Was the Apostle Paul a Distance Educator?

An Overview of Distance Education

A detailed and thorough explanation of the field of distance education is well beyond the scope of this post: after all, i'm engaged in an three-credit overview course dedicated to this topic. But one fundamental characteristic is "planned learning that normally occurs in a different place from teaching" (Moore and Kearsley (2005)). Though the Internet, both as information technology and as media, has forever changed the nature of this kind of teaching and learning, some kinds of education-at-a-distance have existed as long as written communication and instructional purposes have coexisted.

Holmberg (2005), in describing the beginnings of distance education, notes

... letter writing for the purpose of teaching is probably as old as the art of writing itself. It has been suggested that the espistles in the New Testament testify to the very early existence of distance education, but this is questionable as here we seem to have clear evidence only of one-way traffic, i.e. of a presentation of something meant to be learnt. Nevertheless in St. Paul's letters there are some references to occasional feed-back through messengers from the congregations he was writing to (Titus in II Corinthians 7, Timothy in I Thessalonians 3 etc.).

This brief but intriguing comment led to the following reflections, which were addressed to Dr. Holmberg (who is currently teaching our on-line class).

Was Paul a distance educator?

Dr. Holmberg:

Without minimizing the rest of the important content in chapter 2, I was intrigued by your brief introductory comment: "It has been suggested that the epistles in the New Testament testify to the very early existence of distance education ..." (Holmberg 2005, p. 13). Your own position on this subject is not fully clear to me: you describe it as "questionable" but then go on to cite some evidence to support it.

I saw some interesting parallels between this very early example and Keegan's definition (Keegan 1990, p. 44), which you cite in chapter 1 (Holmberg 2005, p. 9):

The evidence seems substantial to me, therefore, that Paul could indeed be reasonably described as, while likely not the first, certainly one of the best known early distance educators. Though his purposes went well beyond education per se, examining his life and activity puts Keegan's definition of distance education in a new and interesting light.


Allen, R. (1962). Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or ours? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Keegan, D. (1990). Foundations of distance education. London and New York: Routledge.

Holmberg, B. (2005). The evolution, principles and practices of distance education. Oldenburg: Bibliotheks- und Informationssystem der Universität Oldenburg. [no URL available as of 2005/06/05]

University of Maryland University College, Masters in Distance Education program