; about 2 percent of the school population attends
Education Beyond Age 16
At the age of 16, prior to leaving school, students are tested in various subjects
to earn a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). If they wish to
go on to higher education at a university, they take Advanced Level examinations,
commonly known as “A” Levels. Scotland has comparable qualifications.
About a third of British students leave school as soon as possible after turning
16, usually taking lower-level jobs in the workforce. Those who stay in school
past the age of 16 may pursue either further education or higher education.
Further education is largely vocational, as is adult education. About 3.5 million
people were enrolled in further education programs in 1995. Students may also
stay in school until age 18 to prepare for higher education.
The percentage of young people entering universities in Britain is far lower
than in the United States, where more than half attend. In Britain the proportion
has risen from one in six in 1989 to almost one in three in 1996. In 1995 there
were 1.7 million students enrolled in higher education.
Britain has more than 90 universities. British universities can be divided into
several categories. The foremost universities are the University of Oxford and
the University of Cambridge, both founded in the Middle Ages. The term Oxbridge
is used to refer to both schools as a single entity, much as Americans would
use the term Ivy League in reference to the group of prestigious East Coast
universities. Scotland has equivalent ancient institutions at Edinburgh, Glasgow,
and St. Andrews. Another type of university is the so-called redbrick variety—old
and solid schools built in the 19th century when bricks were the standard building
material. The large number of ultramodern universities that sprouted up in the
last half of the 20th century is often called cement block and plate-glass universities.
London has its own great schools, the enormous University of London and its
world-famous college, the London School of Economics.
Students interested in advanced education can also attend polytechnics, which
are schools dedicated to the sciences and applied technology. An education act
in 1992 changed the status of these colleges to universities. Higher education
can also be obtained through the Open University, founded in 1969, which offers
extension courses taught through correspondence, television and radio programs,
and videocassettes. It also sponsors local study centers and residential summer
schools. The purpose of the Open University is to reach people who may not ordinarily
be qualified for university study.
Eton College, private school (known as a “public school” in England)
in Eton, Berkshire, England. The school was founded in 1440 by Henry VI, king
of England, as the “King's College of Our Lady of Eton Beside Windsor.”
The original college buildings, which were begun in 1441 and completed for the
most part about 80 years later, consisted of two quadrangles containing the
chapel, the upper school (for older students) and lower school (for younger),
the apartments of officials, the library, and the offices. Additions, undertaken
in 1846, 1889, and 1908, include the boys' library, science schools, laboratories,
an observatory, and 25 boarding houses. The curriculum, almost purely classical
until the middle of the 19th century, consists predominantly of modern subjects,
although students continue to study the classics. Correspondingly, the college
facilities have been modernized and include science laboratories, language laboratories,
and closed-circuit television systems. Preparation is provided for British army
examinations, and numerous scholarships to universities are available, including
six to King's College, at the University of Cambridge. The school has had many
distinguished graduates, including the British statesmen Robert Harley, 1st
Earl of Oxford, and William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham; Great Britain's first
prime minister (1721-1742), Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, and his son,
the English writer Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford; the British general and
statesman Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington; the poets Thomas Gray and
Percy Bysshe Shelley; and the British statesman William Ewart Gladstone. The
British biologists John Burdon Sanderson Haldane and Sir Julian Sorell Huxley
also attended Eton. The college foundation grants 3 music scholarships and 70
King's Scholarships to students; these students, called Collegers, live in the
college. The rest of the students, including music scholars and holders of other
bursaries, are called oppidans (Latin oppidanus, ”dwelling in town”)
and board with the housemasters in the town.
Harrow School, institution of secondary and higher education, in Harrow on the
Hill, now a part of greater London. The late medieval school was re-endowed
in 1572 by John Lyon, a prosperous yeoman, under a charter granted by Elizabeth
I, queen of England. In 1591 Lyon drew up the statutes of the institution, providing
for the free education of 40 boys of the Harrow parish, and left two-thirds
of his fortune to the school when he died. In 1615 pupils were admitted to the
first completed building, which is still in use. About five years later, when
the school was in financial difficulties, a clause in the statutes permitting
the enrollment of “foreign” (or nonparish) paying scholars was invoked.
