History of Online Education

When was online education first introduced? What was the first online university? When did online education become popular? 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 have put together a timeline to help better understand where today’s online colleges and online degrees come from.

Online Education ties together several historical threads — computers, distance learning, and telecommunications, just to name a few. This means tracing the history of online education goes back much further than just the dawn of the Internet.

We have done our best to bring all these related streams together into a single timeline. But, be aware, online learning is a lot more than just internet technology. It also merges educational theory, computer technology, and even legislation. All of these are needed to make today’s online education possible.

If you want to know more about Current Trends in Online Education, or tips for online college, check out more of our articles at The Quad. If you are ready to begin your search for online colleges, but don’t know where to start, check out our definitive ranking of the Best Online Colleges and Universities. Finally, if you want to know more about the technology discussed in this article, our ranking of the Best Online Bachelor’s in Computer Science Degree Programs can get you started.

A Brief History of Online Learning


    The Industrial Age and Early Computers: You might not think of computer technology as emerging in a time when the steam engine was considered modern technology. But the earliest computers were born during the Industrial Era. Some may dispute what counts as a “computer.” Strictly speaking, any counting machine such as an abacus might be regarded as a computer. But this time period actually marks the debut of the first semi-automated computing machines. This era also marks the beginning of radios, motion pictures, and — especially important for our purposes — correspondence courses, laying the groundwork for distance education and online colleges.


  • Caleb Phillips begins advertising private (mail) correspondence courses in the Boston Gazette newspaper. Informal “correspondence educations” can be found thereafter, with varying degrees of quality and consistency.


  • Establishment of American Postal System.


  • Weaver and merchant Joseph-Marie Jacquard invents the punch card loom (computer). The punch card method of programming would later be used in early IBM computers.


  • Charles Babbage produces the first prototype of a “modern” style automated computer. He called it an “analytic engine.”


  • The Univeristy of London becomes the first univeristy in the world to offer full degrees through distance learning, with its “External Programme.”


  • The first formal correspondence schools in the United States begin. Their collective organization is called “The Society to Encourage Studies at Home,” founded by Ana Eliot Tickner in Boston, Massachusetts.


  • Alexander Graham Bell makes the first telephone call on March 10, thus inventing the first working telephone. His message was, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.”


  • The first motion–picture photography is achieved by Edward Muybridge on June 19. This short experimental recording shows a galloping horse. Muybridge was settling a dispute about whether running horses lift all four feet off the ground at the same time.


  • The University of Chicago is the first traditional American educational institution (college or K–12) to offer correspondence courses.
  • The term “distance education” is first used in by the Univeristy of Wisconsin–Madison in a pamphlet.


  • The first radio signal is sent by Guglielmo Marconi. This technology reaches England by 1899.


    The Great Wars and The Proto-Internet Era: The early incentive for innovation in computer technology was often war-related. In this era, the word “computer” still meant “a person who does computation.” During and after two world wars, the biggest source of funding and federal support was for military purposes, most notably for competing with the USSR. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 set American forces ablaze with new inspiration. After a decade of robust post-war production and innovation, the United States is well-positioned to take a lead in technology development. In this era, radio technology reaches into every home, and television and video recording are invented. Alongside these new technologies, distance education begins to evolve through radio and television correspondence.


  • The Calvert School of Baltimore (Maryland) is the first primary school in the US to offer correspondence courses.
  • The Univeristy of Wisonsin–Madison sends course materials and lectures on phonograph records to distance learners, embracing new technology as a means of distance education and setting the stage for online learning.


  • The Univeristy of Queensland (Australia) opens its Department of Correspondence Studies.


  • Pennsylvania State University is the first college or university to broadcast courses over the radio, increasing the speed and efficiency of contact between distance learners and course content.


  • The University of Iowa begins offering course credit for five different radio correspondence courses.


  • John Logie Baird invents the first television in England.
  • The National Home Study Council forms. They would change their name to the Distance Education and Training Council in 1942, and the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) in 2015.


  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is formed. Under the influence of the Association of College and University Broadcasting, they help to keep frequencies open for collegiate broadcasting.


  • The Turing machine, a code-breaking computer, is invented by Alan Turing to assist the Allied forces in breaking the code used for German military instructions.


  • Allegedly, the first fully automated electro-mechanical programmable digital computer is created — the Z3 — by German Konrad Zuse.


  • “Colossus” is built. This set of computers aids British intelligence code-breakers as part of the war effort. This computer system is thought to be the first electronic fully programmable digital computing device. Some dispute persists over which computer systems were first, because most of the technology served covert military purposes and were subsequently destroyed.


