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History of Distance Learning

Not everyone lives close to an institution of higher education, and people aren't always able or willing to move in order to pursue their educational goals. Since the internet as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon, it's easy to assume the history of distance education has been a short one. Simply accessing course content online, however, is only one of the latest developments in a history that's been around since the 1700s.

In the early days of distance education, letter writing was the most widely accessible technology. In 1728, the first well-documented example of a correspondence course ran as an ad in the Boston Gazette, where a man named Caleb Phillipps offered to teach shorthand to students anywhere in the country by exchanging letters.

  • Almost 150 years later, in 1873, the first correspondence schools in the United States were founded, called The Society to Encourage Studies at Home.
  • Shortly thereafter, in 1892, the University of Chicago began offering correspondence courses, becoming the first traditional educational institution in the U.S. to do so.
  • By 1906, primary schools such as The Calvert School in Baltimore began following suit.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century numerous new technologies were coming to the fore. This led to considerable innovations in distance education. During this time period, distance education was offered in a wide variety of formats for a wide variety of educational purposes.

  • By 1922, the technology of radio broadcasting had become a viable means of transmitting information. Pennsylvania State College took advantage of this by broadcasting courses over the radio.
  • Soon after, in 1925, the State University of Iowa began offering course credit for five radio broadcast courses.
  • By 1953, broadcast television was becoming more prevalent, and the University of Houston responded by offering televised college classes for credit.
  • Although the telephone was a long-established technology, the University of Wisconsin began a statewide educational program for physicians using a phone-based format in 1965.
  • By 1968 one could obtain an accredited high school diploma via distance education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Independent Study High School.
  • As early as 1976, the first "virtual college" with no physical campus was in operation. This virtual college, called Coastline Community College, offered a wide variety of telecourses.

The fact that Coastline Community College Offering offered a complete educational experience remotely represented a huge evolution in the field of distance education. However, one emergent technology would soon come around as the main channel through which distance courses would be offered, that being the internet. Though the groundwork of the internet was already established in 1969, it wasn't until the 1980s that the technology began to revolutionize distance education.

  • In 1981 the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute's School of Management and Strategic Studies started an online program.
  • Not all computer-based learning centers were taking advantage of internet technology. In 1982, the Computer Assisted Learning Center in New Hampshire functioned as an offline adult education facility.
  • By 1985, Nova Southeastern University was offering accredited graduate degrees through online courses.

Throughout the 1990s, educational institutions used a variety of both real-time and asynchronous online technologies, leading to rapid growth in distance learning universities. Many different pilot programs were developed, and independent companies also worked to develop ready-made templates for online delivery of course content.

  • In 1992, Michigan State University developed the Computer Assisted Personalized Approach (CAPA).
  • In 1994, Open University offered an experimental Virtual Summer School (VSS) to some of its Cognitive Psychology students.
  • Also in 1994, CALCampus offered real-time education in its completely online school.
  • The Jones International University became the first accredited fully web-based university in 1996.
  • In 1997, several institutions adopted the Interactive Learning Network, an e-learning system that used a relational database as its foundation.
  • Blackboard Inc., founded in 1997, developed a standardized platform for course management and delivery that enabled many more institutions to come online.

The 2000s led to an explosion in the development and use of online technologies to deliver educational content. Access to the Internet continues to become more widely available and new platforms are still being developed. As a result, the number of distance learning universities is expected to grow, is are the number of traditional universities making use of online technology.

  • In 2000, CourseNotes.com launched at UT Austin. It offered many of the same features as Blackboard.
  • By 2003, WebCT (Web Course Tools), another content management system, had more than 6 million student users at more than 1300 institutions in 55 countries.
  • In 2005, YouTube launched, and by 2009, YouTube EDU offered thousands of free lectures online.
  • In 2006, iTunes U began offering lectures for download.
  • In 2012, the for-profit institution Udacity began offering massive open online courses (MOOCs). MIT and Harvard followed with MOOC platform edX. The University of Wisconsin's Flexible Option began offering competency-based bachelor's degrees.
  • In 2013, the first online-only public university in the United States, UF Online, was announced for launch in 2014.

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