Harrow's rise to its present eminent academic position dates from this enlargement
of the institution.
The governing body of the school, under the Public Schools Act of 1868, consists
of 20 members, selected by the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, the Royal
Society, the lord chancellor of Britain, and the assistant masters and existing
governors of Harrow. The original course of instruction was exclusively classical,
but studies are now offered in agriculture, architecture, art, classics, economics,
geography, history, mathematics, modern languages, music, science, and technology.
Statesmen Sir Robert Peel and Sir Winston Churchill graduated from the Harrow
School. Other distinguished graduates include philanthropist Anthony Ashley
Cooper, painter Victor Pasmore, writer John Mortimer, novelist Anthony Trollope,
dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan, poet Lord Byron, botanist Sir Joseph Banks,
scholar Sir William Jones, archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, photography pioneer
William Henry Fox Talbot, and scientist Lord Rayleigh.
Rugby School, private English secondary school, in Rugby, Warwickshire, founded
in 1567 as a free school for boys of the area under the terms of the will of
Lawrence Sheriff, a wealthy London grocer. Until 1653 the growth of the school
was hindered by lawsuits between the founder's descendants and the masters and
trustees; since that time the school has steadily increased in size and importance.
The most famous headmaster was the British educator Thomas Arnold who was in
charge of the school from 1828 to 1842. He introduced a program of physical,
moral, and religious discipline, designed to train the character as well as
the mind of the student. Under his leadership Rugby became one of the greatest
of English private schools (commonly known as public schools). Another well-known
19th-century headmaster was the British prelate Frederick Temple, later archbishop
of Canterbury, who initiated an extensive program of modernization of the school
The Rugby School has been at the forefront of science education in Great Britain
throughout the 20th century. The school also offers courses in art history,
design, politics, and Russian history. Girls were first admitted in 1976 and
in 1993 the school initiated programs that would move it toward full coeducation.
Life at Rugby was vividly portrayed by the British jurist and writer Thomas
Hughes in Tom Brown's School Days (1857). The school is familiarly known also
as the place of origin (1823) of Rugby football.
Oxford is the oldest institution of higher learning in the English-speaking
world. The university is located in Oxford, England.
The town of Oxford was already an important center of learning by the end of
the 12th century. Teachers from mainland Europe and other scholars settled there,
and lectures are known to have been delivered by as early as 1117. Sometime
in the late 12th century the expulsion of foreigners from the University of
Paris caused many English scholars to return from France and settle in Oxford.
The students associated together, on the basis of geographical origins, into
two “nations,” representing the North (including the Scots) and
the South (including the Irish and the Welsh). In later centuries, geographical
origins continued to influence many students' affiliations when membership of
an Oxford college or hall became customary. Members of many religious orders,
including Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, and Augustinians, settled in
Oxford in the mid-13th century, gained influence, and maintained houses for
students. At about the same time, private benefactors established colleges to
serve as self-contained scholarly communities. Among the earliest were the parents
of John Balliol, King of Scotland; their establishment, Balliol College, bears
their name. Another founder, Walter de Merton, a chancellor of England and afterwards
bishop of Rochester, devised a series of regulations for college life; Merton
College thereby became the model for such establishments at Oxford as well as
at the University of Cambridge. Thereafter, an increasing number of students
forsook living in halls and religious houses in favor of living at colleges.
The new learning of the Renaissance greatly influenced Oxford from the late
15th century onward. Among university scholars of the period were William Grocyn,
who contributed to the revival of the Greek language, and John Colet, the noted
biblical scholar. With the Reformation and the breaking of ties with Catholicism,
the method of teaching at the university was transformed from the medieval Scholastic
method to Renaissance education, although institutions associated with the university
suffered loss of land and revenues. In 1636 Chancellor William Laud, archbishop
of Canterbury, codified the university statutes; these to a large extent remained
the university's governing regulations until the mid-19th century. Laud was
also responsible for the granting of a charter securing privileges for the university
press, and he made significant contributions to the Bodleian Library, the main
library of the university.
The university was a center of the Royalist Party during the English Civil War
(1642-1649), while the town favored the opposing Parliamentarian cause. Soldier-statesman
Oliver Cromwell, chancellor of the university from 1650 to 1657, was responsible
for preventing both Oxford and Cambridge from being closed down by the Puritans,
who viewed university education as dangerous to religious beliefs. From the
mid-18th century onward, however, the University of Oxford took little part
in political conflicts.
Administrative reforms during the 19th century included the replacement of oral
examinations with written entrance tests, greater tolerance for religious dissent,
and the establishment of four colleges for women. Women have been eligible to
be full members of the university and have been entitled to take degrees since
1920. Although Oxford's emphasis traditionally had been on classical knowledge,
its curriculum expanded in the course of the 19th century and now attaches equal
importance to scientific and medical studies.
The roster of distinguished scholars at the University of Oxford is long and
includes many who have made major contributions to British politics, the sciences,
and literature. Since its founding in 1823, the Oxford Union, a university club
devoted to formal debating and other social activities, has numbered among its
members many of Britain's most noted political leaders.
Academic Organization And Disciplines
There are 39 colleges within the university, each with its own internal structure
and activities. The university's formal head is the chancellor, usually a distinguished
politician, elected for life by the members of Convocation, a body comprising
all members of the university who hold an M.A. degree. The vice-chancellor,
who holds office for four years, is the head of the university's executive.
In addition to Convocation, the other bodies that conduct university business
are the Ancient House of Congregation, which confers degrees; the Hebdomadal
Council, which formulates university policy; and the Congregation of the University,
which discusses and pronounces on policies proposed by the Hebdomadal Council.
The university itself conducts examinations and confers degrees. The passing
of two examinations is a prerequisite for a first degree. The first, called
honor moderations or a preliminary examination is usually held after the first
or second year. The second, the honor school, is held at the end of the undergraduate
course. Successful candidates receive first-, second-, or third-class honors
based on their performance in these examinations. Research degrees at the master's
and doctoral level are conferred in all subjects studied at graduate level at
The heads of Oxford colleges are known by various titles, according to the college,
including warden, provost, principal, president, or master. Two university proctors,
elected annually on a rotating basis from two of the colleges, supervise undergraduate
discipline. Teaching members of the colleges (fellows and tutors) are collectively
and familiarly known as dons. In addition to residential and dining facilities,
the colleges provide social, cultural, and recreational activities for their
Formal instruction is available for undergraduates in the form of lectures.
In addition, each undergraduate works with a college tutor, who is responsible
for overseeing the student's academic progress. Since 1902, students from the
Commonwealth of Nations countries and from certain other overseas countries
have been able to study at Oxford under Rhodes Scholarships, established by
the British colonial statesman Cecil John Rhodes.
Buildings And Libraries
Notable amid the predominantly Gothic architecture of the university is Christ
Church's Tom Quad, the largest quadrangle in the university. It houses above
its gateway Great Tom, a 7-ton bell. Other famed structures are the Sheldonian
Theatre, designed by the English architect, scientist, and mathematician Sir
Christopher Wren and used as an assembly hall, and the domed Radcliffe Camera,
used as one of the reading rooms of the Bodleian Library.
The main university library, the Bodleian, was built in the early 17th century
as an extension to the university's existing 15th-century library. The English
scholar and diplomat Sir Thomas Bodley, who gave the university a collection
of books he had purchased in Europe, established its collections in 1602. The
present collection of bound volumes and manuscripts includes valuable holdings
of biblical codices, Far Eastern literature, and material on British history.
Like the British Library, the Bodleian is a copyright library, entitled to receive
a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom.
Among several university museums is the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology,
with fine collections of Eastern and European art and Middle Eastern archaeology.
The first public museum in Great Britain, it was founded by the English antiquary
Elias Ashmole and was opened in 1683.
Books were first printed for the university in 1478, soon after William Caxton
printed the first book in England. Today the Oxford University Press annually
publishes hundreds of distinguished books of scholarly and general interest,
including the renowned Oxford English Dictionary.