  • The University of South Africa begins offering correspondence courses.


  • WOI-TV of Iowa State University goes on the air with the first non-experimental, educationally owned television station.


  • The University of Houston begins offering course credit for television correspondence courses.


  • The USSR launches sputnik, the first satellite, igniting a new era of global communications, and ramping up Cold War competition.


  • Bell Laboratories invents the modem (“modulator and demodulator”). This device converts digital signals to analog (electric) signals, enabling wired communication between two or more computers.
  • ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) is created by the US government in response to Russia’s Sputnik program. ARPA would later play a major role in establishing the groundwork for the Internet.


    The Space Age and the Early Internet: The internet takes its first wobbly steps in these early years. This era is marked by many “firsts,” including the invention of packet switching, ASCII coding, the term “internet,” the launch of ARPANET, and of course, and the first internet signal — “LO” (attempting the word “LOGIN”). Most of the technology developed in this period has since been retired, antiquated by the natural evolution of technology. But this would be a period of rapid and remarkable breakthrough, giving first light to the prospect of a worldwide computer network, as well as the first virtual campus, though we were still a few years away from online education.


  • The University of Ilinois creates Intranet systems for students to access course materials and recorded lectures.


  • J.C.R. Licklider of MIT envisions a “galactic network” concept where all computers can access data and programs from any other site, effectively describing what came to be known as the internet.


  • Leonard Kleinrock, Lawrence Roberts, and Thomas Merrill create the first wide area computer network, using telephone lines. Their work was sponsored by ARPA.
  • The University of Wisconsin begins to implement a statewide telephone correspondence format for their physician training.


  • ARPA sponsors the launch of ARPANET research project under the supervision of Robert Taylor. Its aim is to bridge packet-switching technology and computer networks.


  • The first four nodes of the preliminary internet, the ARPANET, are linked through a physical Interface Message Processor (IMP) network. The nodes are in UCLA, UC–Santa Barbara, Stanford, and the University of Utah.
  • October 29th, Charley Kline transmitted the first internet signal (data packets) under the supervision of Leonard Kleinrock at UCLA. The receiving end of the signal was at Stanford Research Institute. The message was “L” and “O”. The system crashed before relaying the third letter, a “G.” On the second try they succeeded in sending the complete word “LOGIN.”


  • Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn coin the term “internet” in a paper called “A Protocol for packet Network Interconnection.”
  • Lawrence Roberts founds Telenet through the support of Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN). This is the first public version of ARPANET.


  • Bill Gates and Paul Allen found the Microsoft Corporation.


  • The first virtual campus, Coastline Community College, is born, offering its degree program entirely through telecommuting courses, also known as telecourses (using telephone, television, radio, records, and tapes). The virtual campus operates out of Fountain Valley, California.


  • Lawrence Landweber establishes the Computer Science Network (CSNET) with the intention of connecting all US universities and industrial computer research groups.


    The Computer Age and the Modern Internet: Even though internet-type signals had been transmitted from school to school in decades past, the 1980’s are the birth years of modern internet. Before this era, the internet — and online education with it — were just research experiments. The vision for the internet was primarily based in university computer labs. But online education does finds its earliest entrants in the 1980’s with the first online college courses and online degrees as distance education embraces the idea of online learning. During this era, the internet reaches Europe and Asia. Infrastructure is laid down, providing for faster and more expansive internet operations and effectively opening the door for the total commercial and popular permeation of web use in the decade that would immediately follow.


  • Radia Perlman begins to design the IS-IS (Intermediate System to Intermediate System) routing protocol. Essentially, this programming enables users to link computers into a network merely by plugging them in. This way, the computers configure automatically, instead of manually.
  • Douglas Van Houweling begins overseeing the National Science Foundation’s NSFNET. Early networking efforts connected thousands of science and research groups (mostly schools), and would lay the groundwork for the global commercial internet we know today.
  • David Farber, the “Grandfather of the Internet,” helps establish the National Science Foundation’s Computer Science Network (CSNET). CSNET proves instrumental in raising awareness of computer networking technology.


  • The Osborne 1 is the first commercially successful portable computer.
  • Western Behavioral Sciences Institute offers the first online college program through its School of Management and Strategic Studies.


  • Modern internet is born when ARPANET transitions to TCP/IP protocols, leaving behind the former (weaker, less flexible) protocols of the Network Control Programs (NCP).


  • The first email is sent from the US to Germany on August 3. It says, “Willkommen CSNET.”
  • The Electronic University Network is created to promote access to onlline courses.


