A short history of online learning

Through the Mail

Distance learning is not a new concept in the field of education. Distance learning began in 1873, when Anna Eliot Ticknor, daughter of a Harvard professor, founded the Society to Encourage Studies at Home. This was one of America’s first correspondence schools, it was a distance learning school conducted through the mail. The school was targeted at the education of women and provided six disciplines to study; English, History, Science, French, German, and Art. Once accepted into the program, educators mailed syllabi to the students, who were then responsible for submitting assignments through the mail.

William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, is recognized as being a founder of university correspondence education. He developed a Department of Hone-Study that became a vital part of the University. Students were allowed to take as much as one-third of their course load by mail, which allowed for more flexibility for the student. The program allowed the University to reach all of society and provided education for all, which was an important goal for the University. Education by mail allowed the University to access an infinite number of potential students from all over the country. 

Today in Cyber Space

Since its early days, distance learning has changed the playing field for formal education and opened up doors to continuing education that were otherwise inaccessible. Today, there are universities that exist completely online and also traditional schools that offer some courses or entire programs online. Some universities and colleges are requiring students to enroll in some online courses in pursuit of a global education. Distance learning is certainty popular with students, and enrollment in online education has increased by 33% in the United States every year.

Distance learning isn’t without its challenges and as more classrooms become virtual, instructors have to change how they teach with little training. Instructors are assuming multiple responsibilities as teacher, learner, and technical support person. At a minimum, instructors need initial and ongoing training in technology to teach online courses effectively. Instructors also need to alter their teaching style and delivery of material when teaching through an online module as online learning needs to be more collaborative.

Online learning has had positive influences for the teacher, not just the student. Instructors teaching online, felt that because of their experiences online, they interacted more effectively with students when they had face to face meetings. Perhaps this is because the instructors had to become more creative with their teaching in order to reach students who were not physically present. Online learning is here to stay and provides students with more autonomy, flexibility, and resources to handle their coursework than in the traditional environment. The growth of distance learning is unprecedented and shows no signs of slowing down.

Thinking about moving courses fully or partially online? Contact PRIMED to receive a consultation and discuss the best methods to implement your ideas.



Caruth, G. D., & Caruth, D. L. (2013). Distance Education in the United States: From Correspondence Courses to the Internet. Turkish Online Journal Of Distance Education14(2), 141-149.

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