History of Distance Education

Distance education focuses on delivering education through alternative means instead of just in a traditional classroom. It allows individuals to access information in various ways. Here is a brief overview of history of distance education, from as far back as the 1800s:


The more widespread use of correspondence education started in the early 1800’s where teachers would send assignments to students by mail to be completed and returned. In 1840, a shorthand class was offered completely by mail by Englishman Sir Isaac Pitman.  A completely correspondence university was founded in Ithaca, New York in 1883.  Also in the 1880’s, home-study courses in mine safety were started that later became the International Correspondence School.

Early 1900s

By the year 1900, various distance education schools were established and questions regarding ethics and quality began to arise.  Due to this, the National Home Study Council was founded to monitor the quality of distance education programs.  During the early 20th century, various distance education programs were delivered by radio, but this type of education never took off.  Distance learning instructors also experimented with telephone learning, but it too never became a big player in the industry.


Success for the distance learning field came with the more widespread use of the television. In 1959, Sunrise Semester was one of the first television delivered learning program.  It featured one teacher standing in front of a class of students and the footage was shot from the back of the room.


In the 1960’s, IBM developed COURSEWRITER, an online distance learning system that could be customized to deliver many different types of courses.


During the 1970s, a California task force was established to create educational telecourses for profit. Also, Coastline Community College was established to manage the development and filming of distance education videos that were broadcast to various other colleges, libraries, and public television channels throughout the United States. The courses were required to cover complete curricula and abide by the same educational standards as traditional schools.


Even though online education was under development as early as the 1970’s, the technology greatly improved during the 1980’s.  Various companies and government institutions began to use online education to provide training to their employees.

Early to Mid-1990s

Online education did not become popular among the general population until the 1990’s and the invention of the Internet.  In 1994, a small offline distance learning school in Rhode Island called CALCampus, introduced an entirely online curriculum delivering classes, administration, and materials completely through the Internet.

Late 1990s

In 1996, Jones International University was established.  It was the first complete accredited entirely online school.


From the mid-1900s through the early 2000s, computer technology and the Internet grew at an impressive rate. Online schools began incorporating new types of multimedia such as microphones and webcams.  Today, there are hundreds of online schools based in the U.S. and around the world; and many with regional accreditation. Millions of students are able to complete their entire educational programs entirely online from certifications to advanced degrees. With today’s emerging technology, there are various forms of distance education delivery such as online chat and email to video conferencing. As technology and the Internet expands, distance learning and online education is continuing to evolve and reach more and more students to offer an abundance of degrees online.

As you can see, the history of distance education is rich and lengthy. Online education is gaining the credibility it deserves, and today more than 20 percent of all students learn through online schools.

About Allison Freeland

Allie Freeland is the Editor-in-Chief of CollegeOnline.org. She has been a professional writer for a decade and received her bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Minnesota. She brings a wealth of information about higher education, online degrees, college life, and career advice. Follow her on G+.