Cambridge is an institution of higher education, the second oldest university
in Great Britain after the University of Oxford. It is located in the city of
The University of Cambridge is a system of faculties, departments, and 31 independent
colleges. Although the colleges and the university per se are separate corporations,
all are parts of an integrated educational entity. The university examines candidates
for degrees during their residency and at the conclusion of their studies; confers
degrees; regulates the curricula of the colleges and the system of education;
deals with disciplinary problems; and administers facilities, such as libraries,
lecture rooms, and laboratories, that are beyond the scope of the colleges.
The colleges provide their students with lodgings and meals, assign tutors,
and offer social, cultural, and athletic activities. Every student at the University
of Cambridge is a member of a college.
The academic year is divided into three terms of approximately eight weeks each:
Michaelmas (autumn), Lent (late winter), and Easter (spring). Students are required
to be in residence for the duration of each term. Much of the year's work is
done, however, out of term time, during the vacations. Students study under
supervisors, usually members of the college's faculties who maintain close relationships
with the small groups of students in their charge and assist them in preparing
for university exams.
Bachelor of arts degrees may be conferred, upon the satisfactory completion
of exams, after nine terms or three years of residency. The majorities of students
are candidates for honors degrees and take a special examination called a tripos
(named after the three-legged stools on which examiners formerly sat). Successful
candidates for triposes are classified as first, second, or third class according
to their standing. Other degrees conferred by the university include the Master
of Arts and doctor of philosophy degrees, and higher doctorates in law, medicine,
music, science, and theology.
Several religious orders, including the Franciscans and Dominicans, established
houses of residence and affiliated schools in Cambridge early in the 12th century.
Students of the University of Oxford and the University of Paris left to study
in Cambridge in the 13th century. By the year 1209 the University of Cambridge
had been formed. The origin of the colleges is traced to the associations of
students, distinct from religiously affiliated groups, who began to reside in
independent hostels, or halls. Over the centuries, private benefactors, beginning
with Hugh de Balsham, Bishop of Ely, who in 1284 founded Peterhouse, the first
of Cambridge’s colleges, endowed these halls. In 1318 Pope John XXII issued
a bull recognizing Cambridge as a studium generale, or place of study; that
is, a university. Five new colleges were established during the 14th century,
four in the 15th, and six in the 16th; not until the 19th century were other
colleges founded. For a list of all the Cambridge colleges and collegiate institutions
and their founding dates, see the accompanying table.
The University of Cambridge figured prominently in the Protestant Reformation
in the 16th century. The Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was a professor of
Greek and divinity at Cambridge from 1511 to 1514 and translated the New Testament
from Greek into Latin there; the religious reformers William Tyndale, Hugh Latimer,
and Thomas Cranmer were educated at Cambridge. As a result of the decrees of
King Henry VIII establishing the Church of England, the humanistic method of
study replaced the scholastic. Canon law studies were ended, public lectures
in Latin and Greek were held, and the Bible was studied in the light of contemporary
A reaction took place, however, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603),
when Cambridge became a stronghold of Puritanism. Restrictive legislation enacted
in 1570 transferred teaching authority to the heads of the colleges. In 1604,
early in the reign of King James I, the university was granted the right to
elect two members to the English Parliament; the right was ended in 1949. During
the 17th century the group of scholars known as the Cambridge Platonists emerged,
and, through the influence of such faculty members as the scientists Isaac Barrow
and Sir Isaac Newton, an emphasis on the study of mathematics and natural sciences
developed for which Cambridge has been subsequently noted.
Important 19th-century developments included the repeal of the restrictive statutes
enacted during the reign of Elizabeth I and, accordingly, greater academic freedom;
the abolition in 1871 of religious tests for admission; and the adoption of
a broader curriculum, such as natural sciences (1851) and engineering (1894).
Girton College, the first such establishment for undergraduate women, was founded
in 1869. Among major changes in the second half of the 20th century were a marked
increase in the size of the older colleges, the establishment of nine new institutions,
a growing emphasis on research and advanced studies, and a movement toward coeducation.
