A History of Online Education


Updated October 17, 2023 · 3 Min Read

The technology boom of the mid-1980s is most remembered for the first personal computer, but that era also saw another important creation: online learning.

Back then, it was sparsely used, mostly by business executives and a few postsecondary institutions. But today, it's become a cornerstone of education – and it preserved school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Technological advancements have made online education accessible to people worldwide of all different backgrounds. The format is especially popular in the U.S., where about a third of the 20.6 million college students take online classes. Nearly every postsecondary institution in the U.S. offers at least one online program, ranging from non-degree degree programs to full Ph.Ds.

The history of online learning in higher education can sometimes seem too big to wrap your mind around, much like the internet itself, so we've put together a timeline to help you better understand the origins of today's online colleges and degrees.

A Brief Timeline of Online Education


The Western Behavioral Sciences Institute uses computer conferencing to provide a distance education program for business executives.


Ron Gordon, Atari's former president, launches the Electronic University Network to make online courses available for people with access to personal computers.


Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale-Davie, Florida, creates the first electronic classroom through an accredited online graduate program.


The National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET) launches the first open computer network — a precursor to the internet — allowing institutions to create and distribute electronic information.


Jones International University opens in Centennial, Colorado, becoming the first fully web-based, accredited university.


CALCampus introduces the first online-only curriculum with real-time instruction and participation — i.e., synchronous learning.


Nineteen U.S. governors found Western Governors University to help Western states maximize educational resources through distance learning.


California Virtual University — a consortium of California colleges offering around 700 online classes — opens.

The "Boom" of Distance Education

Percent of students taking distance education classes


The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launches the OpenCourseWare Project to provide free MIT courses to people worldwide.


Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), a free online course resource, becomes available through Udacity and enables learners to take classes asynchronously at their own pace.


The COVID-19 pandemic forces nearly every college and university to switch to online learning rather than hold classes in person.

Popular Online Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Portrait of Evan Thompson

Evan Thompson

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

Header Image Credit: Ariel Skelley, Vince Streano | Getty Images

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