Predict the future of distance learning Back To Top Next Milestone

The Evolution of

Distance Learning in Higher Education


Distance learning in the U.S., now often referred to as online education, has evolved tremendously from its humble, early reliance on "snail mail' to its modern delivery system rooted in digital innovations. Its impact on higher education has been more than 120 years in the making, with the pace of development accelerating dramatically in recent years.

We should celebrate this vibrant history, and more important, learn from it as we continue to make strides in how we use distance learning and online education to better meet student and employer needs, improve our curricula, and enhance learning.

Here's a look at where we started, how far we've come, and what it tells us about the future of distance learning and online education. We also added a few predictions on what's next, and invite your input as well.


The Early Days

1892 The University of Chicago creates the first college-level distance learning program. more

Students exchange assignments and lessons through the U.S. Postal Service.

Technology's Golden Era


1921 Colleges begin delivering education through live radio shows.more

The Federal Communications Commission grants the first educational radio licenses to the University of Salt Lake City, University of Wisconsin, and University of Minnesota. The FCC grants these licenses to some 200 colleges between 1918 and 1946.


1963 The FCC creates the Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS).more

The ITFS is a low-cost, subscriber-based-system that makes it possible for educational institutions to broadcast courses over TV. The California State University system is the first to apply for an ITFS license.


1964 The University of Wisconsin creates the Articulated Instructional Media (AIM) Project. more

The AIM Project is the first attempt to identify, categorize, and systemize distance learning practices. It also provides guidance on how to create and incorporate multimedia materials into distance learning.


Virtual Campuses Are Born

1970 Coastline Community College becomes the first college without a physical campus.more

The college creates, licenses, and implements the first fully televised college courses, and broadcasts them via KOCE-TV to other educational institutions in California.


1980 Learn/Alaska is created, becoming the first state educational satellite system. more

Students in 100 villages can watch six hours of instructional television daily.


1985 The National Technological University offers online degree courses using satellite transmissions. more

The university accesses course materials from other universities and broadcasts them to adult learners. Students can call their professors during broadcasts and participate in discussions.

The Internet Changes Everything


1991 Tim Berners-Lee creates the World Wide Web. more

It catalyzes online education over the information superhighway, which later is renamed the Internet.


1993 Jones International University becomes the first fully online university accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. more

The university offers five online bachelor's degree programs and 24 online master's degree programs.


1996 John Bourne establishes the Asynchronous Learning Network (ALN) Web. more

The Alfred P. Sloan-C Foundation supports development efforts. "Asynchronous learning networks" refer to the ability to deliver education anytime, anywhere through the Internet.


2002 MIT launches its OpenCourseWare proof-of-concept sitemore

OpenCourseWare is a free, web-based publication of MIT course materials, including lecture notes, exams, and videos. Its launch marks the historic moment when an elite higher education institution shares materials from its curriculum freely and openly on the web.


Online Education Becomes Mainstream

2005 WebCT and Blackboard® merge under the Blackboard® brand. more

Blackboard® becomes a leading platform for delivering educational services online.


2008 The ALN Web becomes the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C). more

Sloan-C is an institutional and professional leadership organization focused on improving the quality and integration of online education into mainstream higher education.


2009Smaller, less well-known colleges and for-profit universities drive further innovation in online education.more

Eduventures reports for-profits' share of the online education market rose to 42 percent in 2009 from 39 percent in 2008. The Chronicle of Higher Education notes this is a large increase, since for-profits' share of the entire higher education market is 9 percent.


2010Babson Research Survey Group and College Board report that 6.1 million students have taken at least one online education course.more

This is an increase of more than half a million students over 2009, illustrating how online education is mushrooming. As a result, 65 percent of higher education institutions say online education is now a critical part of their long-term strategy, according to Babson Research Survey Group and College Board.


No Looking Back

2011Stanford University Professor Sebastian Thrun launches a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). more

His MOOC on artificial intelligence, which quickly attracts more than 160,000 students, sparks intense and renewed interest in the power of online education. Thrun soon thereafter founds the online education organization Udacity.

Five education experts give their predictions for the future of distance learning and online education.


2013 Awareness begins to grow around the importance of students being agents in their educational journeys. more

A renewed narrative around the importance of self-directed learning inevitably evolves from the opportunities that the web and online education provide, and institutions that understand how to support and encourage learning agency are better helping learners meet their educational, career, and personal needs. Flexible, innovative, and collaborative online education play a crucial role in this shift.

Steve Hargadon
Creator of the Classroom 2.0 social network
Director of Web 2.0 Labs
Host of the Future of Education interview series


2015Online education courses become even more interactive.more

The instructional design community creates online education courses that use multimedia to immerse students in motivating, participatory, virtual learning activities. The rapid evolution of design tools, gaming, and simulation capabilities within learning management systems exponentially expands the ability of online education courses to interactively engage students.

Don Mroz, Ph.D.
Provost and Dean of The Malcolm Baldrige School of Business at Post University


2020 K-12 online education becomes fully integrated into schools' curricula. more

The innovative online options available in higher education filter to the lowest grade levels and spread to all types of schools—and homes. As a result, online education becomes an education means of choice for learning throughout the lifespan.

Jane Bailey, Ed.D.
Dean of the School of Education, Post University


2027 Technology is no longer in the classroom; technology becomes the classroom. more

Virtual education, or tele-education, provides tremendous improvements in the availability and quality of education, at far lower costs to society. The "tele-generation" is changing physical socialization into virtual socialization.

Dennis Bushnell
Chief Scientist, NASA Langley Research Center
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Advisory Board member, Post University Master of Education degree program


2035 Individual minds converge and communicate through bioengineered technologies that allow humans instant access to vast resources of information.more

The nature of learning has transformed into value-added process, and creative and relational learning and development. Our notions of learning and educating, in particular in the industrial classroom model, have changed significantly due to technology.

Frank Mulgrew
President of the Online Education Institute of Post University

Now It's Your Turn

What do you predict the next milestone for distance learning and online education will be in the next five, 10, 15, or more years? Tell us on Post University's Facebook page for a chance to win a $50 Amazon gift card.