Distance education is a method of teaching in which the students are not required to be physically present at a specific location during the term. Most often, regular mail is used to send written material, videos, audiotapes, and CD-ROMs to the student and to turn in the exercises; nowadays e-mail and the Web are used as well. Often students are required to come to meetings at regional offices on specific weekends, for example to take exams. Distance education is offered at all levels, but is most frequently an option for university-level studies.
Many designers and instructional technologiest perfer the term "distributed education" over "distance education" since it is possible to use the same infrastructure and learning activities with learners who may not be physically distant.
One of the oldest distance education universities is the University of South Africa, which has been offering DE courses since 1946. The largest distance education university in the UK is the Open University founded 1969. In Germany the Fernuniversität Hagen was founded 1974. All three are now mega universities. In 1999 the European Graduate School went online from both Switzerland and the USA.
Distance education is a newer term for correspondence courses, which arose from the need to provide schooling to students in remote, sparsely populated areas that could not support a school. Such courses are generally offered at the primary or secondary level, often with the students' parents supervising their education.
In the U.S., there are many private and public, non-profit and for-profit institutions offering courses and degree programs through distance education. Students seeking degrees online from institutions of higher education are cautioned to ensure that the schools they are interested in possess proper accreditation and to be wary of fraudulent 'schools', often referred to as diploma mills.