When schools and universities closed for several months in many countries this spring, due to the corona pandemic, distance education suddenly became a popular substitute, especially at higher levels. Today, I shall discuss some aspects related to distance education. There are many lessons to be learned.

Let me go back in history a bit and begin with the 1970s when I worked in this field in the Norwegian Universities Press’ audio-visual department, experimenting with many new media, teaching methods and distribution. We already had school broadcasting and schools could borrow films and slide shows from a national media library. Correspondence education courses already had a long history, often implemented in combination with study groups organised by independent adult education organisations. It was common for many young adults in jobs to take a few such courses with 8-10 letters/units every winter, indeed English language courses with radio (or TV) programmes.

This was the time when the British Open University (OU) had been established, offering certificate, diploma, and degree courses from 1971. My office represented OU in Norway and could sell films and course material. Pakistan’s Allama Iqbal Open University, which opened in 1974, became the world’s second distance education university. These institutions became popular quickly, providing educational opportunities for hundreds of thousands of young adults who had missed the opportunity for various reasons after secondary school, especially for financial reasons, because they lived in remote areas, because they had care responsibilities, especially women with small children, and for other reasons. Many students already had some further or higher education, such as teachers, nurses, engineers and others, who continued studies part-time. Today, many OU students are full-time students. Like with correspondence courses in Norway, OU courses included study groups and other gatherings, for motivational and quality reasons, and to reduce the high drop-out rate which is common in distance education.

It should be underlined that an important strength of distance education is that they have well prepared courses, often better than many classroom courses and lecture series. OU courses are developed by goods teachers and researchers from established universities while OU itself assists with the distance education methods. Distance education courses usually make use of different media, not only textbooks and other written course material.

During the recent months, many schools and other educational institutions have been closed for ordinary classes, and in some countries they are still closed. Some have recently opened for part-time on-site sessions, with distance education components still being most important. We have seen that there are pros and cons with distance education, and that it is benefits certain students but not all. Generally, it is better for older students than younger, for academically gifted students, for students who like to work individually rather than those who are socially gifted, and so on. Sometimes, students may like the well-prepared distance education courses for some time, but get bored over time. The almost perfectly developed courses can be felt stale and rigid.

In Sweden, for example, the last months of the upper secondary school are full of social activities, yes, plus the exams and tests, and the bookish, academic learning. When the students were left without most of the social and lively part of education, many students (and perhaps also teachers) became frustrated and felt lonely. This reminds us of the important fact that education is not only to learn facts and other content; it is as much the discussions and presentations of different viewpoints, and other more creative elements. That is precisely why we talk about ‘education and socialisation’, where students learn from each other, those who are older and younger, those they disagree with, and the whole community they are part of.

Yet, there are important aspects of distance education that must be appreciated, too. I hope that educational institutions, including researchers, have documented this spring’s experiences with distance education during this time when the Corona close-down gave us an opportunity to experiment and learn. I have followed the general debate, especially in Scandinavia. I have been surprised about how little new things we seem to have learned about distance education since the 1970s when I worked in the field. Except for using Skype and email, we seem not to have added very much. By now, I had expected that we should have known a lot about what aspects of distance education that works and what doesn’t.

I hope that we in future will give distance education serious consideration, including its multitude of combinations of on-site and distance education. I believe that much of the basic education courses for ordinary schools, colleges and universities, in all kinds of fields, can be developed as multimedia courses and programmes, like distance education courses, but used on-site. Teachers can show films, videos, make texts available, refer to texts that the students Google themselves, and so on. Teachers can spend less time teaching and repeating standard courses and instead spend more time as motivators and advisers, discuss and explore issues with the students – and simply talk and have fun with the students, in their common process of finding out, being creative and curious learners.

As we know, but often forget in practice, the future school is not a place where we memorise textbook content and other curriculum only. In any case, that is a small part of what education is meant to be. I hope that we can draw some important lessons from the months the ways that education was organized when the Corona pandemic forced us to close ordinary schools. Even now, but especially after the pandemic is over, educationists’ systematic analysis should be comprehensive. That is part of finding better, sometimes even cheaper, ways of offering good education for more students. Compulsory curricula should be slimmer, and they can be like distance education units. The rest of the time, students should be free to find out and explore for themselves, with fellow students and teachers, and the world outside. Only a fraction of what is today taught in schools is valid for anybody’s whole lifespan.