  • The first accredited online graduate program is offered by Nova Southeastern University.
  • First US research and education network developed: NSFNET. This network is the first open computer network focused on research and higher education. Previous networks were all “closed networks.”


  • The Electronic University Network offers its first course for use with DOS and Commodore 64 computers.


  • The University of Phoenix, a private for-profit school, launches its online degree program.


    The Information Age and the Internet Boom: The 1990’s are marked by a tech boom, as the commercial prospects of the internet are starting to take root. The early pioneers of online learning enter the fray around this time, with the first accredited fully–online college, as well as the development of learning management systems (LMS). But other companies begin utilizing the internet to pioneer brand new avenues of entertainment, learning, exploration, and discovery. Sometimes called the “internet bubble,” this tech boom is marked by inflated economic growth.


  • Linus Torvalds creates Linux, which would become a leading mode of Open Source software, a necessary aspect of many modern online learning platforms.


  • Tim Berners-Lee creates the first website on August 6. The first website address is: http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html. The site is still active today.
  • Al Gore “Invents” the internet. In actuality, he creates and helps pass the High-performance Computing and Communications Act (“The Gore Bill”), allocating $600 million toward advancing internet technology and creating the “Information Superhighway” (the term was eventually subsumed by the internet).
  • The World Wide Web (WWW) opens to the public, allowing for internet use and online education as we know them today.


  • Western Michigan University develops a system of automatic computerized grading known as “Computer Assisted Personalized Approach” (CAPA).
  • The Electronic University Network offers a Ph.D. program through America Online.


  • CALCAMPUS offers the first online college courses with real–time instruction and participation i.e. synchronous learning.


  • Email surpasses postal mail in number of documents sent and received.
  • Jones International University — the first fully web–based, accredited university — launches. (The school closed after graduating its last class in 2015.)


  • Blackboard Course Management software launches, effectively opening the market to a wide range of online options that were previously considered too unwieldy to handle.
  • California Virtual University is established to provide students with information about online courses.
  • The Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks is established to publish and promote academic research on online education.
  • The Interactive Learning Network is created and used by multiple schools as an early (LMS).


  • The Google search engine is developed.


    The Information Age, Part Two — the Global Community: After the rapid expansion of the Internet in the 1990s, the novelty begins to wear off and its truly seismic impact is felt across the globe and throughout society. Distant villages and households are connecting to the internet. Legislation and policy is increasingly challenged to keep up with the hastened pace of information coursing through the internet. Increasingly, conventional businesses and information mediums shift into online formats and it becomes the norm for most everyone to have a website, as well as a unique “digital profile” (record of one’s interactions in social media, browsing, commenting, and shopping). There is a proliferation of online colleges and online degrees, as well as free and open online education options. From 2000 forward, the internet is firmly entrenched as a critical dimension of modern society, as opposed to merely a new technology added onto old society.


  • Computer prodigy Aaron Swartz builds Creative Commons under the supervision of law professor Lawrence Lessig. Swarz was fifteen at the time.
  • Jimmy Wales launches Wikipedia.


  • MIT offers free educational resources through the OpenCourseWare Project.


  • Mark Zuckerberg and his small team of fellow Harvard Students launch Facebook, originally intended as a collegiate social chat site.


  • Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim register the YouTube domain Valentine’s Day — the online video giant was originally conceived as a matchmaking site. The site launches in December.



  • YouTube/EDU launches.
  • Liberty University, a private, Christian college, first launches its online degree program.
  • More than 5.5 million students around the world enrolled in at least one online college course.


  • The Department of Education issues new regulations which require online colleges to satisfy all state–level educational requirements. This mandate places a huge regulatory burden on online colleges. Additionally, the same regulatory measures mandate a strict rubric using credit hours to measure learning, instead of competencies or other measures.


  • Udacity launches Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on behalf of Harvard and MIT.
  • President Barack Obama announces $500 million in grants to community colleges, the bulk of which supports the development of online learning resources and programs.


  • University of Florida–Online launches, becoming the first online-only public university.


  • 98% of public universities and colleges offer some form of online program.


2019 and Beyond

    Going Further — The Future of Online Learning: With the advent of online learning, more people than ever before are able to connect, learn, and grow on their own terms, without many of the obstacles that are associated with traditional, on-campus education. While online colleges may never totally replace the traditional experience, it is undeniable that online education has had a major impact not only on how we pursue formal education, but on how we teach, learn, and perceive knowledge.

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If you’re interested in finding out what’s next for online learning, and how you can contribute to the next great wave of innovation, check out: