The Evolution of Distance Learning

Credit to Geoffrey WhitewayWhile planning your next semester, you begin to consider taking a few online courses. You realize that the flexibility of the classes will help alleviate your tight schedule, and saving on your commute means a little extra money for shopping! You begin to wonder who created this marvelous invention. Believe it or not, distance learning was not developed when universities received access to the Internet. In fact, the Internet was invented over 100 years after distance learning’s humble beginnings.

Birth of Distance Learning

In “Serving the System: a Critical History of Distance Education” Jennifer Sumner writes, “Although its beginnings are disputed, the history of distance education is well documented, especially in the 20th century” (Sumner). Though there is some discrepancy when determining the origins of distance learning, countless sources are informing what happened next! Let’s take a look at some major occurrences and dates in the evolution of distance learning.

When did it Start?

Some sources trace distance learning as far back at the 1700s. Soon after this time, distance education was practiced through a method called correspondence education. This form of education grew without bounds, and swept across countries.

Correspondence Education

According to Mike Erwin of the University of Advancing Technology, “The process was very simple: students received instruction via mail and responded with assignments or questions to the instructor. The process was very slow and could take several weeks for a response from the instructor. Correspondence courses grew in spite of the drawbacks, in large part thanks to maturation in postal service that allowed correspondents to study across long distances” (Erwin). As tedious and useless this form of learning might seem under today’s standards, students were so compelled to learn that they did not mind they delay.


Some argue that the beginning of distance learning was “in 1840, [when] an English educator, Sir Isaac Pitman, taught shorthand by mail” (UFL). Pitman would mail text on postcards to students, and students would mail their assignments back to him. Correspondence courses continued to catch on, and the Museum of Distance Education timeline reveals that, in 1858, the University of London became the first college to offer distance learning degrees.
30 years later, the largest private for-profit school based in Pennsylvania, the International Correspondence Schools, was founded in 1888 to provide training for immigrant coal miners aiming to become state mine inspectors or foremen. It enrolled 2500 new students in 1894 and matriculated 72,000 new students in 1895. The growth was due to sending out complete textbooks instead of single lessons, and the use of 1200 aggressive in-person salesmen. By 1906 total enrollments at the International Correspondence School had reached 900,000.

Radio, Television, and Development

A few significant advancements have shaped and pushed distance learning forward since the late 1800s. In 1873 official correspondence education program called the “Society to Encourage Home Studies”, was established in Boston, Massachusetts by Ana Eliot Ticknor. The University of Queensland in Australia then founded its Department of Correspondence Studies in 1911, which also relied on Australia’s postal system. The difficulty with these methods, however, was that they are one-way forms of communication. Pupils were not able to ask the professors questions or interact with other students, because everything was broadcasted directly to them.

As time went on, technological advances played a pivotal role in distance education. The introduction of the radio allowed universities to broadcast information and courses to students. According to this infographic, in 1922, “Pennsylvania State College became the first college to broadcast courses across radio networks.” About a decade later, the University of Iowa followed suit, becoming the “first university to employ television as a learning tool” (aka Distance Learning). The University of South Africa, today is known as one of the world’s open distance learning mega colleges, as it became a champion and innovator of distance learning since reshaping its mission in 1946.

Learning from Home

These methods continued into the mid-century years. An article by Forbes notes that, in 1956, “Chicago public television station WTTW, in partnership with the local Board of Education, televises college courses for credit; over 15,000 students enroll in 5 years. New York University and CBS launch Sunrise Semester, which also offers TV courses for credit; in 1962 the New York Times runs an article congratulating a housewife for getting her bachelor’s degree from these TV courses” (Gensler). It might be hard to believe, but credible degrees were attainable through these televised courses. Even the traditional housewife was able to find time in her day to begin learning university-level concepts and ideas without leaving home.


Technology continued to allow advances during the 1980s. According to Foundations of Distance Education, “The possibility of teaching face to face at a distance was achieved by an electronics revolution in the 1980s. The deregulation of the telecommunications industry allied to the speeding up of chips and the introduction of broadband technologies brought about this veritable revolution” (Keegan). This allowed students to communicate with one another and their professors, so that they learned interactively, rather than just being taught passively. Forbes informs that, in 1984, “National Technological University established the first accredited ‘virtual’ university with financial support from companies like IBM, Motorola and HP. It delivers academic courses to employees via TV” (Gensler). As you can see, even big brands started to get involved with distance learning, allowing their employees to participate in virtual classes.


