Distance education, also called distance learning, is a method of offering education either through correspondence or other means of modern technology. Distance education focuses on delivering quality education for students who are not physically present. It enables students to receive education from at far-off places. Started in 1946, the University of South Africa is one of the oldest distance education universities.
The origin of distance education can be traced back to the 19th century (1840) when Sir Issac Pitman, the inventor of shorthand, came up with an idea of offering courses through mail. In the 1900s, a department for correspondence courses was started at the University of Chicago. In the later years, a number of universities also started such departments. Until 1969, distance education remained an important means of education in only a few countries. In 1969, the establishment of the United Kingdom's Open University brought about a significant change in the field of distance education. A number of other open universities followed suit.
In modern distance education, educational materials are given to the students through various means such as tutorials, audiotapes, videos, satellite broadcasts and CD-ROMs. Remote databases, e-mail, and video conferencing using broadband network are also used. Interactive videoconferencing helps a teacher deliver lectures to different groups in other classrooms, known as a virtual classroom. The various facilities and services available through the network include online registration, availability of online video materials, dissemination of course materials and constant communication with tutors, instructors and fellow students through e-mail
A majority of universities in the United States have distance-learning programs. There are a number of non-profit and profit institutions both in private and public sectors offering them. One of the disadvantages of these programs is their high cost. In spite of this, the possibilities of distance education are increasing day by day. Beyond doubt, in the near future, distance education will make a tremendous impact on the institutions of higher education.