State aid has been granted to all British universities since 1914.
English clergyman John Harvard, for whom Harvard College (later Harvard University)
was named, was a graduate of Cambridge, as were the statesman Oliver Cromwell,
the most important leader of the English Revolution (1640-1660); the poet John
Milton; the scientist Charles Robert Darwin, who developed the evolutionary
theory of natural selection; and the economist John Maynard Keynes, 1st Baron
Keynes of Tilton. Charles, Prince of Wales and heir apparent to the throne of
the United Kingdom, studied at Trinity College (as did his forebears Edward
VII and George VI) and received a degree in June 1970.
The Fitzwilliam Museum, founded in 1816 by the English statesman William Wentworth,
Viscount Fitzwilliam, is part of the university and houses a renowned collection
of art and archaeological objects. Science buildings at Cambridge include the
Cavendish Laboratory of Experimental Physics, the Sedgwick Museum of Geology,
and the Scott Polar Research Institute. The University Library ranks, with the
British Library and Bodleian Library at Oxford, as one of the greatest collections
in Great Britain; its holdings are supplemented by the manuscripts and printed
books housed in the libraries of the colleges and associated university facilities.
King's College Chapel, a late 15th-century building, is famed for the beauty
of its architecture as well as for its choral music. The Cambridge University
Press, established in 1521, publishes books of scholarly and general interest.
The University of London, institution of higher learning, in London. The university
originated from two institutions—the London University (later University
College, London), a nonsectarian college founded in 1826, and King's College,
founded by members of the Anglican church in 1829. In 1836 a charter was granted
to an entirely separate body, the University of London, to set examinations
for the students of those two colleges and of any other institution approved
for this purpose by the Privy Council. In 1900 the university was reconstituted
as a federation of the leading academic institutions in London but also continued
its activities as an examining body. In 1929 the university assumed financial
as well as academic responsibilities, becoming the sole channel through which
public funds reach the colleges (or schools) of the university. In 1993 the
university comprised 50 institutions, some of which were large, multi-faculty
colleges, and offered 1500-degree courses.
Schools of the university include University College, King's College, the School
of Oriental and African Studies, the London School of Economics and Political
Science, and the Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine. Other
medical training facilities include the eight institutes of the British Postgraduate
Medical Federation. Also controlled by the university are institutes specializing
in Romance languages, historical research, and advanced legal, classical, Germanic,
Commonwealth, Latin American, and Slavonic and East European studies.
The Open University is a British institution of higher education that offers
instruction to students largely through methods of distance education. Based
in Milton Keynes, in Buckinghamshire County, England, the Open University has
the largest student body of any higher education and training institution in
the United Kingdom. It is open to any person over age 18 living in Britain or
another member nation of the European Union, regardless of previous education.
Established in 1969, the school conducts teaching and research through radio
and television programs, mailed course materials, and the use of computer facilities.
Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson first proposed the creation of a
“University of the Air” in Britain in 1963. Wilson and others interested
in the project advocated the use of television and radio for limited teaching
purposes, a method already carried out in the United States and the Union of
Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). By the time the university opened for classes
in 1971, administrators had significantly broadened the scope of the university
to facilitate independent learning for large numbers of students. Today, instruction
often makes use of such course materials as special equipment to conduct science
and technology experiments at home, audio and videocassettes, and computer software.
Many lectures are conducted through television programs on the national British
Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) networks. Some courses are taught via the Internet,
while others make use of the Internet as one component of instruction. Some
courses include a one-week instruction in residential schools, usually offered
during the summer.
Open University confers bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees, but the school
has no requirements to follow any particular course of study. However, it does
require specific levels of academic achievement for admission to postgraduate
programs. The university offers programs in the arts, mathematics and computing,
science and technology, social science, education, health and social welfare,
business, and humanities. Most students are between 25 and 45 years of age.
