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Distance Education, From Postcards to Online Universities

Online Education

When someone says distance education learning days, what scene do you see in your mind? Almost certainly of a teacher in front of a web camera and students behind laptops or with tablets in hand. The film you imagine isn’t misleading, however, it is incomplete. First of all, what exactly is distance learning? A multitude of definitions boils down to this: studying where lectures are transmitted to a student. It started long before the Internet. With handwritten letters and stagecoaches, to regulated postal services, to radio and television. But it is the last three, Internet decades that brought any education to your fingertips.

Caleb Phillips Promises Learning to “Any Person in the Country” in 1728

The roots of distance education stretch back nearly 300 years. The first known mention of correspondence classes is from the March 10, 1728 edition of the Boston Gazette. One Caleb Phillips placed an ad offering to teach “any Person in the Country” shorthand through correspondence lessons.

Universities in Poland were pioneers of distance learning among the world’s academic institutions. Already in 1776, Krakow’s ancient Jagiellonian University started correspondence labor safety classes for workers.

In England, postal rates were standardized in 1840. That allowed Sir Isaac Pitman to launch a correspondence shorthand school from his residence in Bath. He’d exchange postcards with his students, instructing them what to transcribe and mail back, then adding corrections and returning the postcards. The idea was a success and led to the formation of a network of Sir Isaac Pitman Colleges.

A full 18 years after Pitman started his remote teaching business, the University of London followed suit with its “external program”. The university was also the first to begin issuing diplomas for remote courses.

Ticknor’s Society Mails Education to Women in 1873

Back in Boston in 1873, Anna Eliot Ticknor launched the Society to Encourage Studies at Home. Her goal was “to induce among ladies the habit of devoting some part of every day to study of a systematic and thorough kind.” Only women were allowed. At the time, there was an apparently similar society in England. However, Ticknor’s was intended for women from any class, while in England it was only for those from the upper class.

In England, students traveled to London for the final exam, but Ticknor, daughter of a Harvard professor, dropped the exam aware that many of women studying lacked financial means to travel. On the other hand, her courses were intense, with individualized teaching plans and a lively correspondence between teachers and students. During 24 years of work before Ticknor’s death in 1896, a total of 7,086 students and more than 200 teachers took part in the program.

Distance education rapidly expanded in the final quarter of the XIX century. The Illinois Wesleyan College was the first academic institution to offer the first US “in absentia” degree in 1874. Many, in the US, Europe, and Australia rapidly followed. The sector grew strongly throughout the first half of the XX century.

Education on Radio and TV Waves in the 1920s (And Now They’re Back)

The arrival of radio into millions of homes worldwide allowed the first step to live teaching. Already in the early 1920s, children and adults who could not attend school listened to classes on the radio. Institutions would announce the schedule on-air print it in local papers. Teachers went on air and students took notes in their homes or near an available radio. In Chicago, a radio schooling program kept children at home during the 1930s polio epidemic. In far-flung settlements of Australia’s Outback, radio replaced letters mailed back-and-forth between teachers and pupils in primary and secondary schools.

The University of Louisville teamed up with NBC in 1948 to use radio as a platform for distance education. It transmitted live from classrooms to listeners in the area, who could obtain study material at a low cost and mail it back for grading. There were similar projects using television, as it spread, first in the US. The University of Houston was the first to offer fully-credited TV courses, already in 1953.

The 2020 pandemic actually brought both radio and TV back into education. The US-based Education Development Center pioneered an interactive radio program for children without access to the Internet. It provides a widely accessible and affordable platform for the education of children in impoverished parts of Africa, Asia, and Central America.

WWW Arrives in 1989 and With it Education For All

Nothing has, however, changed the entire human world, including education at any level, as rapidly as the Internet did. The Internet enabled unprecedented, immediate interaction between an educator and remote students. Scientists and leading schools began developing early computer networks in the 1960s. Illinois University developed the first for its students at the start of the decade.

The WorldWideWeb, the backbone of the Internet, arrived three decades later, in 1989. That same year the University of Phoenix was the first to launch a fully online institution offering Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Seven years later, Jones International University became the first fully-online and fully-accredited institution of higher learning.

Over the following three decades, distance education via the Internet exploded. The numbers are staggering as most universities and other institutions of higher learning now offer some form of online education. Add to that the even faster growth of non-accredited learning platforms, such as Udemy. The pandemic and health protocols added fuel to the expansion of online education, but it was expanding ever-faster, anyway.

Small-Kids Schools, Universities, Platforms and Courses For Young and Old

The diversity of programs, courses, and platforms is equally mind-blowing. You can attain a Ph.D. without ever setting foot on campus. There doesn’t even have to be a campus. Or you can pick courses of various lengths and difficulty for anything. It could be a single certified year of IT to boost your position at work, to knitting.

Today, you can tailor your education, from first grade to a Master’s degree, to your residence, interests, commitments, and budget. It varies between institutions and learning platforms, but also within them. For instance, the Online Business Academy offers UK- and EU-certified qualifications in IT and Computing, and in business that are on par with university degrees. But it also offers full Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees via renowned British universities. And, as we said, you never have to leave your city for it, no matter where it is.

If you are considering online education, be it a qualification, or a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in business, feel free to ask us about our programs at