History of Distance and Online Education


Distance education traces its origins to mid-19th century Europe and the United States. The pioneers of distance education used the best technology of their day, the postal system, to open educational opportunities to people who wanted to learn but were not able to attend conventional schools. People who most benefited from such correspondence education included those with physical disabilities, women who were not allowed to enroll in educational institutions open only to men, people who had jobs during normal school hours, and those who lived in remote regions where schools did not exist.

The history of distance education can be traced back to the 1840's when Sir Isaac Pitman provided the first distance education course. He did so through his mailed texts that were transcribed into shorthand on postcards, then returned by students for correction. In 1858, The University of London became the first school to offer distance learning degrees. The distance learning program named the External Programme was chartered by Queen Victoria, making the University of London the first actual institution that offered distance education to students.

In the 1890's, the president of the new University of Chicago, William Harper, was overseeing the development of external university courses. He in turn created the concepts of extended education of correspondence school courses to further promote education. This idea of his actually got put into practice by Columbia University.

In the meantime, enrollment increased steadily at the University of London during this era of the 19th century, and initiative in offering distance education began to get copied by other institutions. Their program that became so popular was called the University of London International Programme, and includes Postgraduate, Undergraduate, and Diploma degrees created by colleges such as the London School of Economics, Goldsmiths, and Royal Holloway.

The teaching of academic and vocational courses by correspondence became very popular by 1900 and problems of quality and ethical practices came with that popularity. In 1915, accreditation of college and university distance learning programs went under the National University Extension Association. The National Home Study Council (NHSC) was formed in 1926 as a way to address these issues.

The 1920's era introduced the educational radio invention. Then, in the 1940's, it created the important new forms of communication used in distance education programs. Instructors used these technologies to broadcast educational programs to millions of students, thus extending learning opportunities beyond the walls of conventional teaching institutions.

The early 1900's also brought about the development of reliable long-distance telephone systems, in which instructors began using to reach out to new students located far away. Telephone systems, however, didn't play a big role for education use until the 1980's and 1990's - when new teleconferencing technologies were introduced. These new systems allowed instructors to communicate with students in real time by talking, hearing, and seeing them without delays in transmissions, even from around the world.

In the United States for example, distance learning offered through schools provides instruction in a wide range of academic and vocational subjects. The National University Telecommunications Network (NUTN), based out of Old Dominion University in Colorado, offers distance learning and teleconferencing resources for over 50 institutions of higher learning. Over time, the technology has moved from satellite and telecourses to the Internet.

Distance education increasingly uses combinations of different communications technologies to enhance the abilities of teachers and students to communicate with each other. With the spread of computer-network communications in the 80's and 90's, many people gained access to computers linked to telephone lines, allowing teachers and students to communicate in conferences via computer systems.

Distance education also makes use of computer conferencing on the World Wide Web, where teachers and students present texts, pictures, audio, and videos. File sharing and communications tools like email, chats and audio and video conferencing are integral to the Internet model. The widespread use of computers and the internet have made distance learning easier and faster, and today virtual schools and virtual universities deliver full curricula online. In 1996, Jones International University was launched as the first fully online university accredited by a regional accrediting association in the United States.

Between 2000 and 2008, undergraduate enrollment in at least some distance programs increasingly more popular. The number of students in at least one distance education class went up from 8 percent to 20 percent, and the percentage enrolled in a distance education degree program went up from 2 percent to 4 percent.

In the United States in 2011, it was found that a third of all the students enrolled in postsecondary education had taken an accredited online course through distance learning. Enrollment for online courses has been seen to increase with the advances in technology systems. The distance educational programs are becoming more tailored to students' needs. The majority of public and private colleges now offer academic courses and degree programs online. Finally, in 2008, online learning programs were available in the United States in 44 states at the K-12 levels (not just college levels)!


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