After the television, the personal computer with internet capabilities was the next major invention to revolutionize distance education. In 1989 the University of Phoenix became the first institution to launch a fully online college institution that offered both bachelors and masters degrees. In 1996, entrepreneurs Glen Jones and Bernand Luskin launched Jones International University, which became the first accredited and fully web-based university.

Keegan goes on to write, “In the late 1990s distance education [was] a valued component of many education systems and has proved its worth in areas where traditional schools, colleges, and universities have difficulties in meeting demand [such as large systems capable of handling 100,000 students or more]” (Keegan). Distance learning had greatly developed by the 1990s through the use of satellite virtual classrooms, mobile telephones, videoconferencing, and the Internet.

Today and Beyond

The journey of distance learning continues into the 21st century. By 2006, “89% of 4-year public colleges in the U.S. offer classes online, along with 60% of private institutions” (Gensler). Another Forbes article notes that, “Online learning is moving beyond this primitive, one-to-many broadcast model to become a social, collaborative, personalized and interactive experience that generates two powerful, mutually reinforcing success accelerants: first, the long-term desire to learn, to better one’s position in the world; and, secondly – crucially – the moment-by-moment pleasure of participating in a learning experience that’s continually exciting, rewarding and creates a valuable sense of social connection” (Shockley). Thankfully, distance learning has moved beyond one-sided communication. Today, distance learning is referred to as online education. Ask any college student you know, and you will see how integrated online courses have become. Most students today have taken or are currently enrolled in at least one online class.


Aside from credited courses, major universities are now offering “MOOC” or Massive Online Open Courses. Students can take these courses to learn more about certain topics, but they do not receive credit for these courses. Even cell phone applications, such as iTunes U, allow students to enroll in non-credit courses on the go!

Just like the earlier forms of distance learning, MOOCs had a modest beginning as well. In the 1980s Audrey Watters traced the history of the “draw me” era and its connection to the rise of MOOCs. Tippy the Turtle illustrations would be sent over the mail to prospective art students to gauge their ability and admittance into art school. She found 3 characteristic qualities of distance education that remain until today.

  • First, that distance education is just as good, valid, and high-quality as in person.
  • Second, your earning potential will increase if you take this course of study.
  • Third, that distance education is scalable to give access to students everywhere.

The evolution of distance learning continues thanks to technology. Review this expert’s analysis of why and how distance learning still needs to change today!

How You Can Learn, Too!

If you get a college degree, studies show us that you are likely to make on average 114% more money than you would have made if you didn’t get the degree. In turn, college degrees more than pay for themselves this way. Same with Associate’s degrees, where the costs and premiums are lower but still proportionately a great deal for learners. Of course, this doesn’t work as well if you take out significant loans for college and then never get a job in your field, therefore forfeiting the majority of your college earnings potential.

FNU appreciates the way that online learning frees students from the constraints of time and space, and allows them to gain reflection that can happen when students don’t always have to think quickly in real-time and thus think on the material at their own pace and from their comfort zones.

Florida National University (FNU) offers several online programs to enhance learning! If you are ready to get your mind working, apply today!

Works Cited

Crotty, James Marshall. “Distance Learning Has Been Around Since 1892, You Big MOOC.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 14 Nov. 2012. Web. 08 Apr. 2014.

“Distance Education Timeline.” International Museum of Distance Education and Technology. Distance Education Foundaton, n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2014.

Gensler, Lauren. “From Correspondence Courses To MOOCs: The Highlights Of Distance Learning Over The Ages.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 12 Feb. 2014. Web. 08 Apr. 2014.

“History of Distance Education.” History of Distance Education. University of Florida, n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2014.

Keegan, Desmond. Foundations of Distance Education. London: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Shockley, Brett. “The Case For Online Education.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 30 July 2012. Web. 08 Apr. 2014.

Sumner, Jennifer. “Serving the System: A Critical History of Distance Education.” Towson University. The Open University, 2000. Web. 08 Apr. 2014.

— This article relays the history of distance learning or distance education, which is now known as “online learning” or “online education.” This article also describes massive online open courses (MOOC).