May 1st, 2013 Course Creation

If you thought that distance learning was a product of today, then you would be mistaken. In fact, the first distance learning program on record took place in 1728, when a local teacher by the name of Caleb Phillips advertised shorthand correspondence lessons offered by mail! By 1800, the growth of the U.S. Postal Service brought about an increase in the number of distance learning correspondence courses in the country. Remember, mail back then was like email is today – “fast”, convenient, and nearly everyone had access. Heck, by 1873, the University of the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) founded a distance learning facility.

Times sure have changed, in particular because of accessible and advanced technology. But it never hurts to take a look back in time to see how distance learning has evolved. As expected, once technology started to become more developed in the last century, we have seen a rapid growth in the number of distance learning offerings. Starting with radio and television, and naturally with the computer, when BlackBoard entered the market (1999) to help lead the charge into the new millennium. Today, roughly 60% of four-year U.S. private colleges and universities offer online classes.

While the facts on this infographic (developed by are quite fascinating, what I believe is most telling is that from 1998 to 2008 there was a 150% increase in the number of students opting for distance learning courses as part of their regular curriculum. Naturally this is only going to increase within the next 10 years, especially as we see MOOCs enter the scene.

As long as I am speculating, I think that we will see that by the year 2023, Universities will offer two types of curriculums: one in the traditional sense and one that is “off campus” (virtual) at a lower price-point. Perhaps one avenue would be to allow students to attend the first two years of their degree virtually in the effort to help subsidize costs but still attract enrollment. This way the students can commit to the degree early and more than likely finish it out without having to take as many loans. Not a bad idea actually – in fact the ones who do this now will sweep up some extra profits by getting in early 😉

distance learning evolution

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About Justin Ferriman

Justin started LearnDash, the WordPress LMS trusted by Fortune 500 companies, major universities, training organizations, and entrepreneurs worldwide. He is currently founder & CEO of GapScout. Justin's Homepage | GapScout | Twitter

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Loved the infographic as i am in the world of Distance Education. I think you may have ommitted a large contributor to the world history of distance Ed…the early Australian contribution. Check this link to my school’s website for a glimpse into the world of distance learning in the early part of the 20th century in western Australia. My school is a unique example of distance education with learners from 5 to 17 years of age.
Thanks for your infographic…


PS i was really pleased to see Moodle made the infographic…especially given that Martin Dougiamass was an alumni of the Distance Education system in WA and that my school, Schools of Isoalted and Distance Education, SIDE, use and love Moodle…great work !

A very commendable and useful visual. Could benefit from embedding the Mega-Univerities of the world referred by Sir John Daniel. And after 2008 the evolution has been much more rapid. In a traditional graph, they would have used a logarithmic scale. It would be interesting how it could be done here. But really ppreciate the effort and sense of correlation with the evolution of technology that it provides.

Great timeline! Missing MOOCs and how they are changing online education yet again.

Very, very interesting! I took correspondence courses in accounting through the University of South Africa, the current name of the University of the Cape of Good Hope, in the late 1970s. They were effective and low cost. The US Army developed interactive video disc training programs for gunnery practice in the late 1970s. GM started using video disc training to help sales staff learn about the features of new cars in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Control Data Corporation and the University of Illinois brought the PLATO computer-based training system to the market in the 1970s. IBM brought the Interactive Instructional System to the market in the late 1970s. Goal Systems was founded in 1979 and they developed the PHOENIX computer-based traiing software with the help of Ohio State University. These were the foreunners of today’s Learning Managment Systems, Learning Content Management, and Authoring Systems.

I agree with Cathy Garland. MOOCs and other forms of distance learning are having a major impact on traditional residential colleges and universities.

Avatar Mark Corson

I was so interested that Distance Learning began with SHORTHAND and STENOGRAPHY! I learned Gregg shorthand 50 years ago and still use it all the time. I also taught shorthand for about 25 years until it vanished from the classroom. It’s hard to imagine teaching and learning shorthand by correspondence in 1728! I currently teach many college DL courses online!

Avatar Mazie Will

Great graphic. Curious, do you know of any studies that have analyzed the learning effectiveness of MOOCs? I’ve participated in several MOOCs at this point and my experiences have been very mixed. Inconsistent quality, low group participation, high dropout negatively impacted my experience but I also had some positives. I’m just wondering as I see the comments about MOOCs be left off from the infographic. I don’t have an issue with this as the real impact of MOOCs is still unknown. A lot of improvement still has to happen.

I loved the infographic, but was wondering if the Australian School of the Air should have a place there as well ?
It commenced in 1951, using the resources of the Australian Royal Flying doctor service to broadcast lessons to a very diverse geographical population.

Avatar Chris

Great summary. Only problem is the graph at the bottom of the timeline. It seems to represent a 150 times increase which would be 15000%. A 150% increase represents a 2.5 times increase (i.e. if you increase something by 100% the end result is double what you started with, 200% increase triple what you started with etc etc). Perhaps a distance learning program in math is required 😉

Avatar Ben

This article really resonated with me. I especially liked this sentence the final paragraph: “Perhaps one avenue would be to allow students to attend the first two years of their degree virtually in the effort to help subsidize costs but still attract enrollment.”

There are so many individuals who could be served by such a model:

– Working parents with HS degrees/GEDs.
– Rural or home schooled high school students with limited access to advanced topics.
– Motivated students with specific interests that aren’t addressed in their schools.
– Individuals looking to change careers, but want to ‘test the waters’ on the subject matter first.

Avatar Linda Hower Bates

Hi Justine
I do believe that talking about “300 years of distance learning” is metaphoric.
Because you cannot talk about different things, and just use the same word and try to compare them.
First the importance of distance learning, before the Second World War, and Skinner (with the teaching machine methodology) was really symbolic.
Second, it is not the same sing talking about distance learning based and supported in regular mail, and distance learning based on Internet tools and new methodologies and synchronous tools.
If you want to go into details on this subject, have a look about, European PhD thesis dissertation, on: Pedagogic and technologic aspects of virtual classrooms in distance teaching.
Video –
Best regards

Congratulations for your very illuminating infographic. I hpe you will keep improving it
with some of thee comments posted. I thhink some mention is due to the development
of correspondence study in the UK and Australia. Dont forget the Open University and
important palyers in the private sector such as International Correspondence Schools.
Also, I think Pennsylvania State University played a very interesting role in the promotion
worlwide of distance education. Alberto Gibbs, Universidad Nacional Abierta, Venezuela.

Avatar Alberto Gibbs

Excellent Infographic!! Great research and informative post!!! Got to know more about distance education

Avatar Alekha

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