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Distance education, or distance learning, is a field of education that focuses on the pedagogy and andragogy, technology, and instructional systems design that aim to deliver education to students who are not physically "on site". According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “is a process to create and provide access to learning when the source of information and the learners are separated by time and distance, or both.” In other words, distance learning is the process of creating an educational experience of equal qualitative value for the learner to best suit their needs outside the classroom. Rather than attending courses in person, teachers and students may communicate at times of their own choosing by exchanging printed or electronic media, or through technology that allows them to communicate in real time and through other online ways. Distance education courses that require a physical on-site presence for any reason including the taking of examinations is considered to be a hybrid or blended course of study. This emerging technology is becoming widely used in universities and institutions around the globe. With the recent trend of technological advance, distance learning is becoming more recognized for its potential in providing individualized attention and communication with students internationally.
Distance education dates back to is at least as early as 1728, when "an advertisement in the Boston Gazette... 'Caleb Phillips, Teacher of the new method of Short Hand" was seeking students for lessons to be sent weekly. Modern distance education has been practiced at least since Isaac Pitman taught shorthand in Great Britain via correspondence in the 1840s. The development of the postal service in the 19th century led to the growth of Commercial correspondence colleges with nation-wide reach.

The University of London was the first university to offer distance learning degrees, establishing its External Programme in 1858. The Society to Encourage Studies at Home was founded in 1873 in Boston, Massachusetts. In Australia, the University of Queensland established its Department of Correspondence Studies in 1911. Another pioneering institution was the University of South Africa, which has been offering Correspondence Education courses since 1946. In New Zealand, university-level distance education or extramural study began in 1960 at Massey University. The largest distance education university in the United Kingdom is the Open University founded 1969. In Germany the FernUniversitat in Hagen was founded 1974. There are now many similar institutions around the world, often with the name Open University (in English or in the local language), and more than a dozen of them have grown to become 'mega-universities' , a term coined to denote institutions with more than 100,000 students.

The first president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper developed extended education and was considered one of the founders of “learning by correspondence programs.” The University of Chicago instituted the first Extension Service in America through the use of mail, reaching out to a vast group of students internationally.

Charles Wedemeyer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is considered the father of modern distance education in America. From 1964-1968 the Carnegie Foundation funded Wedemeyer's Articulated Instructional Media Project (AIM) which brought in a variety of communications technologies aimed at providing learning to an off-campus population. According to Moore's recounting, AIM impressed the British who imported these ideas and used them to create the first Open University, now called United Kingdom Open University (UKOU) to distinguish it from other open universities which have emerged. UKOU was established in the late 1960s and used television and radio as its primary delivery methodologies, thus placing it in the forefront of applying emerging technologies to learning. It is fair to say that all "open universities" use distance education technologies as delivery methodologies.

In addition, there are many private and public, non-profit and for-profit institutions offering courses and degree programs through distance education. Levels of accreditation vary; some institutions offering distance education in the United States have received little outside oversight, and some may be fraudulent diploma mills. In many other jurisdictions, an institution may not use the term "University" without accreditation and authorisation, normally by the national government. Online education is rapidly increasing among mainstream universities in the United States, where online doctoral programs have even developed at prestigious research institutions.

In the twentieth century, radio, television, and the Internet have all been used to further distance education. Computers and the Internet have made distance learning distribution easier and faster. Private, for-profit University of Phoenix, which is primarily an online university, now has two hundred thousand students and expects to serve five hundred thousand by 2010, yet little is known about student success or lack of success in such a fast-growing institution.

In 2006 the Sloan Consortium reported that more than 96 percent of the largest colleges and universities in the United States offered online courses and that almost 3.2 million U.S. students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2005 term.

Two of Canada’s leading distance education providers are Open Learning (TRU-OL) of Thompson Rivers University and Athabasca University (AU). TRU-OL educational goals are obtainable for anyone through accessible and varied courses that can be taken anytime and at an individually-determined pace. With over 400 individual courses and more than 57 programs available for completion by distance and online learning, students can take a variety of programs such as: adult secondary school completion; certificates and diplomas, including advanced and post-baccalaureate; associate degrees; and bachelor's degrees. AU educational goals are the removal of barriers that restrict access to and success in university level study and to increasing equality of educational opportunity for adult learners worldwide. AU offers over 700 courses in more than 90 undergraduate and graduate programs, including the Doctor of Education in Distance Education (D.Ed.) and the Doctor in Business Administration (DBA).

In Ontario, Canada the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities established the in 2007 to provide access to students in small and rural communities across Ontario who wanted to pursue college or university courses from their community by distance education.

In the province of Manitoba, the department of Education, Citizenship and Youth provides three options in distance education: Independent Study Option, Teacher Mediated Option and Web-based Course Option.

The Independent Study Option (ISO) provides the opportunity and flexibility for both school-age and adult learners to study a wide range of compulsory optional print based distance education courses from Grades 7 to 12. This form of distance education also provides students with support by email or phone. The Independent Study Option also offers several courses in French. In the event that a student leaves the province on a temporary or permanent basis, the ISO also provides the opportunity for continuing the study of Manitoba curriculum en route to receiving a Senior Years graduation diploma.

Teacher Mediated Option (TMO) supports the delivery of distance learning courses that are scheduled within the school day and use a variety of technologies to assist students including: instruction twice a school cycle for 40 minutes per class by audio teleconference, recording of classes as required for use up to five days after the class has occurred, and corresponding with an instructor between classes by email or phone. These courses are only available to students attending school or an adult learning centre.

Web-bases course in Manitoba are available to schools wishing to deliver high school courses on the internet. Manitoba uses the Blackboard learning System CE version 6.2. While being delivered through the internet, these courses are taught by a teacher who may be off-site. Assignments are submitted online by students to teachers, and a final examination is written on site.

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