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Distance Learning - Part 1

Distance Learning – Part 1

This Whitepaper will explore briefly the provenance of distance learning - from ancient to modern. It sets the scene for future Whitepapers on the concepts supporting pedagogy – the science and art of education.

“Parties may allow the training of seafarers by distance learning and e-learning, in accordance with the standards of training and assessment set out in section A-I/6...’ (STCW 2011:283)

This is good, but the realisation that learning could be facilitated at a distance pre-dated the STCW Convention by a few thousand years. As soon as people began to write on tablets (the stone type, that is), and give them to others to read, a form of primitive distributed learning was underway. However, it was the development of moveable type in China a thousand years ago followed by Gutenberg’s printing press in Europe in the fifteenth century that really opened the way to the mass production of books for the very first time. Learning was becoming distributed in a way that no one would have dreamt possible.

The religious establishment in Europe in those far off days did not always support the spread of popular learning – especially in a language the common person could read - and there was frequent and violent social unrest as a result. This reaction, where arms of the establishment sometimes frustrate learning rather than facilitate it, echoes faintly, even in modern times, although thankfully, we don’t any longer burn people at the stake just for reading a book. Nevertheless, there is still much social and political control over knowledge distribution and delivery, as we shall see in a later Whitepaper.

Slightly more up to date, distance learning received a huge boost when the Penny Post in the UK was regularised in 1840. Isaac Pitman began delivering instruction on his famous shorthand system by correspondence from Bath, in England. This was followed in 1858 by the University of London[1] who established a distance learning degree which continues to be delivered to this day. Seats of learning in the United States also began to offer programmes of study by this method around this time.

The Open University[2] (OU) in the UK is, arguably, the most prolific exponent of distance learning in the world. The University enrolled its first students in 1971 under the direction of its first Vice Chancellor, Walter Perry. Lord Perry later became the President of Videotel until his death in 2003, at the age of 82. The OU has always been at the forefront of pedagogical development in distance learning and has extended its provision across Europe and the World. Since inauguration almost 1.8 million people have achieved their learning goals with the OU. Some of the programme design processes embedded in the work of Videotel can be traced back to early OU systems. A future Whitepaper will enlarge on this.

We have moved on somewhat from stone etchings, printing presses, books, films, cassettes, videos and TV lectures. The current generation of young learners are, of course, digital natives. That is, they have grown up in the information age and do not know a world without it. Anyone knowing children and even young adults under a certain age will know their attachment to things digital transcends physicality. Some research[3] even suggests there may be an addiction to mobile phones. So, given the invasive and all-encompassing spread of information technology and its gadgets, it is hardly surprising that education looks to exploit this wonderful medium of distribution in the digital age.

Involving gaming theory and animation, the very latest technologies embrace Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). These programmes appear to be changing the way in which thousands of people engage with learning. Harvard University is reported to have enrolled more people for MOOCs in a ‘single year than have attended the University in its 377-year history’.[4] A future Whitepaper will explore MOOCs more closely.

Of course, many of these initiatives and technologies rely on connectivity and access to the internet that the maritime sector – for the moment – does not always enjoy. We have to rely on proven technology which will work consistently and reliably in the harsh physical, operating and commercial climates of the shipping industry. Videotel’s NVOD system is a solution with which we can manage this dynamic background and it will continue to do so until every ship in the world fleet gets 24/7 broadband at a price we can all afford. Rest assured Videotel is poised and ready for the day!

So, what’s the framework underpinning all this? From tablets biblical to digital, from mail to MOOCs, from film to Flickr? They’re all about being open, flexible, distance, distributed – terms used side-by-side with the word ‘learning’. Learning is the link and so often we fail in our understanding of the word – which is something to be explored in the next Videotel Whitepaper.

...and we haven’t even started on teaching or training yet!


Author: Dr Chris Haughton



Lockwood, F. and Gooley, A. (2001). Innovation in Open and Distance Learning. Successful Development of Online and Web-based Learning. London. Kogan Page.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO). (2011) International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, Including 2010 Manila Amendments. London. IMO.



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