Roughly three-quarters of the students work full time while they pursue their
Distance Education, methods of instruction that utilize different communications
technologies to carry teaching to learners in different places. Distance education
programs enable learners and teachers to interact with each other by means of
computers, artificial satellites, telephones, radio or television broadcasting,
or other technologies. Instruction conducted through the mail is often referred
to as correspondence education, although many educators simply consider this
the forerunner to distance education. Distance education is also sometimes called
distance learning. While distance learning can refer to either formal or informal
learning experiences, distance education refers specifically to formal instruction
conducted at a distance by a teacher who plans, guides, and evaluates the learning
process. As new communications technologies become more efficient and more widely
available, increasing numbers of elementary schools, secondary schools, universities,
and businesses offer distance education programs.
Nearly every country in the world makes use of distance education programs in
its education system. Britain’s nationally supported Open University,
based in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, England, has one of the best-known
programs. A vast majority of the school’s 133,000 students receive instruction
entirely at a distance. More than 20 other countries have national open universities
in which all instruction is provided by distance education methods. This method
of education can be especially valuable in developing countries. By reaching
a large number of students with relatively few teachers, it provides a cost-effective
way of using limited academic resources. Many businesses use distance education
programs to train employees or to help them update skills or knowledge. Employees
may take such programs in the workplace or at home in their spare time.
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.
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 occasionally
video. A conferencing method known as one-way video/two-way audio uses 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 is called video-conferencing.
Programs In The United States
In the United States, institutions of higher education, business, and the armed
services all use distance education methods. Millions of students have enrolled
in television courses produced by certain colleges and universities around the
country. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) delivers these courses to students
at over 2000 institutions. A growing number of private businesses, including
multinational corporations, operate satellite television networks to deliver
vocational training to employees throughout the world. The United States Army
offers distance education programs to military personnel stationed in different
parts of the country. These programs are conducted by the Army Logistics Management
College, based in Fort Lee, Virginia, and delivered over the Internet and in
one-way video/two-way audio systems to over 70 locations. The United States
Air Force also offers distance education programs through the Air Technology
Network (ATN), a division of the Air Force Institute of Technology. The ATN
uses one-way video/two way audio telecommunications systems to reach students
at every Air Force base in the continental United States.
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 Teleconference Network (NUTN) is a consortium of approximately
260 colleges and universities that offer distance education programs in most
fields of knowledge. The National Technological University (NTU), based in Fort
Collins, Colorado, offers hundreds of courses taught by faculty at dozens of
major universities. The Agricultural Satellite Corporation provides courses
on agricultural topics to many colleges and universities. HealthNet, an institution
operated by Boston University Medical School, carries continuing education courses
for health care professionals. The Black College Satellite Network (BCSN) broadcasts
primarily from Howard University with programs aimed at colleges around the
A number of institutions offer complete college degree programs via computer
conferencing. The Online Campus of the New York Institute of Technology offers
bachelor’s degrees in science. A distance education program called Connect
Ed offers a master’s degree in Technology and Society in conjunction with
the New School for Social Research in New York City. The University of Phoenix
Online, a program at the University of Phoenix, offers computer-based courses
leading to degrees in business and management. The Open University in Britain
offers a master’s degree in the field of distance education to anyone
in the world who can access the Internet.
Each medium of communication carries certain advantages over the other. The
most effective distance education employs several telecommunications media linked
together so that learners can benefit from the strengths of each one. For example,
a student may watch an instructor’s lecture on a video monitor, respond
with questions through electronic mail on a computer, and then participate in
class discussions through telephone audio-conferencing. Distance education programs
require teams of media producers, teaching specialists, and experts in academic
subjects to design effective teaching strategies. Other specialists plan and
facilitate communications with learners. Because such programs can be expensive
to produce, institutions usually design distance education courses for relatively
large audiences and wide geographic areas.
Distance education has created a major shift in how educators and students think
about teaching and learning. By allowing students to learn in more convenient
locations and often at more convenient times, distance education opens educational
opportunity to previously unreached populations. It also enables more people
to extend the period of their education from a limited number of schooling years
to a lifelong learning process. In addition, it changes power and authority
relationships between teachers and learners, often encouraging more equal and
open communication than occurs in conventional educational settings. Because
distance education enables institutions to reach students all over the world,
learners gain increased opportunities to experience other cultures and enrich
their educational experience.