The History of Distance Learning
Distance learning has been around for longer than you might think, enabling students to learn and understand academic courses without having to attend a school or university. We’ve taken a look into the history of distance learning and online learning to see where it started and how it has developed over time.
- Today over 180 million people around the world use online courses to learn new skills.
- Online learning platforms in the UK are expected to reach £0.43 billion in revenue in 2023, and £0.56 billion in revenue by 2027.
- The e-learning industry is expected to be worth £298 billion ($375 billion USD) globally by 2026 this would be a 19% increase from the £250 billion ($315 billion USD) the e-learning industry was worth in 2021.
- The percentage of higher education students using distance learning doubled from 36.9% in 2019 to 74% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The first recorded example of distance learning was in Boston, USA in 1728 when shorthand teacher Caleb Philipps ran shorthand courses via post.
- The University of Wisconsin first used the term ‘distance education’ in 1892.
- The first distance learning degree course was run by the University of London in 1858 through their External Programme.
- In 1965, the University of Alberta offered some of the first online courses using IBM 1500 computers.
- In 1969, the UK Labour Government launched the Open University based on Harold Wilson’s idea of a ‘University in the Air’.
- Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were first launched by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2012 through their MITx program.
What is online learning?
Online learning is any type of study that takes place remotely, using the internet. Also known as distance learning or e-learning, this method of study allows students to work from their own homes, rather than attending a school or university.
This method of learning allows students to work through educational course material in their own time without having to travel to an in-person classroom. It allows for more flexible learning and gives students the freedom to study alongside other commitments like work or family.
History of distance learning timeline
Distance learning has, of course, been around for much longer than online learning, but where did it start? And how has it developed into the e-learning we know today?
Boston, USA – 1728
Distance learning was introduced long before the invention of the internet. In fact, the first example of distance learning was recorded in 1728 in Boston in the British North American Colonies.
These courses taught shorthand, a method of fast writing using symbols and abbreviations instead of words. A man called Caleb Philipps ran these courses through weekly lessons sent by post, and advertised the courses in the Boston Gazette.
Gloucestershire, UK – 1840s
More than 100 years later, in the 1840s, Sir Isaac Pitman began offering correspondence courses in shorthand. His course was slightly different from Caleb Philipps’, as Pitman provided feedback by assessing, correcting, and sending his students’ work back to them. Pitman Shorthand is still widely used today by journalists, court stenographers, and secretaries to take notes.
University of London, UK – 1858
In 1858, the University of London started running degree courses through their External Programme which allowed students outside of London to study degrees through the university. From this point, long-distance learning became much more popular as students around the world were able to receive course material and send work back through the post.
University of Wisconsin, U.S. – 1892
In 1892, the University of Wisconsin first used the term ‘distance education’. Then in 1906, they began recording lectures and sending phonographs out to their students.
In 1965, the university started running telephone-based instructional courses for physicians. The Division of Pharmacy Professional Development (DPPD) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Pharmacy has continued to offer at least one teleconference course each year since 1966, consisting of pre-recorded lectures with live question and answers.
A number of broadcasters, including the BBC in the UK and NBC in the US, began running courses where educational materials were mailed to students, and they could then tune in via radio to listen to their teacher.
University of Alberta, Canada – 1968
The Department of Medicine at the University of Alberta in Canada offered some of the first online courses in 1968. Over 20,000 students took part in these courses which taught 17 classes using the IBM 1500 network. Teachers used this system to remotely send course materials, assess tasks and organise documents.
Open University, UK – 1969
The UK Labour government, led by Harold Wilson, launched the Open University in 1969. This became the first organisation set up specifically to provide distance learning. It was created to provide the opportunity for higher education to people who had previously been unable to attend university and get a degree.
Prime Minister Harold Wilson had spent years working on his idea of a ‘University in the Air’ designed to bring higher education to more than just those who were able to attend an in-person university. Learning materials were initially distributed via radio and TV broadcasts.
The Open University went on to launch the CICERO Project in 1976, a course that contained three modules with online requirements.
University of Toronto, Canada – 1984
The first course to be held completely online was through the University of Toronto in 1984. Following this, in 1986, the Electronic University Network was launched for use on Commodore 64 and DOS computers.
University of Phoenix, USA – 1986
The University of Phoenix was the first educational institution in the world to establish a collegiate institution that was completely online. This programme offered both bachelor’s and master’s degrees and made advanced learning much more accessible to the public.
MIT MOOCs, USA – 2012
MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) were first offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2012 through their MITx program. Through this, the university offered a portfolio of its own courses online and made online learning tools freely available.
The program later became edX, a non-profit organisation owned jointly by MIT and Harvard University. The MOOCs offered by MITx and edX were free to take and open for anyone to enrol in.
