Distance education is characterized by a physical separation between learner and teacher or learner and institution. The Great Plains proved to be an ideal setting for the development of distance education programs owing to its large area and small population.
The earliest form of distance education in the Great Plains was that of faculty members from land-grant institutions traveling around their states by horse or rail to offer instruction to residents. In the 1890s correspondence education programs, first pioneered by a private institution, the University of Chicago, began developing at major state universities in the Midwest. By World War I correspondence was the dominant form of distance education in the Great Plains.
Practitioners of distance education took advantage of new technologies as they emerged: radio in the 1920s, television in the 1950s, satellite delivery in the 1980s, and computerbased instruction in the 1990s. As each delivery technology emerged, it was incorporated into the overall strategy of distance education. Rather than succeeding generations of technology replacing prior technologies, new technologies added to the delivery arsenal available to practitioners.
Although the first distance education efforts were aimed at the postsecondary marketplace, lifelong learning was always an important concern. Noncredit courses covering everything from the arts, to horticulture, to various trades and skills were offered, regardless of the decade or the technology. In the 1990s one of the greatest areas of growth, in terms of both programs and users, was in the elementary and secondary education arena.
James E. Sherwood University of Nebraska-Lincoln