Past, Present and Future Access: A History of Distance and Online Education

Current debates often center on whether distance or online education is equal to traditional campus instruction, and argue that the way education is delivered should not “change”.  But have you ever wondered about the history of distance and online education?  Is this debate really new?  For how long have students earned degrees without attending classes physically or “on site?”

Travel without moving!With a little online research, I found that the history of distance education (a precursor to online education) is as interesting as it is complex.  Since changing technologies have developed alongside the desire “to provide access to learning when the source of information and the learners are separated by time and distance, or both,” it can be difficult to pinpoint when distance education first began.  While it is possible to find a starting point for when universities in the United States started correspondence programs, distance education also evolved across the globe.  It’s worth noting that one line of argument insists that distance education can be traced back as far as the Apostle Paul, who instructed early Christians by writing letters while he was under house arrest.  He certainly was separated from his students way before the 1880s, as you can see.

This method of disseminating information or “correspondence course,” was instituted in the United States during the 17th century and remained the method of distance learning until the telephone was invented.  The dependability of the postal service contributed to the story and later audiovisual technologies were incorporated in the 1900s.  Interestingly, the invention of film led Thomas Edison to proclaim in 1913 that, “Our school system will be completely changed in the next ten years.”  In the 1920s, many university extension programs used slides and film, and while instructional radio didn’t succeed in the 1930s, the invention of television led to new ways of off-campus teaching.  (The State University of Iowa actually began experimenting with transmitting instructional courses before television was introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1932). Universities then continued to use television to provide instruction, and in the 1990s, the explosion of the internet revolutionized the delivery of course content.  Today at an estimated 90% of universities in the USA, ever changing applications broaden the possibilities for communicating with distance and online students often in real time.

During the same years that distance education developed in the United States, universities around the world implemented programs for students to learn from other locations.  In the mid 1880s, the University of London is credited with implementing distance learning, and other British universities followed their lead.  Around the same time, at the southern tip of the continent of Africa, the University of South Africa existed as an examining agency for other English universities, and from 1946 on served solely as a distance education university.  Today, this mega university has an enrollment of approximately 200,000 students.  Mandela's cell when imprisoned on Robben IslandDuring the days of Apartheid, primarily because students did not sit in classrooms, UNISA remained interracial as most South Africans were not allowed to earn degrees at other universities.  South Africans and students from around the world earned credentials without residing on campus and continue to do so.  Did you know, for example, that Nelson Mandela was a UNISA distance student?  He studied while imprisoned at Robben Island.  Another Nobel prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is also an alumni, along with numerous South Africans who fought against Apartheid.

Archbishop Tutu, UNISA Alum

As a student earning their degree or taking classes at a distance (online or otherwise), YOU join the ranks of some very distinguished students who have worked to change the world.  In the United Kingdom, Open University was founded in 1969 and continues to provide access to education for approximately 180,000 online students in a society where peerage originally determined who could earn a degree. The family you were born no longer definitively determines whether you can continue your education as many of us now know. I found it fascinating to look at the lists of some UNISA and Open University alumni. Check them out yourself.Nelson Mandela

Why do I think this history is important to contemplate?  Well, I think it’s worth celebrating the distance students who have gone before and all the students who are currently enrolled in an online program. Knowing a little about this history really illustrates just how revolutionary and life affirming distance and online education can be for those who may not have access otherwise.  If I lived in a different time or place, I may not have qualified to continue my education. Today distance and online programs at universities like Colorado State offer the opportunity to take control of my destiny and experience the thrill of creating my contribution to a just-begun century. What does studying this way enable you to do?


3 thoughts on “Past, Present and Future Access: A History of Distance and Online Education”

  1. I have read article on a debate between distance and online education before, but upon reading this, it gives me wider understanding of the distinctions of the both. Though I don’t really have that best idea of how it feels to learn online than having face-to face course.

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