The Man who Invented Distance Education

Although it is true that “success has many parents, while failure is an orphan”, I didn’t really think I would have a chance to meet the very person who first coined the term “distance education”.  The term “distance education” has been in wide-spread use for over 30 years as made official when the International Council for Correspondence Education changed its name to International council for Distance Education in 1982. And for 10 years, I wore the moniker as the Canada Research Chair in Distance Education.

This afternoon  during my visit with Olaf Zawacki-Richter at Oldenburg University, Germany (and accompanied by old friends and DE gurus Ulrich Bernath and Thomas Hulsmann), we took a drive to visit Otto Peters, the Founding Rector (President) of the Fern University in Hagen.  We zoomed down the autobahn – can’t quite get used to no speed limits and soon arrived at Hagan, a former coal mining city in north central Germany. Otto is now 87 years old and graciously invited us to his home where his wife shared  apple cake and we enjoyed a bottle of wine.

After this, Otto insisted on taking us to his favorite Italian restaurant (where the picture below was taken). After an excellent meal, and yes more wine. Otto recounted memories of the the establishment  of the Fern University- Germany’s distance university.

Otto noted that in the sixties German universities were hesitantly ready to reform higher education by establishing some forms of correspondence education. Plans for this purpose were devised by two Government committees which were assisted and coordinated by the Deutsches Institut für Fernstudienforschung at the University of Tübingen. At that time Otto was a member of this Institute. He was charged to present some of these German plans at a conference initiated by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. When preparing the necessary conference papers it was awkward to him to have to translate the German term “Fernstudium” which applies to higher education only and is funded by the state, into “correspondence education” which invokes an association with commercial correspondence schools which quite often were in bad renown because of commercial misuse or even criminal practices. In no way should the new form of teaching at German universities compared with them. What did he do? He simply translated the German “Fernstudien” literally into English and called the new kind of teaching and learning “distance education”.

At that time Professor Norman MacKenzie, who had been a member of the Open University Planning Board, visited this Tübingen institute. Otto took a chance and asked him what he would think about the newly invented term “distance education”. His answer was definite: “This is not English at all – in any way!”  How can you educate distance??  Otto disregarded his expert objection and used the new term consequently in the conference papers. The Council of Europe had invited experts from twelve countries. All of them heard and understood the new term for the first time. And they carried it home in their conference papers. Thus the term became internationally known and was adopted. More and more people used it and finally it became current and even popular.  At the 1982 conference in about Otto’s efforts recommended that the name of the International Council of Correspondence Education (ICCE) should be changed into International the International Council of Distance Education (ICDE). A majority of the participants agreed and voted for this change. In this way the new term was finally adopted universally and even globally used.

Otto Peters and me
Otto Peters and myself enjoying the moment in Hagan, Germany

Now, you may think that a visit to a 87 year old would be a nice and friendly social occasion, but you may not know Otto Peters.  After the usual pleasantries and reminiscences of the one time we had met previously, he pulled out two large cards on which he had written questions about a paper I had written a few years ago and a few more from the video recording of a keynote speech I had presented in Sweden last year. He was not easily put off by glib answers and soon I was thinking about skyping my colleague  George Siemens for reinforcement when the talk turned to Connectivism.

Otto also penned a very nice inscription in the copy of his latest book, published this year – Against the Tide: Critics of Digitalism, which contains Otto’s interpretations of the writings of 20 “warners, sceptics, scaremongers and apocalypticists” concerned with the current rush to all things digital.  I can’t say I agree with all or even most of these critics, but thier ideas are important and need to be taken critically and seriously.

I only  hope that I will be able to think and digest complex ideas as well as Otto, when I am 85! Right now as the Beatles aptly noted “When I’m 64” seems daunting enough.

Against the Tide  is available for free download.


5 thoughts on “The Man who Invented Distance Education

  1. Well, Terry, nice to hear that you are out drinking wine, taking part in brilliant conversations, and generally living the good life while some of us are slogging through all the snow back in Edmonton!

    And also nice to get the update on Otto Peters, and the link to his very interesting book. So I guess you are forgiven all the wine.


  2. Thanks for sharing this DE adventure in-person with Otto and glad to hear that Connectivism came up in the conversation as George Siemens deserves some credit for his offerings in this area. AU DE is not only a hightly creditable way of learning for anyone who wishes to learn, it is a platform that is exemplary now and into the future as the internet options improve and mobile learning expands. Thanks again Terry.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this, Terry. I’m glad Otto Peters is still alive and well and still poking sticks at conventional wisdom. I didn’t know this story about the origin of the term ‘distance education.’

    I was at the 1982 conference – in Vancouver, my first visit – where ICCE became ICDE. However, the term was in pretty general use well before then. I dug up some old papers that had distance education in the title in the early 1970s.

    It is though still useful to note that the term distance education came from a development in traditional institutions in Germany, and was applied to FernUniversitat, whereas in the UK the ‘Open’ University was distinctly different. FernUniversitat always has had strict entrance requirements while the OU was completely open. Thus open education can also be at a distance, but distance education is not necessarily open.

    It’s really important that people entering the field are aware of these distinctions, because they represent different if sometimes overlapping philosophies of education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *