Introduction to Distance Education: Approaching the 21st Century

December 8, 2013

Dr. Fred Saba

Dr. Fred Saba

Dr. Farhad (Fred) Saba, Ph. D.

As the 21st Century approached several events dramatically changed the environment of business and education in the US, as well as elsewhere in the world.  In June of 1997, Allen Greenspan, then the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board testified in the Congress, that the US economy has gone through a fundamental change. Mr. Greenspan said that a synergy among technologies, which may occur ”once or twice in a century,” has brought unprecedented added value to the products of many companies, and have reduced the cost of production and distribution of goods and services. One aspect of this economic transformation was the emergence of knowledge as the single most important “commodity” in the prosperity of nations. Such a far-reaching transformation, according to Alvin Toffler (1980), has happened only once before in human history, when the world economy transformed from an agricultural-based system into an industrial one. Since the turn of the century the world economy is becoming more reliant on knowledge bases for increased productivity.

Since the turn of the century the world economy is becoming more reliant on knowledge bases for increased productivity.

In the introductory chapter of his book titled The Knowledge Economy editor Dale Neef (1998) stated: “…there is now compelling evidence that the sudden and ever-accelerating burst of growth in high-technology and high-skilled services …may bring about some of the most profound an unexpected changes to the way in which we live and work witnessed since the nineteenth-century transition from an agricultural to an industrial society.” It is no wonder that precisely at this historic moment business and industry turned to information technology for increasing the knowledge and skill of its workforce. Similarly, K-12 and higher education began to integrate the use of information technology into their teaching and learning practices.

What_You_Need_to_KnowThe emergence of the knowledge economy had a profound effect on business and education. First, information technology deeply impacted training, teaching, learning and managing practices. Businesses were able to eliminate middle managers whose primary function was relaying information between the top management and front line workers. Organizations went “flat,” when leading managers could directly communicate with front line workers using information technologies. Also, workers who were directly involved in manufacturing or dispensing services were included in “quality circles” to share the burden of managing the organization with the managerial class. This “downsizing” or “rightsizing” of the organization also eliminated the stand up trainer in many organizations. Instruction could be placed on the World Wide Web, without the need for an instructor or facilitator to present such information to learners. Further, employees could access instruction at their convenience thus reducing the time they would spend away from their tasks in training –at times hundreds of miles away from their workstations. This form of training, dubbed as eLearning, was developed in the corporation independent of the theoretical and practical developments in distance education in Europe and the United States. Theory and practice of distance education in academic environments strongly prescribed interaction with an instructor and emphasized its importance. Nevertheless, the telecommunication and computer nexus enabled some businesses to integrate training with working –giving rise to new concepts, such as, just-in-time training. This was achieved in certain cases through the creation of performance support systems, which directly enabled workers to link learning to tasks at hand.

Today distance education is thriving among homeschoolers, K-12 schools, colleges and universities many of which require synchronous or asynchronous interaction with an instructor while relying on instruction on the Web. eLearning, on the other hand has grown tremendously in corporations and government organizations, including the military, where there is minimal or no interactivity with an instructor.

While the number of those who are involved in various forms of distance learning may pale in comparison to those who are learning in traditional ways, the important factor is the steady rate at which distance learners are increasing. If current trends continue, it will be just a matter of time for distance education to become the dominant form of teaching and learning.


Neef, D. (1998). The knowledge economy: Resources for the knowledge-based economy. Boston, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Toffler, A. (1971). Future shock. NY; Bantam Books.
Toffler, A. (1980). The third wave. NY: Bantam Books.