Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The stamp: a classic object in the development of education?

Distance learning has been an alternative to face-to-face education for almost as long as the postage stamp. Social scientists at the University of Leicester look at how today’s distance learning marketplace is being dramatically transformed by digital technologies.

The postage stamp is a familiar feature of everyday life, sitting unobtrusively on letters and parcels landing on our doorstep. For social scientists though this small adhesive-backed paper is special because of the connections it highlights between technology and education.

In contrast to face-to-face education, distance learning evolved on the back of the stamp and the postal system that employed it. Courses marketed by Isaac Pitman in the 1840s to train secretaries in shorthand, paved the way by removing the necessity for teacher and student to be in physical proximity. Along with other private enterprises such as International Correspondence Schools, the focus of this heavily advertised marketplace was on developing key technical skills.

Understood as the offspring of industrialisation and global selling techniques, it was not until the 1960s that distance education came to be seen as a means of broadening access to those previously denied an opportunity to study. Distance education was now at the forefront of a political project that aimed to prepare citizens for the arrival of a knowledge based economy. With the establishment of major public organisations (e.g. the Open University in the UK), the philosophy of distance education began to evolve. For example teaching methodologies were grounded in experiential or open learning, and a belief in the autonomy of the learner from the tutor.

There is understandably much current emphasis on the forms of media used – radio, television, video and the internet all coming to replace reliance on the humble postage stamp. Such changes in technological innovation encourage organisations to rationalise their processes to achieve greater efficiencies of scale. For example the rapid rise of Massive Open Online Courses’ (MOOCs) has become a new focus of attention. With their potential to enable millions of students to enrol in studies otherwise closed to them, the UK government has identified distance education as a prime means of flexible and cost effective higher education.

Yet social scientists have broader concerns, often framed through structural, institutional, cultural, socio-political, and ethical perspectives. For instance, lower startup costs change the market by enabling new entrants with distance learning programmes to compete directly with the traditional teaching of established colleges and universities. At the same time a new managerialism in education has overseen an industrialisation of all sectors of education, blurring the distinction between distance and campus teaching.

Not all are convinced about the merit of these changes. Opponents – perhaps reluctant to accept distance learning as a legitimate form of 'education' - argue the fetish for new technology is in danger of overrunning itself and that there is much more to academic qualifications than an enhancement of technical skills. It is the role of social scientists to inform these debates by conducting research into how broader macro and micro issues impact on education and affect its delivery in an electronically networked information society.

Dr Matthew Higgins

Research interests

  • Levinas, ethics, the market and the education of marketing
  • The role of technology in distance learning management education
  • The role of marketing in healthcare management provision
  • The ethics of invisibility

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