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The History of Distance Education

Feb 11, 2009 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

Think online education is something new? Think again. Online education has been around since the advent of the Internet, and before then, people have been using distance education to get ahead for several centuries.


Correspondence education, as it used to be known, can be traced as far back as the 1800’s. Generally, it worked like this: the teacher would send students assignments by mail. Students would complete the assignments and send them back. Instructors would send back their comments and critiques, along with a new assignment. In 1840, Englishman Sir Isaac Pitman offered a class on shorthand taught entirely by mail. In 1883, an entire “correspondence university” was established in Ithaca, New York.

Early 1900's

But distance education really exploded with the advent of television and radio. By 1900, so many distance education schools had been established that quality and ethics were a matter of concern; because of this, the National Home Study Council was established to monitor the quality of these programs.

Educational programs in the early 20th century were delivered via radio as well as television. As radio was being developed, the government granted over 202 radio broadcasting licenses to educational institutions—but radio learning never did take off. Distance educators also experimented with the telephone—which had potential as a delivery system, because it allowed teachers to interact in real time with students. But telephone learning never became a big force in the industry either.


Distance learning did meet with some success in television. One of the first educational programs delivered via television was Sunrise Semester, broadcast from Chicago starting in 1959. This program featured a single teacher standing in front of a roomful of students, with footage shot over the students’ heads from the back of the room.


In the 1970’s, a California task force was formed to develop and define profitable and educational telecourses. Not long after, a new institution, Coastline Community College, was formed to handle the filming and development of distance education videos that were broadcast to other colleges, libraries and public television channels throughout the country. These courses had to cover entire curricula and conform to the same academic standards applied to traditional schools. In 1976, Coastline had almost 20,000 students. It was the first entirely virtual college.

Example of online education class
Distance Education has come a long way since the early days of correspondence education. Today complete classes are taught "virtually" like this course being taught at Barry University. Photo by J. Guterman


Computers were also used for distance learning. COURSEWRITER, an online distance learning system, was developed as early as the 60’s by IBM. The system could be customized to deliver a variety of different types of classes, and it was used in 17 different courses—including cardiology training—at the University of Alberta from 1968 to 1980.

Online education was being developed as early as the 1970’s, using very primitive forms of computer networking. The technology improved throughout the 1980’s, and online education began to be popular among companies and government institutions for in-house training of employees. But online education didn’t reach a popular audience until the 1990’s, along with the Internet itself.


In 1994, CALCampus was developed by a small offline distance learning institution based in New Hampshire, which began offering a completely online school delivering instruction, administration and materials entirely via the Internet. The courses were delivered via virtual classroom instruction, where students and teachers interacted in real time.

Also at the same time Open University, a distance learning institution funded by the British government, began offering a “virtual summer school” where students could take a Cognitive Psychology course online. Students at home could participate in forum discussions, email instructors, receive and hand in assignments entirely online.


The first fully accredited, fully online institution was Jones International University. It was launched in 1996. Today, there are hundreds of online universities based in the United States, many with regional accreditation, and many more throughout the world.


Millions of students today achieve certification, personal enrichment, and advanced degrees through education programs delivered entirely online. Today’s technology allows for many different methods of delivery, from online chat and advanced email services to video and conferencing media allowing real-time instruction. Starting as early as the 1800’s with correspondence courses teaching shorthand and other topics, distance education has evolved to cover multiple subjects from medicine to engineering and art. Along with the Internet, online education has continued to evolve—and is likely to serve an increasingly important role in education around the world.



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