A Compendious History of Distance Education


Today is Online Learning Day!

In recent years online learning has become a modern educational staple. Over ninety percent of universities in the United States offer at least one online course, and many organizations/schools, such as Saylor Academy, offer education that is completely online. These days we can study from anywhere in the world, but distance education didn’t begin with the internet.

In celebration of #OnlineLearningDay we are sharing a compendious history of distance education.

In 1728 a man by the name of Caleb Phillips put an ad in the Boston Gazette offering weekly mailed lessons on shorthand – one of the earliest attempts at distance education.

One of the first remote courses was also on shorthand, provided by Sir Isaac Pitman in the 1840s. He would transcribe a text into shorthand on a postcard and send it to his students, who would in turn send back their work for corrections.

In 1858 Queen Victoria of Great Britain signed a charter that allowed the University of London to provide distance-learning degrees to people no matter where in the world they studied. This opened up higher education to the masses, to people who could not financially afford to attend a prestigious University, and to people who worked and could not pursue a degree full time.

In the early 1920s there was an increase of commercial broadcasting licenses being issued and many universities jumped at the opportunity. Penn State was one of the first to claim a commercial license and used it to provide educational radio to its paying students and to anyone in the public that had a radio set.

In 1965 the University of Wisconsin created the Educational Teleconference Network (ETN), providing learning opportunities over the phone.

A few years later, in 1968, Stanford University created the Stanford Instructional Television Network. However, the lessons provided were only available to part time engineering students who had to go to TV classrooms.

In 1969 the first Interface Message Processor (IMP) was set up at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), making it the first computer connected to ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network). This was the beginning of our modern day Internet, without which we would not being celebrating Online Learning Day.

1969 also saw the establishment of the Open University in the United Kingdom. The Labour Party government, under Prime Minister Harold Wilson, founded the university and used television and radio to share their courses. Today the University has over 250,000 students enrolled, making it the largest academic institutions in the UK and one of the largest in the world.

In 1995 Western Governors University (a Saylor Academy partner) was founded, when 19 state governors came together to create a multi-state online university.

In 1999 Michael Saylor established the Saylor Foundation with the goal of making education accessible to everyone.

Moodle, a free and open-source software learning management system (LMS), was released to the public in 2002. (Saylor Academy uses the Moodle LMS to host all of our courses.)

In September of 2002 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) made their OpenCourseWare (OCW) project public, which provided 32 MIT courses online for free. There are now thousands of courses, syllabi, and materials available online from MIT OCW.

In 2008 Saylor Academy (as we now call ourselves) commenced our free education initiative, beginning to build open, self-paced online courses built from Open Educational Resources (OER). (See what we are up to now.)

2008 also saw the birth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), a term coined by Dave Cormier, which burst upon the world in 2012, the “Year of the MOOC”, with organizations like Coursera, Udacity, and edX whose course commanded record enrollments.

That brings us to today, where we are spoiled for choice, with countless organizations and universities offering online learning opportunities. We can take full-fledged courses all from the comfort of our homes, we can learn for fun, pursue a degree, and with Saylor Academy and our partners you can even earn tuition-free college credit.

Distance learning has come a long way since those first shorthand lessons.

In celebration of this Online Learning Day, take a look through our course catalog and see what strikes your fancy, or just dive right into, say, CS101. You can peruse the course, and maybe even take it.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to stay up to date on all things Saylor and to see the latest on how Online Learning and OER is changing the world of education.

And don’t forget to share your distance and online learning experiences with #OnlineLearningDay!


1728 – Boston, lessons by mail
– https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distance_education#cite_note-7

1840 – Great Britain, shorthand correspondence course
– https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Pitman

1858 – University of London offers Degrees to people wherever they’ve studied
– http://www.londoninternational.ac.uk/our-global-reputation/our-history/timeline

1922 – Penn State, courses by radio
– https://sites.google.com/site/distanceedtimeline/home/1922—penn-state-radio-courses

1965 – University of Wisconsin, Education by telephone
– http://www.uwex.edu/about/uw-extension-history.html#timeline

1968 – Stanford Instructional Television Network
– http://stanforddailyarchive.com/cgi-bin/stanford?a=d&d=stanford19680702-01.2.4&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN-student+army+training+corps——#

1969 – DARPA funded project creates first semblance of the Internet
– http://www.internetsociety.org/internet/what-internet/history-internet/brief-history-internet#Timeline

1969 – Open University amendment
– https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_University

1995 – Western Governors University founded
– http://www.wgu.edu/about_WGU/WGU_story

2002 – Moodle released
– https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moodle

2002 – MIT OpenCourseWare Project is made public
– https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MIT_OpenCourseWare

2008 – MOOCs appeared
– https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_open_online_course

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