From this point onwards, MOOCs gained popularity and a number of companies began launching their own versions of online courses accessible for anyone to take part in.
E-learning is the fastest-growing market within the education industry, with a 900% growth rate worldwide since the year 2000. There are currently over 180 million people around the world using MOOCs either to access free learning materials or to pay for premium courses.
Enabling people to access learning materials online has expanded the accessibility of learning to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.
In the UK, online learning platforms are expected to reach £0.43 billion in revenue in 2023, and £0.56 billion in revenue by 2027.
Online learning and the COVID-19 pandemic
During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the use of online learning exploded with schools, colleges and universities taking lessons online. Where lessons had previously been carried out in classrooms and lecture halls, the majority of students had to transition to using online learning tools and communicating with their teachers over video call platforms like Zoom.
The pandemic-related lockdowns also contributed to a rise in people taking online courses outside of traditional education. Just under half (49%) of people in the UK said that lockdowns had given them more free time to focus on upgrading their skills and knowledge using online courses. In addition to this, 32% of people said that they considered trying e-learning courses to keep their mind off the pandemic.
Online searches for the phrase ‘online courses’ increased by 200% between 2019 and 2021, with over 60,000 searches for this term in April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic.
Change in the number of students using distance learning
The number of students using some form of distance learning has been increasing gradually over time. Data from the U.S. shows that 25.9% of higher education students took part in distance learning in 2012. This figure increased to 36.9% in 2019, but then jumped up to 74% in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic meaning the number of students using distance learning doubled from 2019 to 2020.
The future of online learning
We’ve discussed the history of online learning, and how distance learning has evolved into what we know how, but where could online education take us in the future?
E-learning is seen by many as the future of learning, with so many online courses, learning apps, and instructional videos available on almost any topic you can think of. It is predicted that by 2025, education will be a $7.3 trillion market globally. This is a 160% increase from the $2.8 trillion that the education industry was worth in the year 2000.
When looking specifically at digital learning, the e-learning sector is expected to be worth $375 billion globally by 2026. This would be a 19% increase from 2021 when the e-learning market was worth $315 billion. 
Distance learning and virtual reality
Virtual reality (VR) uses computer technology to create a 3D world that users can interact with, typically by using a VR headset. The use of VR in e-learning is still in its early stages, but here are some of the ways it can be used:
- Simulated training – Students can use VR to immerse themselves into training environments. This technology is already being used at a number of training facilities, mainly in industries like aviation, medicine, and electronics.
- Gamification – Making learning more like a game can be a helpful tool that makes it easier for students to learn and retain information. VR can be used in this way to turn courses into video-game-style content where learners move through a 3D world solving problems and facing real-life practical challenges.
Examples of VR in learning
- The 1943 Berlin Blitz in 360 is a VR experience developed for the BBC which shows students what it was like during Nazi Germany using real recordings of a nighttime raid.
- Microsoft’s HoloLens created a way for medical students to explore inside the human body to better understand anatomy and the diagnosis of medical conditions.
Distance learning has come a long way since the first recorded correspondence courses in 1728. Now students around the world can study educational courses in their own time from the comfort of their own homes using the internet. With the advancement of technology bringing virtual reality into the e-learning space, digital learning is sure to grow in popularity even more.
 JSTOR Daily – Three Centuries of Distance Learning – https://daily.jstor.org/three-centuries-of-distance-learning/
 History of Information – Pitman Shorthand – https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?id=2050
 University of London – History – https://www.london.ac.uk/about-us/history-university-london
 University of Wisconsin – 50 Years of Distance Learning – https://pharmacy.wisc.edu/50-years-of-distance-learning-evolving-for-todays-and-future-learners-needs/
 Wayback Machine – University of Alberta – https://web.archive.org/web/20110608020235/http://www.quasar.ualberta.ca/edmedia/readingsnc/Hunkabuck.pdf
 Humanist Heritage – The Open University – https://heritage.humanists.uk/the-open-university/
 Open University – History of the OU – http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/History-of-the-OU/?cat=202
MIT – MITx Education Initiative – https://news.mit.edu/2011/mitx-education-initiative-1219
 Class Central – MOOC Statistics – https://www.classcentral.com/report/mooc-stats-2020/
 Statista – Student Distance Learning Enrollment U.S. – https://www.statista.com/statistics/944245/student-distance-learning-enrollment-usa/ .
 Holoniq – EdTech in 10 Charts – https://www.holoniq.com/edtech-in-10-charts
 GM Insights – E-Learning Market Size – https://www.gminsights.com/pressrelease/elearning-market
 E-Learning Industry – Future of E-Learning is VR – https://elearningindustry.com/future-of-elearning-is-vr